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When change goes off track

Over recent weeks it has been well documented that the HS2 rail programme has gone, to pardon the pun, a little off track. As experienced business change consultants we’ve been keeping a close eye on the reported challenges that have been documented about the HS2 project.

We’ve looked at the timeline of the HS2 programme and it’s clear there have been some defining moments - and while this has dominated the front pages and national news coverage, challenges like this aren’t isolated to major construction programmes. They can happen in any change programme of any size.

We spoke to Marlowe Consulting’s Director Annette Andresen to get her insight into the best practice to take when change programmes go awry.


Marlowe: When an organisation decides a change needs to happen what should they think about and what actions should they be taking?

AA: The starting point has to be to define ‘why’: setting the vision and the purpose by clearly identifying why the change needs to happen and what the intended end result is. With that clear direction it’s then important to create a senior coalition of advocates who can own the vision and help to gain traction on it – getting people to agree to the why means you can then have productive conversations about the how and what. Then it’s time to start the business case.

Marlowe: The business case is created, and initial plans are agreed but there is some push back from influential groups. What should change managers and leaders do to address this?

AA: In our experience it’s important to think early on about who those influential groups are. They could be employees, customers, unions and investors (and many more). It’s important to engage them at the right time and that’s when you have answers to the questions you anticipate they will have. By the time groups are engaged change teams and their communication experts should have a defined narrative to give to their stakeholders. We often say it makes sense to go slow to go fast. Spend time up front scenario planning for any outcome and have proactive plans for dealing with resistance.

Marlowe: What happens if the sponsor of the programme leaves? How do the business and change teams realign with the new sponsor or lead?

AA: If you’ve spent the time up front to develop a clear narrative on the purpose and benefits of the change and combine that with strong data points and the support of your coalition champions, a new sponsor should be able to align to your plans. Without doubt they’ll have their own opinions, but a strong business case should win the day! I recommend engaging with the new sponsor as early into their role as possible (or before they join) to explain the programme’s objectives, constraints and key risks – this should help them to understand what they need to do to make the programme a success.

Marlowe: A midway review Indicates that the budget to deliver the objectives is going to be significantly higher than planned. What would you do in this situation?

AA: Costs can go up for many reasons such as supply chain challenges that are out of your control so now would be a good time to do a programme review to understand where the budgets are going off track and why. We’ve often seen that workstreams can work in siloes which can cause inefficiencies so it can often pay to invest in a strong integrated project management office. Go back to your business case and see whether the benefits of the programme outweigh the new costs, and if the benefits have changed – for example if costs have increased due to inflation, it’s likely benefits will too.

Marlowe: The sponsors have taken the decision to change the original scope and reduce the benefits of the programme. What are the priorities for the change leaders this point?

AA: We know this will be frustrating! It’s important to ask what’s really driving these changes. It could be that the cost is reduced by say 30% but the benefits are only reduced by 10% - or it could be the reverse. Be confident to have difficult conversations and dependent on the outcome take the time again to reposition the business case. Remember, it often pays to go slow to go fast.

Marlowe: Is it ever acceptable to call time on a programme that’s not working despite the resource and investment already invested?

AA: Absolutely. Earlier this year one of the big four accountancy firms called off their plans to break up their audit and consulting units. If you realise, as they did, that the costs and effort will outweigh the long-term benefits then it’s the right thing to do to stop the programme. Stakeholder engagement is very important at this time though – remember a lot of people could have worked on your programme or had already been impacted by it. Communicate transparently about why the decision has been made and give people the space to share their views on the change – listening is more important than telling through difficult time on a programme.

Marlowe: Thank you Annette – are there any other bits of wisdom you can share?

AA: Change programmes are complex and despite best intentions you can’t foresee everything – for example, who knew we’d have a global pandemic which resulted in changing the face of how employees want to work. In addition to everything I’ve said here just remember ‘people’. Don’t shy away from engaging, in particular listening and adjusting your messaging and even your programme’s approach. Invest your time in looking at the different stakeholder groups and how the change will impact them; think about the values of your company and whether your change aligns to those and think about whether you need a change of behaviour. I’ve said it a couple of times but the big take away, take your time to plan (especially your engagement planning), go slow, to go fast.


About Marlowe

At Marlowe we partner with organisations to deliver large scale, complex transformation and change. We deliver business change solutions, change capability, assurance, training, leadership effectiveness and cultural change.

Our focus is on your people to ensure your change is delivered practically, successfully and sustainably. Please contact us if you would like to know more about delivering exceptional business change.

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