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Please can we just get stuff done

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Why, despite the vast amount of technology at our disposal, do organizations consistently struggle to get stuff done?

Over-planning and under-delivering have crept into the “new normal,” hindering the speed at which organizations need to operate. A lagging indicator of that 50% of projects need significant rework before they are complete. Projects with new technology often fare worse; with failure rates reportedly 60% or higher.

Moving faster keeps getting more important. The lifespan of companies and products is getting increasingly shorter. The average age of an S&P 500 company is less than 20 years–compare that to the 1950s, when it was 60 years. The leading reason is the disruptive impact of technology.

And with companies living shorter lives, products have shorter lifespans – ergo skill sets have shorter applicability, and ways of leading and managing people need to adapt faster. The ways in which we need to work together to get stuff done needs to adapt faster. Project rework and failure is not an option.

I call this ever-faster spiral of business “hyper acceleration.” All companies have pain points that prevent optimal success in this hyper-accelerating reality. Pain points create barrier conditions that we keep bumping into–over and over again—that prevent us from getting stuff done. Barrier conditions are known or unknown governors; organizations are trying to press on the gas pedal and the barrier conditions are keeping the speedometer stuck at the same MPH.

Getting stuff done at work

Executives need to be more alert to talent barrier conditions. Depending on your industry, your company is spending 40-80 cents per revenue dollar on people. Talent barrier conditions erode the value of that expenditure. Too little investment or poor investment in people contributes to being out-maneuvered by technology-based disruption. The examples of companies that have been outmaneuvered by technology-based disruption are all around us: : Blockbuster, Borders Books, Kodak, Toys R Us, and newspapers to name a few.

Bad technology doesn’t kill companies on its own. Bad design, fumbled change management, inefficiencies, lack of customer centrality—these are the results of barrier conditions that, left unresolved, will kill companies.

Knowing what your company’s barrier conditions are is half the battle. The other half is figuring out which ones are causing the most pain, and having the leadership fortitude to deal with them. Barrier conditions fall into four categories:

  1. People: Waste and mismanagement of the most valuable asset companies have—people. Barriers include lack of capability and capacity, micro-management over servant-leadership, low employee engagement, resistance to change, the wrong incentive systems, and poor communication.
  2. Process: Outdated, slow and opaque processes that put grit in the gears of the employee and customer experience. This leads to waste, redundancy, manual effort, accuracy issues, nonexistent or invisible measures – and customer dissatisfaction.
  3. Governance: Unclear, lengthy or overly complicated pathways within executive leadership to prioritization and decision-making that inhibits velocity and repels innovation. For example, leaders often don’t realize they are creating “wait states” or analysis paralysis when they delay or defer decisions.
  4. Technology: Legacy systems that are brittle and costly to operate; often transaction centric and highly customized. Modern systems that are poorly implemented because they are based on 1, 2 & 3 above. These systems are often dependent on dated infrastructure that is costly to operate.

The other and more important half of the battle is prioritizing barrier conditions and having the leadership intestinal fortitude to remove them. Identifying and prioritizing does not have to be lengthy, expensive navel-gazing. Real life examples, all found within weeks: discovering $1M+ opportunity by adjusting financial protocols; shaving 20% off the time and cost of an ERP rollout; shortening upgrade timeframes from 6 months to under a month.

We unknowingly both build and perpetuate barrier conditions. The most significant lagging indicator of unwitting barrier conditions is planning out of proportion to delivery. Technology projects are delayed or fail over 2/3rds of the time. This is a strong indicator that companies repeatedly plan for technology beyond their ability to deliver. This can result in “delivering ugly.” When there isn’t time to do something right (because we’ve over-planned), shoddy implementation can result, complete with poor employee and customer experience (the afore-mentioned “grit in the gears”). And methods like Agile and Lean, or structural changes like implementing a Dev-Op team in and of themselves do not solve barrier conditions. Leaders have to have the intestinal fortitude to address barrier conditions in addition to embracing new approaches to getting stuff done.

When I review project portfolios, I first ask: how many of these projects are on schedule to deliver on time according to the original plan? The “on plan” % is typically low, and the leading root cause is insufficient business or technology talent at the necessary times. Companies need to stop planning for 100 projects when they only have the current capacity to do 25. I often use simple math to start the conversation. If an IT department of 100 people has 80 projects to deliver in a year, that’s 1.25 people per project. Take away the people who aren’t project-available (e.g. resources who are on a IT Help Desk), and it’s even less. Better to focus attention on a lower number of projects, deliver value and work on increasing velocity instead of constantly planning, re-planning and allocating bits and pieces of people’s time and talent to multiple activities.

In other words, too many executives focus their efforts on creating a great business strategy, but then fall short when it comes to mapping their people strategy to that business strategy.

Leaders need to realize that only a fraction of the total cost of implementing new technology is the actual technology itself. Design and configuration, integration with other systems, change management, process engineering; these make up a significant portion of what it takes to get stuff done right. Companies often buy and/or license technology and don’t deploy or get value for months, if not years, because they didn’t consider the other aspects of implementation.

Time is running out to identify, prioritize and remove barrier conditions as hyper-acceleration continues. Robots apparently will create 2 million jobs by 2020 (less than two years from now), while also eliminate 6% of US jobs by 2021. While the actual numbers and percentages are in the future, we must act now to ensure that whatever technology reality occurs, we have to get stuff done in a way that benefits people.

All of us who haven’t read or recently re-read George Orwell’s iconic novel 1984 need to run or click over to a bookstore or library and get a copy. 1984 depicts a dystopian world where technology is applied in a dehumanizing, brutal fashion (the worst possible employee and customer experience). We need to start removing barrier conditions to get get stuff done right and position for the best possible experiences.

This is a guest blog post from Joanna Young (@jcycio). Joanna is the Chief Delivery Officer at BlueLine Associates, a process-driven Professional Services firm that transforms business challenges into growth, operational agility, and competitive advantage. 

Thad is a senior marketing director at PI.

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