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Something often seen in large scale mixed discipline programmes, high ceremony programme management models provide a false comfort to sponsors and stakeholders. They show that everything is under control, a view that persists until harsh realities can no longer be masked by teams hiding behind a mesh of risk, issues and dependency reporting. Ceremonial processes often lack real content and focus too much on collective and administrative periodic decision making. They lack focus, precision and decisiveness and struggle in complex fast moving situations. Just look at the track record of many major IT programmes.
Complex technology programmes need to be led, detail is important. Too often a casual approach that ignores the detail is allowed to persist. The programme operates like a collective with decision making processes resembling a village committee. Vague plans, soft objectives, drift and hope pervade. Accountability is imprecisely allocated, if not actively ducked. Key decision are a matter of consensus or default decision making. There is no clear command and control structure.
Standard programme management approaches struggle. Techniques that depend on a hierarchy of plans and stages gates oriented around opaque tasks and deliverables fit where work has a regular homogeneous structure aligned to a proven well understood process. Complex technology programmes are different. Work has a heterogeneous nature. Future activity is hard to predict. Critical actions and decision sit deep within work streams. Coupling between streams is pervasive. Effective control depends on understanding the content of the work.
Organisations may choose to rely on the, potential, commercial consequences for a supplier to ensure they achieve a high quality outcome. They skate on thin ice. In theory, the client can step back from the detail of leading the programme and. instead, rely on the professional services of the supplier. Things go well, there are no warnings, the reports are green, then, as the launch comes up and takes place, some home truths emerge. We have seen flagship, game changing, transformational programmes, ones that everyone wanted to be associated with, become, painful, multi-year firefighting and recovery exercises. The root cause being too much dependency on supplier when the work should have been directed by the organisation with the most at stake and with the most understanding of what was required.
Agile is the latest “silver bullet” for software intensive solutions. It is based on many sound concepts but the text book form best suits particular situations. It has a technology focus and limited amounts to say about wider programme concerns. Agile is not a full spectrum programme delivery practice and, often, despite the claims to the contrary, can lead to a programme’s path being dictated by an evangelical group who do not recognise nor have the experience to deal with the big picture. We see cases where a strict, blind, adherence to the agile “mantra” is operating in a leadership vacuum.