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How to manage structural change in turbulent times

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'Never waste a good crisis' said Churchill, allegedly, and there have certainly been no shortages of what the public at least, might consider have qualified as a series of 'once in a generation' crises facing governments over the last few years.

The positive in all this turbulence is that these types of events genuinely do lead to 'step changes' in the approach and priorities of large organisations like government departments. Some are undergoing the biggest structural changes for a generation right now. Some of this is to meet known changes in policy, but much of it will develop as a part of our response to our new post Brexit trade 'freedoms'. And include the ever more strategic and important role of technology in government delivery.

Here are ways that we as project professionals can handle structural change:

Consider a strategic refresh, or proactively prompting one

When the delivery context starts to get turbulent, there is a need to look again at the organisation’s strategy and portfolio prioritisation of projects in the context of what has changed/is changing externally. When we do this, we ensure that 'how' the organisation does business internally, and ‘what’ it prioritises, continues to best support the external delivery context and meet user needs. 

There needs to be corporate and programme understanding of how the wider market and the competition is reacting to changing market conditions. And how this is affecting either current procurement (what will it do to pricing), or options for future commercial action. 

Trying to understand what all this contextual change means for a specific programme or project - either through internal re-prioritisation, or what these external factors might mean to the resilience of a programme's economic case for the achievement of programme benefits, in particular, is not easy. Even less so if the organisation is in the process of changing around its programmes and projects.

Being proactive in turbulent times can mean trading off cost versus certainty and risk - doing at least some work in-house (whatever the cost) where it's strategically vital to prove the benefit and the approach to keep the programme relevant and ahead. Whilst a 'wait and see' approach to adoption of new tech is low risk, it's not very helpful if there is minimum capacity to support an area of technological innovation that the 'new normal' means everyone is now chasing - and you find your shifting project needs then cannot be met, because there's no remaining capacity in the market. Or worse, contextual change means the user has an operational 'burning bridge' that's about to collapse due to previous underinvestment in things like service delivery. So, there is a need to do both proactive thinking about future priorities, whilst keeping a weather eye on what is changing, and whether and how that change is significant to the programmes and projects in train, and the user.

Direct through policy and mission

It's important to be clear on what any programme or project is trying to achieve. In times of turbulence, mission statements help to provide the immediate navigation needed to make progress towards the eventual delivery of the organisational vision, and ensure delivery of the project benefits by ‘what your programme is doing versus everyone else’. It helps to focus project members onto some immediate objectives, and immediate milestones that we project managers are reasonably sure will persist. And ensure that, where changes to the programme do result from organisational change, they can be set in the context of continuing to support successful programme delivery.

Programmes need reference points. In times of turbulence, policies (or market objectives) are often a better reference point (and potentially more resilient). The current UK Government is very clear on things like public procurement where the mantra is to 'buy British', 'get to Carbon Neutral' and 'innovate' as far as possible. So the ‘what’ is a better starting place; the ‘how’ being more volatile.

Agility in business cases

A turbulent delivery context has some obvious implications; not only for the content of programme business cases, and the prioritisation of the projects to which these relate, but also for how these are approved and how frequently these should be further reviewed. In general, the move to more agile delivery methods is bringing with it an expectation for frequent reviews of business cases.

There is also an expectation of speeding up some project delivery to get ahead of contextual changes, and this too has implications for what appears in business cases and how this is presented. To start with, the concept of ‘initial operating capability’ or ‘minimum viable product’ is a powerful one, ensuring ongoing viability.

Making sure your suppliers stay fit for purpose

This is often where experience can be a 'double edged sword' because it’s easy to assume that approaching project outcomes should be predicated on the previous procurement approach. Whilst maintaining organisational learning from similar and previous projects remains critically important to organisational success, slavish copying of your predecessor’s procurement strategy may not end in success.

Active management through life is needed. Taking an outcome based approach to requirements, is accompanied by a need to undertake early and regular market engagement up to contract action, and then continued engagement with bidders. The purpose of this is to understand what is possible in the market place now and in the immediate future (indications of technology readiness), but also what generates risk for the bidders and the eventual supply chain. For government organisations it means going further - can some elements of the procurement be better delivered through a commercial framework as a means of procuring as a commodity for instance? (i.e. Crown Commercial Services, or other existing organisations)

Another trend that has taken a foothold as a result of COVID-19 is the repurposing of some technology or manufacturing processes from one industry to another. There were many examples of ingenuous respirators resulting from car, aircraft and many other non-medical manufacturers. Whilst some may be a little sniffy about this, the point is that as long as the required outcome is met, who cares how?

Conclusion

Leading effectively in turbulent times requires a willingness to maintain a 'big picture' view of the relevance of your programme. You must have visibility of the capability of the entire supply chain, an ability to foresee what will endure, and what will continue to be important to your organisation’s stakeholders.

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