How To Kill Doomed Projects

The challenge for managers in the “can-do” culture of business is to distinguish between belief as a key driver of success—and belief as something that can blind managers to a project’s ultimate failure – Isabelle Royer 

It’s always easier to start something new than it is to stop doing something.

Many of our organisations are prone to a form of corporate initiativitis – where people are rewarded for the creation of new activities rather than the scrutiny and hunting down of unnecessary zombie projects. Zombies are projects that, for any number of reasons, fail to fulfill their promise and yet still they keep going, with people unwilling or unable to put them out of their misery. 

These activities often make sense on paper – the benefits they bring and the development timeline sounds achievable. But somewhere along the way, something changes.

Why can’t companies kill projects that are clearly doomed?

Contrary to just poor management or bureaucratic inertia, the research of Isabelle Royer showed that many failures result, ironically, from a fervent and widespread belief among managers in the inevitability of their projects’ ultimate success. As she writes – “this sentiment typically originates with a project’s champion; it then spreads throughout the organization, often to the highest levels, reinforcing itself each step of the way. The result is what I call collective belief, and it can lead an otherwise rational organization into some very irrational behavior.”

The modern obsession with change champions – equipping armies of people to go out into organisations like evangelical missionaries proselytizing change – can reinforce this behaviour.

We can restore some rationality through transparency and effective scrutiny. Some of the most successful companies have cultures with just enough friction: with teams having regular, intense debates. Discord, rather than agreement, has to be allowed to take its proper place if we are to solve the problems that matter.

As Chris Bolton has written, not speaking truth to power contributes to very many project failures. It’s a complex problem that is cultural rather than merely the fault of managers. Organisational systems and culture often prevent people speaking truth to power, even if the ultimate boss is willing to listen.

Lessons Learned from the ‘RMS Titanic of IT disasters’

In 2011, U.K. government officials finally scrapped a massive 9-year, $16 billion project to create a unified electronic health records system for British citizens. 

The project – described as ‘doomed from the beginning’ – was criticised for being too large, too ambitious, too monolithic, and for having too many changing requirements. 

The warning signs were there from the start. The government chose the top-down,  approach. The solution was initially designed, not with actual users, but by a large central team, and intended as a complete “big-bang” replacement for the many and varied existing systems. 

A research paper summed up the main lessons learned:

  • Efforts should ideally begin with the user, before moving on to more general organizational and national requirements.
  • The initial focus should have been on making the software usable. This should be informed by users. 
  • A balance between customised approaches and standardisation is vital. 
  • An incremental roll out – with a more iterative approach, would have minimised risk

It’s not rocket science is it?

In fact the determinants of success seem to be weighted on just four factors: avoiding top down design, effective user involvement, speaking truth to power and avoiding silver bullets.

Project Flow Chart (2)

Zombie projects occur when all these factors converge and confirmation bias sets in. Even though everyone knows this isn’t really working, we carry on regardless.

As part of the work we’ve been doing at Bromford we recognise that slaying zombies is just part of good governance. Innovation is all about discipline in the creation and implementation of new ideas that create value. However it’s about stopping doing things too. As a general rule each new service or activity should lead to the decommissioning of an existing one.

It’s often harder to stop doing things that used to be valuable than start new things.  It’s that fear of stopping activity that holds real innovation back. 

Stopping a project isn’t failure. But failing to stop a project that is going bad –  that is failure.

Ultimately this is about keeping ego, ownership and politics out of the equation. We only need to be really good at a few things to have more successful outcomes:

  • Effective problem definition
  • Avoiding top down initiatives
  • Involving users in the actual design
  • Promoting local customisation and avoiding silver bullets
  • Iteration rather than mass deployment
  • Speaking truth to power and critically questioning the direction of travel

If we can get better at those – and make them foundational principles of new activities – we won’t need to kill doomed projects.

We’ll have no zombies left to slay.

How To Avoid Corporate Initiativitis

We’ve never felt so busy at work, and never been less engaged.

90% of people say they expect to find a substantial degree of joy at work, yet only 37% report that they do.

Many of our organisations remain afflicted by:

  • Initiative-itis: The condition of mistaking busyness for productivity
  • Vanity Projects: Things that only got pushed through because of seniority, overly generous funding or organisational arrogance.
  • Zombie Projects: Things that look good on paper but don’t actually solve anyone’s problem – whilst costing a lot of (usually someone else’s) money.

All three are the result of ill defined objectives or poor impact evaluation.

Part of the issue is that there’s too much change in the wrong places. This is anti-productivity  – when the organisation appears to be doing lots of good things but is actually achieving very little.

Change overload happens because every major department is trying to ‘make a name’ for themselves, adding layer upon layer of new initiatives.

Prioritisation , if it as done at all, is often done in silo. “We’re going to do these five or these 10 or these 20 initiatives.” As if anyone is good at 20 things.

With a surfeit of ideas, and the subsequent organisational complexity, a form of inertia sets in.

Two things can happen:

  • Leaders literally don’t know where to start. So they don’t.
  • With limited bandwidth to absorb all the change,  people get burned out by everything coming towards them. People want to support these initiatives, there are simply too many of them to pay attention to.

change-001

Problem Definition As An Initiative Killer

Earlier this week I was with a colleague explaining the importance of problem definition. By way of example I dug out the notes of a session we had done over two years ago and was shocked to see how many problems we’d not yet begun to tackle.

It was a reminder to me that although we’ve got better at saying no to things, there’s still a journey to go on. Whilst we have got much better at circling around fewer problems we have to recognise that people are hardwired to seek out new things rather than spend time on purposeful contemplation and questioning.

The more you can reduce organisational initiatives to a few key problems the deeper you can go into them.

Do Fewer Things, Better

I can receive upwards of 30 new opportunities every week. I’ve tried to stick to a very simple way of prioritising.

1. Decide on what matters the most.

2. Say no to everything else.

If I can’t decide, between 1 and 2 I file it for a week then move it to 2.

No organisation, large or small, can manage more than five or six goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective, and it’s exactly the same for us as people.

The best organisations don’t try and do everything. They focus on a few differentiating capabilities — the things they do better than any other company.

If you focus on 8 or more priorities you will make some progress in all of them but will struggle to be game-changing in any of them.

Taming Initiative Overload

Initiativitis is not to be laughed at.

It means decreased employee engagement.

It means lost productivity.

It means people leaving for other jobs.

The first step to taming overload is to align people with the organisations stated strategy – that should kill off pretty much 50% of initiatives.

The second step is to ask people for a problem statement. Actually writing down the problem helps everyone better understand the complexity. It can be short too. We should be able to summarise the problem in fewer than 140 characters. Anything longer and people start going into the solution.

Finally , consider establishing a ‘change group’ in your organisation to keep track of the amount of ideas flying around. At Bromford we meet weekly as a kind of air traffic control centre, trying to make sure that existing initiatives are safely landed before we launch a load of new ones up into the sky.

Building a culture around problem definition, and saying no to distractions might not sound as sexy as innovation and ideation – but in truth they go hand in hand.

How To Kill Ideas

We were asked a really good question last week with the visit to Bromford of the Disruptive Innovators Network.

How long should you spend on an idea?

In the early days of Bromford Lab we had a 12 WEEKS MAX rule. If we couldn’t get an idea up and running within that time – it should be killed.

We soon realised the error of our ways. Some ideas need to be timed exactly right. Now we don’t so much kill ideas as leave them languishing in the pits of our Exploration Pipeline – waiting for the stars to align.

The Premature Death of Ideas

Many organisations , without realising it , act as inhibitors of innovation.

Our colleagues generate ideas every single day about how their job could be done more efficiently or how customers could be better served. These ideas – hundreds of thousands over the course of a year – mostly disappear , never to be harvested.

Organisations have developed numerous tools to kill off ideas.

1: Have A Meeting About It

The best way to assassinate an idea.

Meetings can crush ideas. People want to look like they are adding something in meetings and being hypercritical is highly valued. Putting your freshly hatched idea in that scenario is asking for trouble.

It’s only a matter of time before someone says “That sounds good in theory, but what’s the business benefit?” or even…“We’ve already tried that.”

Meetings are the best place to shoot down an unsuspecting victim who is trying to generate new ideas.

2: Take It To Your Manager

The middle layers of organisations are trapped between management (keeping wheels turning and not rocking the boat) and leadership (inspiring and taking risk).

People here are often scared to take risks because they’re responsible for so much. The bright spark on the team is often seeing as someone who is trying to mess with success.

There is evidence too that managers can undermine employee creativity through interference – changing goals and getting over involved when they should just steer clear.

3: Suggest The Idea Is “Escalated”

Most hierarchical structures are uniquely designed to ensure that any decent idea never goes near the top table.

Any idea that emerges closest to the customer has to work its way up through a series of managers, any one of whom is likely to veto it. As David Burkus points out, research suggests that there is often a cognitive bias against new, innovative ideas – a “hierarchy of no”.

The higher an idea moves up the chain of command, the more likely it is to be rejected, as the people furthest from the idea’s source will have a lesser understanding of its potential value.

4: Ask For A Report On It

Once you’ve written a report about an idea – it’s no longer an idea. It’s a project.

That will attract all sorts of project management attention, far too early. As soon as the Gaant chart appears it’s time to pack up and go home.

5: Ask To See The Data On It

“Data fixation” is an innovation killer. The trend towards having an evidence base for absolutely everything removes the gut instinct from your idea.  Measuring things too early means you constrain experimentation. And experimentation includes the possibility, the high probability even, of failure.

It’s not necessary, or even possible, to completely remove these idea killers. But knowing your enemy , and developing strategies to avoid these pitfalls, will boost your capability for innovation.

The Four Stages of Ideation

Often we think of ideas as being single events when instead they should happen in stages:

Idea Generation

Having the idea is the easy part. What separates successful innovation approaches over ‘innovation theatre’ is the latter promotes generation over action. The successful ones know know that an idea without execution remains simply that—an idea, a paper exercise, no more impactful than a passing thought.

Idea Selection

Most of our organisations don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, they suffer from a lack of process that identifies the ideas worth having.  It’s not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem.

Perversely, the answer to unlocking creativity isn’t to go looking for ideas – but to go looking for really good problems. That’s the way to select the ideas that matter.

Idea Deployment

We need to move from reporting about things we are going to do and shift it to things we have done.

Spend less time talking about ‘What would happen?’ and start demonstrating ‘What happened’.  That means we need to make available resources for prototyping and space where we can turn ideas into reality.

Idea Extermination

Your ideas might be wrong, even when your instincts are right. Knowing when to let go is vital.

Innovation is all about discipline in the creation and implementation of new ideas that create value. If ideas are allowed to live too long they can become zombie projects.

To support innovation , we need to create a climate that protects early stage ideas and become comfortable existing with ambiguity.

Rather than just being highly efficient killers our organisations need to become better at idea generation, selection, deployment AND extermination.

And if you’re really struggling to get traction for your idea why don’t you follow this advice from Helen Reynolds? Don’t tell anyone about and just do it anyway.

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Photo by Jason Abdilla on Unsplash

What We Can Learn From The Oldest Companies in The World

Shigemitsu Kongo, a Japanese Buddhist temple builder, formed his construction company Kongo Gumi in in 578 AD. His company built relationships with their customers that lasted for 1,400 years, surviving through many wars and natural disasters,  just like their temples.

It wasn’t technology that nearly killed the company, but cashflow. The oldest company in the world became a subsidiary of Takamatsu Construction in 2006.

There’s a very good chance you will outlive the company you work for. Whilst our life expectancy is increasing, the lifespan of organisations appears to be in decline.

The average age of a company listed on the S&P 500 has fallen from almost 60 years in the 1950s to less than 20 years today. Only 30 of the original companies still exist in 2019, the 35th anniversary of the FTSE 100.

Disruptive technology is killing off older established companies at a much faster rate than ever before.

This is why when you go to conferences you’ll see presentations selling the virtues of Uber, Amazon, Netflix and Google.

Be like them the wisdom goes. Be agile. Only by doing as they do may you survive.

This is only half the story though.

Rarely , if ever, do we look at the companies that are bucking this trend. The companies who have been around forever and are still doing business.

A look at the oldest companies operating today is fascinating.

Worldwide there are over 5,500 companies that are over 200 years old. However the distribution of these is heavily weighted to just a few. Japan dominates the list (3,146), followed by Germany (837), then the Netherlands (222), and France (196).

I started this week staying in Düsseldorf, Germany, in a district known as “Little Tokyo on the Rhine” — one of Europe’s largest Japanese communities. I was there to talk to European students about the opportunities of smart cities , but I concentrated more on the possibilities of building upon the wisdom of communities that have existed for generations.

It’s deeply unfashionable to talk about , let alone revere, older things today. It’s almost like innovation started with the iPhone and disruptive companies began with Uber.

My week ended with a visit by the Disruptive Innovators Network to Bromford, who at 56 years old is barely out its pre-school stage in Japanese or German terms. It was interesting to hear in the talks by Helena Moore and John Wade how there was almost an apology for referring to things we had learned more than five years ago, as if we were becoming embarrassed by the weight of our own history.

We shouldn’t be though. The right culture for innovation is one where there is:

  • Just enough friction – with teams having regular, intense debates
  • The practice of high standards, with a steady supply of high performing people who are committed
  • Permission to be different – a culture where it’s allowable, even encouraged, to push back. 
  • The ability to think and act experimentally with a tolerance for failure through practical experiments

However it’s also a culture that creates a feeling of belonging and a feeling of purpose.

Why have so many Japanese and German businesses lasted so long?

A study by the Bank of Korea found that such companies thrived over the years because they created new demand while sticking to a corporate culture that promoted tradition, attention to detail, and frugal innovation.

Instead of going after short-term results, they pursued longstanding trust with customers and partners. They also pursued growth within their means, rarely borrowing to expand.

In his book The Living Company, Arie De Geus attributed the success of older businesses to four factors:

1. Long-lived companies were sensitive to their environment and remained in harmony with the world around them.

2. Long-lived companies were cohesive, with a strong sense of identity. No matter how widely diversified they were, their employees felt they were all part of one entity.

3. Long-lived companies were tolerant and generally avoided exercising any centralised control over attempts to diversify the company.

4. Long-lived companies were conservative in financing. Frugal even.

However his strongest point is contained in one sentence “Companies die because their managers focus on the economic activity of producing goods and services, and they forget that their organizations’ true nature is that of a community of humans.”

It’s time to stop worshipping the new and the shiny. We need to strike a delicate balance between continuation and innovation, being reliable and disruptive at the same time.

Creating a culture where these two competing sets of values can coexist is difficult – and not always a comfortable place to be.

Clearly though , the innovation potential of us older lumbering giants is vastly under appreciated – and the disruptive power of the younger and hungrier is often overstated.

Lessons Learned From Five Years of Failure

Sometimes the execution of the idea doesn’t need to be the best to succeed.

In 1989 a video game designer called Gunpei Yokoi changed the world with the launch of the original Nintendo Game Boy. It took gaming out of the hands of geeks and paved the way for the industry to become the most profitable and popular form of entertainment.

However the Game Boy was far from best in class. Its black and white display was made up from old technologies well past their sell by date. Gunpei called his philosophy Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology. 

Withered: mature technology which is cheap and well understood.

Lateral thinking: combining these ideas and technologies in creative new ways

Innovation doesn’t actually need to be cutting edge. Rather it needs to be simple, useful and to make someone’s day that little bit easier. 

This week I was invited by Ian Wright of the Disruptive Innovators’ Network to outline the lessons learned from five years of Bromford Lab about making innovation simple and accessible for colleagues.

I was speaking to L&Q Futures which has been put together by Tom Way to provide people with the digital mindset and skills of modern businesses while also looking for creative ways to solve the housing crisis. The 25 people selected via a competitive process are spending 1 day per month away from their day job to learn and apply the tools and techniques being taught.

The key things I wanted to put across were:

Five Years of Problem Solving with Bromford Lab (5)

Think big. Start small.

Most of our organisations avoid doing things because we let them get too complicated. It’s easy to talk yourself out of doing anything. If you wait for perfection before you put an idea to work, it will stall before it gets off the ground. The key for us is to assemble small teams with limited resources who are prepared to get their hands dirty.

Five Years of Problem Solving with Bromford Lab (4)

The idea is the driver

Most corporate structures are uniquely designed to ensure that any decent idea never goes near the top table. Structures that support hierarchical decision making limit opportunities for people to have influence and innovate.

We often don’t have a choice in the path our ideas take. They don’t fit within our structure charts or management meetings. You’ve got to develop a space and process that works around them and allows them to flourish. Let the idea go where it needs to go, and when.

Five Years of Problem Solving with Bromford Lab (3)

Don’t get distracted by Intergalactic Space Cats

Not all ideas are good ones. Some are very bad indeed. But even bad ones can prove worthwhile to look at, if only by helping to shape better alternatives.

Innovation is all about getting better at being wrong. However it must be founded in a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve.

Everyone thinks that their idea is the one worthy of most attention.

Try and get the organisation to fall in love with problems rather than solutions.

Five Years of Problem Solving with Bromford Lab (1)

Everything is connected

People are working on the same things as us all over the world. We won’t solve things on our own. We are desperately inward looking. There will always be more talented people outside your organisation than within it – so lets seek them out. Collaboration is a central theme to innovation because of speed , connections, energy and the ability to fast track implementation.

The talent in our organisations is siloed. Our first task is to connect and leverage that talent and combine it with the creativity in our communities.

Five Years of Problem Solving with Bromford Lab (2)

Learning from failure is the measure to obsess about

Nielsen research suggests that “about two out of every three products are destined to fail.” However this is rarely acknowledged and hardly ever promoted. 

In the public sector , where projects take years rather than weeks,  and pilots become mainstream services without any evaluation – things are worse.

Nothing fails. Everything is a success.

Failure is only bad if we are doomed to repeat it. Breaking our organisations out of cyclical failure is a huge challenge.

At Bromford as part of our Lab Planning we meet to talk about failure every single week. We tweak our processes to learn from it and limit it. The real learning is in our stalled concepts, not the one’s that have been successful. 

Ultimately the message I tried to give was not to overthink things, keep a wide field of vision and try to think laterally.

In many ways I think an effective innovation approach is to encourage organisations to be more childlike. As kids we learned through exploration and experimentation, not through people talking at us from a PowerPoint presentation at a team meeting.

Our organisations need to relearn how to learn, rapidly and efficiently.

Learning and innovation go hand in hand, but learning always comes first.


 

This is a brief extract of the original talk – the full presentation can be seen here 

 

 

Why We Don’t Collaborate

Everyone says they love collaboration.

Our open offices are designed to encourage collaboration.

We recruit for people who are collaborative in nature.

The digital tools we use are aimed at fostering greater collaboration.

We promote the benefits of collaboration , or even co-creation, with our customers and service users.

Collaboration has replaced innovation as the buzzword of the moment.

In truth though, our actual behaviors show we don’t like collaborating.

We often don’t have the time that is required to work through differing perspectives. We have difficulty in working with others who hold alternative opinions. And – let’s face it – many of us have a need to be right and get our own way.

Despite the collaboration rhetoric – most of us prefer existing and working in silos.

So why is that?

In 1988 Phil. S. Ensor coined the term the functional silo system.  His contention was that narrow, specialised teams and jobs were easy to manage but imposed a very damaging learning disability on the organisation.

  • We become focused on addressing organisational fixes rather than exploring the underlying symptoms.
  • Social chasms emerge resulting in people not seeing any problem in context. Indeed – cross organisational problem solving can break down.
  • And as every function focuses on its own objectives and KPIs – the organisation slowly becomes reactive.

Despite all that though – the silo actually has a great deal going for it. Within a silo it is much easier to define and implement an initiative or outcome.

Basically, silo working means you can ‘Get Shit Done Quickly’. Without interference.

And almost all our organisational KPIs reward GSDQ activity rather than the purposeful thinking and patience that collaboration requires.

Additionally the exponential growth in the number of managers (There are five million managers in the UK today, 10 times as many as there were 100 years ago)  has boosted opportunities for silo thinking at the expense of collaboration.

And of course silos don’t just exist at organisational level.  Our sectors organise themselves into siloed echo chambers – each with their own system of professional bodies, conferences and award ceremonies.

Truth is – most of us simply don’t have strong in-person collaboration skills.

It’s highly unlikely you were taught about collaborative problem solving at school. Many of us were educated to find answers through solitary work.

It wasn’t until just two years ago that it was even measured, with a report outlining the difference in the collaborative ability of pupils across 52 countries.

As the report notes, students typically learn individually, and at the end of the school year, their individual achievements are certified. But the more interdependent the world becomes, the less it needs lone problem solvers and the more it needs great collaborators and orchestrators.

Infographic CPS-Full-Ranking 70

Interestingly it found that on average across OECD countries, girls are 1.6 times more likely than boys to be top performers in collaborative problem solving.

Arguably more managers means less collaboration. And more male managers could make it worse still.

Rewiring Organisations For Collaboration

So we’ve established: collaboration isn’t easy, it takes a long time to do right and it doesn’t come naturally to most people.

At Bromford we’ve been redesigning the organisation to move away from silos and towards collaboration. Our previous desire for operational efficiency at all costs had adversely affected interoperability between teams.

The answer was to build a ‘shared consciousness’ through the creation of a network of 33 linked service area’s and teams.

A multidisciplinary ‘design team’ acts as a conduit for all change across these areas. This recognises that today innovation is rarely the product of individuals working in isolation, rather – it is an outcome of how we mobilise, share and integrate knowledge.

L+Q Bromford Lab (2)

I’ll be the first to say that working in this way is hugely challenging. I have a lot less autonomy than I did five years ago. If you’re into ego and power I’d suggest you’d find this an uncomfortable place to be.

Saying you’re a collaborative organisation isn’t true and helps no-one. True collaboration won’t happen unless you make it happen.

Creating an atmosphere where people can respectfully disagree, where all voices are heard and leaders bring out the best in everyone takes discipline and skill. 

We need a safe space for exploration. We need permission to cross organisational silos and assemble diverse co-creators. We need to move out of our ivory towers and shift innovation as close as we can to the colleagues and customers who know the jobs that need doing.

If we don’t teach, measure, encourage or reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen.

We need less talk of it, and a lot more doing.