How many of your change initiatives behave like Lemmings?
At first everything is fine, plans and projected outcomes are all driven by sensible logic and collective signup to the Vision is strong. Fairly quickly, things begin to change, early milestones are extended and timelines for benefit trajectories extended. Over the period of time that follows there is a narrative that plays out in a number of ways, but is essentially built on an optimism that ‘things will get better’. Finally, and far too late, there is a dawning realisation that the anticipated benefits and/or timescales won’t be met and the whole initiative feels like it has fallen off a cliff. The result is lots of disappointed and demoralised people, loss of confidence from Boards, wasted time and cost, and a gap in the strategic outcomes that need to be delivered.
Is this something that is familiar?
In a limited analysis Kutsch et al (2011) found that roughly a quarter of initiatives behaved like this around their outcomes (or benefits). They also point to a further quarter of initiatives, behaving in a similar way, but never even reaching the dawning realisation stage. They refer to these initiatives as ‘the lost’.
Perhaps I have been unlucky, but I seem to have experienced a high incidence of ‘lemmings’, sometimes being part of the false optimism and at other times being the person challenging the false optimism. Challenging false optimism can be a lonely place in my experience, particularly if the lemming initiative is a ‘pet project’ of a senior leader.
Dealing with the issue of ‘Lemmings’, is complex and has many facets, however it is a focus on the outcomes that will add the dynamics that reduce the chances of a initiative becoming a ‘lemming’. Often the response during the false optimism stage, is for leaders to seek a level of increased ‘grip’ on the initiative, or alternatively remain detached in the hope it will be fine in the end. The latter is more helpful than the former, but neither is really helping.
The way to tackle ‘lemmings’ is to focus on outcomes (or benefits if you prefer) and ensure the following:
Strong benefits management (identification, baselining, modeling, monitoring and realising) within initiatives.
Ensure that there is a clear link between the initiative benefits and the Strategic outcomes of the organisation(s).
Ensure regular benefit reviews throughout the initiative, these should review assumptions driving the benefits trajectories.
Pick up on warning signs and create reviews if milestones are regularly slipping, people within the initiative are challenging optimism, or benefits monitoring shows underperformance.
Ensure a focus on benefits rather than milestones, i.e. making decision based on achieving benefits rather than achieving milestones (see previous entry on this).
The process of focusing on benefits will, within initiatives, lead to things such as, design changes, additional benefits realisation activities or in some cases premature closure. All of these lead to a more positive change culture, accelerated initiatives, delivery of strategic benefits and more effective use of resource.
Reflecting over the years, I realise that I have been and still am part of a culture that fosters lemmings, but will be more actively seeking to ditch the ‘lemmings’, act on early warning signs and challenge the behaviours that lead to them.