Speakers’ Corner: Long odds on operator epiphanies


David Hilliard, chief executive of Mentor, specialist in telecoms execution challenges, explains why crucial plans from the networks will either fail, or only work at a great cost

There are mission-critical change programmes afoot in almost every UK network operator at present. What follows is reason why most are likely either to fail, or only succeed at great expense and at great length.

When it comes to managing complex programmes, there are only slight differences in the way operators tackle them.  The same howlers are repeated again and again on network modernisation schemes, new CRM systems and whatever. These are blunders that would not be tolerated in other business disciplines.

The reasons they break down are numerous, but always to do with vague objectives and karaoke programme management. More often than not, the link between strategy and execution is broken. If there was a programme sponsor, it was an ‘absentee’ director who set objectives, allocated funds, selected the programme manager and held sign-off authority. But, mostly, it was top management gone AWOL – dressed up as delegation.

Programmes are usually assigned to the ‘most affected’ director – the function most concerned with change. Regular calamities prevent these people from spending much time on the programme. Instead, they delegate responsibility. As a result, key strategic programmes suffer from light-touch management and never get the visibility they need.

The ‘most affected’ director appointment is a deeply flawed management delusion – an ineffective way of dealing with a thorny organisational issue – “who do we have that is senior enough to run this programme?”

On failing programmes, a small core execution team is usually supported by staff from other functions. It is unmanageable, and causes massive friction and time-wasting. CEOs mostly feel these problems are a temporary setback. But this is their instinct only; it is rarely based on experience.

That combination – CEO,  ‘most affected’ director and under-powered programme manager – is lethal; one of the biggest blind spots for top management in delivering major change programmes.

With problems, the CEO normally asks for a drill-down to flush out the problems. And through a collusion of optimists, the revised plan is presented. No one wants to look bad and there is a tendency to bend the truth. “The situation is tight but achievable”. That is how the issue is presented internally, which is code for “we’ve already blown it.”

This story of failure repeats itself before CEOs are compelled to eventually admit the programme team is out of its depth. And so the ‘programme healthcheck’ gets underway. Budgets and revenue forecasts go out of the window. The whole programme must be replanned to put focus on salvaging as much as possible of the original objectives.

From here, it is about developing a realistic route forward. But it is expensive and time consuming to reconnect strategy and execution, to restructure the programme and its leadership, to reconstruct plans and budgets.

But what happens next is astonishing.

CEOs at last make clear the priority of the programme. They agree that the programme director will now report to them directly, or else to another board level sponsor and that they will personally run the ‘programme review board’. Dramatic signals like these show companies will ultimately do almost anything to sidestep the most glaring gaffes. It prompts staff to ask: “Why didn’t we do all this in the first place?” Why indeed?

It is not unusual then for the disgraced programme team to develop a new sense of purpose; perform way beyond expectations and subsequently celebrate a fabulous victory.

The business landscape is littered with expensive strategies that failed in execution. Why don’t businesses make the same investments in realistic plans, capable programme leadership and provide enough skills and resources to get the job done?

If a business is about to start on a mission-critical programme, CEOs should ask hard questions. Most executive teams dawdle for too long before acting – and, with hindsight, always wonder why they waited so long.

How much sooner would problems be knocked on the head, if the initial plans were independently reviewed – and if the ongoing control system had regular independent reviews built in? The answer is obvious, but it is rare to see these simple measures in place.