The importance of executive sponsorship
As a specialist programme management business, we’ve published a number of articles over the years highlighting the mind-set and behaviours that make for successful projects and programmes and, paradoxically, have lamented on why the statistics for failure remain stubbornly high. Unsurprisingly, there is a correlation between the two. Or put more simply, if you don’t take on board the former, you’re more than likely to contribute to the latter.
And it’s not just DAV that returns to this theme; many organisations like us see the same issues and write about them in their own way. Frustratingly, it’s exactly the same issues that headline today as those we highlighted when we first put pen to paper on the subject over twelve years ago – and they go back even further than this. These are the issues that, with hindsight, seem so obvious when contemplating why a programme of work has gone off the rails – unrealistic budgets and timescales, half-hearted commitment from the business to provide essential resources, lack of clarity on scope and outcomes, underpowered programme management – to name but a few. You can read more on this in our article: Why right first time matters.
Support must come right from the top
However, hard experience shows there is one attribute that stands head and shoulders above all others when it comes to determining the eventual success of any programme and that is the absolute necessity for sustained executive sponsorship. Of course, it’s not impossible to deliver a major programme without such sponsorship, but it’s arguable that even the best prepared, most realistically costed, well resourced and planned programme is likely to fail or fall well short of expectation, if it’s not there in abundance. And sponsorship in these terms is not limited just to the appointed Senior Business Owner, but all members of an organisation’s senior management team. In the case of a major transformation programme, all such executives are likely to see an impact in their sphere of influence and all have a responsibility to ensure that the programme retains a level of priority and support within the business, that will stack the odds of success decidedly in its favour.
This is a topic DAV drives home in discussions with potential new clients, because we see it as a key test of whether they really understand the implications of change and are taking it seriously. What makes it such a difficult thing to get underneath is that, unless someone has been through a major programme of change, it’s easy for them to underestimate how hard it’s going to be. Again, we’ve written before on the tendency of senior management to assume that change can be brought about as a function of normal business operations and the associated folly of expecting those who are already maxed out running the business, to simultaneously change it. Words like ‘quart’ and ‘pint pot’ come to mind here.
Sponsors are the ultimate arbitrators
To successfully deliver change, there has to be a clear separation of duties, with resources who can provide the essential knowledge of the business (or subject matter experts as they are more commonly known) released from their day job and committed to support the delivery programme. This need not be a full time commitment but must be for sustained periods throughout the programme’s lifecycle. The understandable challenge for most organisations is that it is difficult to release key resources from the business, but they are an essential part of any programme team and if internal ownership of the changes being sought is to be achieved, then it must be done. The double whammy is that programmes require high performance teams and so the people required are likely to be amongst the best in the business. There’s a rule of thumb drawn from long years of experience, if it’s not painful to release such people then they are almost certainly the wrong ones.
This is a primary area where a change programme can come into conflict with the business and it brings us right back to sponsorship and executive support, because it is only at this level that such conflict can be resolved – or better still, avoided from the outset.
A tale of two sponsors
Enlightened organisations get this right and they are a joy to work with. A few years ago we led a major programme to transform the finance and customer services functions, for a UK holiday airline. As part of the definition and planning stage of each workstream we helped the airline’s executive team understand the scale of investment they would need to make in people, time and money to get where they wanted to be. To their absolute credit, they never missed a beat, ensuring the programme was given the right level of support and priority throughout the business and delivering on their commitments at every stage along the way. Result – the programme was delivered on time, within budget and making the planned business returns within the first year.
Contrast this with another client scenario, where a successful outcome was eventually reached, but the amount of effort and, yes, pain it took to get there was off the scale. So why was the experience so fundamentally different? Admittedly, there was additional complexity in this programme, with a diverse business culture spread across multiple, global locations. Core to the investment case was the harmonisation of business processes that would drive economies of scale, reduce costs and substantially improve operational quality. Given the organisation’s history of local autonomy, this was never going to be an easy nut to crack and it wasn’t long before the effects of inter-group politics were being felt by the programme. With this came the inevitable passive aggression, where the words and actions of some key stakeholders were wholly out of alignment and clearly detrimental to the programme.
Yet behaviours like this are part and parcel of every business change programme, they go with the territory. What made the resulting problems so intractable in this particular scenario was the extent to which such behaviours were ingrained within a significant number of the client’s senior management team. Despite having a strong and supportive business sponsor, it was incredibly difficult to make headway against the political machinations being played out within the business. On the ground this manifested itself in a number of ways, for example key resources not being released from the business as planned (or substituted with others who were insufficiently experienced), tasks actioned half-heartedly and not completed to the required level of quality, but underneath all this was the simple truth that, however much the group’s executive team claimed otherwise, there just wasn’t enough ongoing support for the programme at that level. This was a handicap at the best of times and debilitating during those periods when the going got particularly tough. Sticky patches are an inevitable part of any programme and a time when you expect constructive engagement with your sponsors – misplaced, critical detachment doesn’t help anyone here.
Getting it right from the start
Those who have been through a programme of change, in whatever capacity, will know that they are not for the faint-hearted. Arguably, the person most actively in the line of fire is the programme manager and it is the experience, leadership, energy and courage that he or she brings that often defines the character and resilience of the programme. Yet without the overarching support of the sponsor and other members of the organisation’s senior management team, this can all be for nought. We would urge any business stealing itself for change, to take time to ensure this team is demonstrably on board and fully engaged with its responsibilities and obligations to the enabling programme and has the mind-set to provide the sustained levels of support that will be required to achieve a successful outcome for all.