Can a successful project make you less resilient?

05 August 2014

I recently had a very interesting client assignment. I was involved in the review of a significant three year IT investment programme to support a huge business transformation that was nearing completion. To be honest, it was relatively standard review and my job was to check that the IT department had a firm grasp of the business’s requirements and the capability to finish the delivery.

However, underneath the main purpose of the review itself, I discovered an illustrative story that tells us about how an organisation can deliver big projects, but not consider its impact on their overall resilience.

Let me be clear about what I mean when I say “resilience”. In this context, resilience is an organisation’s ability to anticipate and react to change in order not only to survive, but to evolve. When we talk about it in this context, external events and internal management decisions, including those taking place within the project under review, can increase or diminish resilience. I’m NOT talking about IT resilience in the sense of multiple power supplies, alternative network paths or a disaster recovery capability. I'm talking about the whole enterprise’s resilience. 

If this organisation had been more aware of the contributions they were making towards overall resilience, I think they would have made far better informed decisions.

Below are the main chapters of this story:

  • A power vacuum at the top of the department (CIO level), caused concern regarding the ability of  the department to deliver this key project. But that was a limited view. The vacancy greatly reduced the organisation's ability to respond to any and all challenges and the organisation was missing that point, because they were distracted by the project. The gap needed to be filled and an interim was secured. In this case, filling the gap with an interim really worked.
  • Leadership inspires individuals to take responsibility for their impact on the organisation as well as the project. The interim CIO's leadership team flourished under his focused guidance - almost as if it provided approval for the team to go and do what they instinctively knew was right. They became more engaged in their work and were able to deliver more and better quality.
  • Lack of communication between the IT department and the business creates an opportunity for resilience to be diminished. The interim CIO saw that the project was allowing an internal IT focused approach to communications.  He changed things.  At least twice a month he met with the leaders of other core business units, to cut through the "us" and "them" and ensure the project deliverables would support the business areas in the right way. Debates still raged, but issues were resolved more quickly and the project and the business became more agile. 
  • Good, simple, governance made a massive difference to being able to deliver the right solution. Here, by adding just a few focussed governance meetings between IT and the business they achieved so much, such as that they:
    • Confirmed that each iteration of the process led to a higher level of service delivery;
    • Established the currency of "requirements" which were agreed and locked down; 
    • Allowed the exercise of sensible decision making at lower levels, knowing that they will be backed through transparent governance; and
    • Ensured all parties were held to account.

In the end, this organisation succeeded at delivering their IT agenda. But the underlying resilience story was what gripped me.  From what I saw, before the interim CIO stepped in, the organisation-wide resilience levels had fluctuated wildly. No one on the project nor in the business seemed to realise their changing position over the course of the programme, because they were only focused on the IT programme objectives, and not their ongoing impact on the organisation. The organisation didn’t understand its resilience well enough to know when it was being drastically reduced.

There are long lasting positive effects to establishing a benchmark for an organisation’s level of resilience. At the CxO level it allows broad questions to be asked about the organisations long term viability. And it provides a balance to the metrics used when measuring the successes of specific programmes and projects. After all, should a project that delivers against its specific objectives but lowers the organisations level of resilience really be considered a success?

In general terms, what an organisation does (or doesn't do) will determine whether the resilience of an organisation is fit-for-purpose. We all need to act locally (within our remit) but think globally (organisation-wide resilience) to make the most of our efforts. Looking at your organisation through the resilience lens provides a wider view and helps drive much longer term stability. It’s not too late to start but putting it off has consequences.


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