When failure is not an option

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The citizens of the UK have voted in a non-binding referendum to leave the EU. A legislative, economic and social framework that has been in place for decades is set to be significantly altered. The UK government has, it seems, decided to take on the challenge. But this is no ordinary change project; it is a transformation project. There is no going back.

The immediate priority for the government officials charged with leading on Brexit is to negotiate with colleagues. There is also an urgent need to explore new business and economic opportunities – and then there’s the issue of border control, which some believe will improve citizens’ careers and life chances. But it is not until after the negotiations that  the real work will happen. New institutions for everything, from the standard of lighting in offices to the testing of flammable materials, will need  to be created.

The chances of amicable divorce between a couple, however, are about 20 per cent; emotions tend to outweigh logic. And the chances of successfully setting up a long-term business venture in a new overseas territory is pretty low, especially in sectors such as retail – think Tesco and Marks & Spencer.

But, in the case of Brexit, failure is not an option. This is a transformation programme without an objective, deliverables, budget or accountable sponsor. It’s also what I would describe as a ‘foggy project’, one whose goals and methods are extremely unclear. Progress has no obvious metrics and will be difficult to measure, except by some artefacts, such as the new British passport.

In such projects, morale and momentum would normally be hard to maintain. However, in this case, because there are so many stakeholders, all of which have significantly different success criteria, it will always be easy to find a stakeholder that is satisfied with ‘progress’. And since it is impossible to track what would have happened otherwise, everything can be declared a success!

So, imagine you’re in the government’s position. What should you be aware of in order to give yourself a smoother ride? Here are my five drivers of change success:

1. Leadership and teams
From a leadership perspective, do not set yourself any targets or timelines. At the same time, you must lead through this ‘foggy’ change like a swan – serene on the surface but paddling furiously below. Appear calmly confident, not overconfident, with no bravado. As the leader, delegate the uncertainty to your team, but insist on regular updates to give a sense of coordination and progress.

2. Change type and purpose
‘Change’ is refurbishing your front bedroom.
‘Transformation’ is converting your house and garden into a bowling alley; it requires scaffolding or interim structures. Foggy transformation can only be delivered ‘one step at a time’ in ‘chunks’.
A chunk of change delivers an outcome and can be celebrated. To reduce the chance of failure, break up the challenge into labelled chunks and set up as many interim structures, guidance groups and temporary governance bodies as you can.

3. Planning, coordination and risk
There is no budget or benefits-return objective, so all risk can be removed through mitigation by spending more money. Because of the long-term nature of the challenge, borrowing against future returns will make it easy to fund the work that needs to be done.

4. Stakeholders
There is no shared objective, so focus on maintaining leadership by minimising any tensions between you and individual stakeholder groups, while at the same time exacerbating the tensions between stakeholder groups. This will allow you to ‘call’ success on each chunk of the transformation.

5. Learning and review
You are not really under pressure. The first major project review, a general election, is not due until 2020.

So, lean back and relax, secure in the knowledge that, when failure is not an option, you are bound  to succeed.

This article first appeared in Project.

Eddie Obeng

Posted by Eddie Obeng on 31st Jan 2017

About the Author

Eddie founded the world's first virtual business school, Pentacle and also the educational-social media platform QUBE, the first 3D, fully-immersive social medium. Eddie has written 10 books on how to lead business innovation and deliver change in our complex, fast-changing world. He also won APM’s Sir Monty Finniston Award for his contribution to project management. Eddie began the ZERO movement four years ago when a client challenged him to look for ways to make every project perfect. He will surprise and enlighten you with real life practical insights he has gained since then. "Making it happen is his constant refrain" - Financial Times

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