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How to Put Your Program Back on Track, Part 1

By Jim Schwalbe

Program Track Hero

In this three-part blog series, we’ll explore ways to address the all too frequent problem of a transformation project that’s gone off the rails. Pinpointing the root cause may be a challenge, but the symptoms are usually clear: confused stakeholders, sidetracked teams, repeated delays, and inflated budgets. It’s my hope that you will benefit from my hard-earned expertise and walk away from these blog posts with a few new tools for getting a project back on track.


Getting your integrator to tell you the truth

Are you being told only what you want to hear? Or are you being flat-out lied to? Does your program leadership even know why they are so far behind? Or so far over budget? Do you now have more risks and concerns than when you started?

I don’t want to sound like a pessimist, but the reality is that transformation projects can easily fall apart, particularly when system implementations or upgrades are part of the equation. These projects consume your people, budget, time, and rob you of the opportunity to focus on business growth. If you’ve succeeded on your first try, congratulations! You have accomplished an impressive and rare feat. However, if you find yourself caught in a struggling transformation initiative and this is hitting a nerve, you should know that you are not alone, the truth is necessary, and success is possible.

I have spent 25 years of my life in consulting and too much of that time has been spent helping clients with large-scale enterprise projects that have gone off the rails. Many of these projects could have stayed on track from the beginning with just a few adjustments. Here’s what I’ve learned from these projects.


You are not alone

You are not alone, but it probably feels like it sometimes. As an executive sponsor, you might be the last person to find out that your transformation initiative has gone off track. That’s because your program leadership either doesn’t yet know the ugly truth, or isn’t willing to share it. This makes your job nearly impossible. You hear a common refrain from program leadership, “We are behind, but we can catch up. The status report shows yellow, not red.” They may have been stuck for weeks but reassure you, “This is the week we get back on track.”

As is often the case in life and business, what people say is motivated by who cuts the check. Internal program leadership is often motivated by who they report to, and no one wants to be on the team that takes the blame. Complicating matters even more are performance reviews and bonuses, which may offer greater rewards for staying the course than telling the truth. So, they don’t share the truth fast enough, hoping to soon catch up. Your integrator, much like program leadership, is often motivated by contract terms. So, they tell you things are on track and do what it takes to redirect attention elsewhere. At this point, you might see a trend developing about the hidden, ugly truth, which brings me to my next point…


The truth is necessary

In many cases, the person best equipped to put your program back on track is an experienced, independent leader. This person’s job is to:

  1. Get to the truth (and get there quickly)
  2. Help the PM’s get focused and take action (proactively, not just reactively)
  3. Arm the steering committee with facts (so they can make informed decisions) 

This is a proven way to protect your budget, timeline, and resources. But this independent leader must be given the ultimate program leadership position and report directly to the steering committee. If you have ever had a large program fail two or three times before it succeeded, my bet is that the leader who finally carried the baton over the finish line played a critical role in your success. Also, the executives likely had the truth and facts needed to make some difficult scoping and/or resourcing decisions. “We just worked harder,” was not likely the secret to success. The integrator and your internal program leadership may push back on this prescription, because an independent leader takes away their ability to manipulate the truth and makes them more accountable than ever. But if you pull together and confront the ugly truth, it can lead to a career-defining win for everyone involved.


Success is possible

I have seen this approach save millions of dollars and drive great success. Your people, your budget, your time, and your opportunity to focus on business growth may all rely on taking a strong stance and embracing a new direction. Remember, you are not alone, the truth is necessary, and success is possible.

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