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The Revenge of the Cancelled Project!

The Revenge of the Cancelled Project!

Nicola Hopes

24 September 2020

I loved horror B-movies when I was younger. Who can forget The Fly? Or Halloween? But there’s a horror story unfolding in many organisations right now: The Revenge of the Cancelled Project!

A Programme Director from a large service provider who ditched huge parts of their change portfolio 6 months ago, ‘Because, you know – COVID...’ is now finding those decisions coming back to bite them. The business still needs to change, and the delay has come at a cost. As well as time, it's cost project knowledge, talent, momentum and the penalty of some cancelled contracts.

Have we cancelled the future to manage today?

On the surface, the portfolio cull at the start of lockdown was about cost and focus. But I suspect that cost was being used as an excuse to:

  • Avoid the hard change – they secretly thought that the changes were too big and scary and they’d really rather not. Phew!
  • Not do anything for fear of doing the wrong thing – we can’t be sure about the future so let’s pause, wait and see.
  • Do. Not think – people don’t always take time to reflect in a crisis. They roll their sleeves up and start doing stuff to make them feel like there’s forward motion. 

Thrive not survive 

But the risk of doing nothing is we just stand still. And in a world where customer needs are changing rapidly, standing still means effectively going backwards relative to others. That’s exactly where many organisations are right now.

Like the caterpillar that carries on eating for fear of running out of leaves and doesn’t stop to build the cocoon. Then it wonders why it doesn’t become a butterfly… and worse, all its peers now are flying.

I’ve been looking into the evidence. According to research from Harvard Business Review on the last global recession in 2007:

“Companies that master the delicate balance between cutting costs to survive today and investing to grow tomorrow do well after a recession - outperforming rivals in their industry by at least 10% in terms of sales and profits growth. These companies reduce costs selectively by focusing on operational efficiency and invest in the future”

So, the research suggests you may want to hold your nerve and continue to invest in the right things. Your clients and customers will come back to you, and when they do their expectations will have changed. Will you be able to meet them? 

Change creatively

But how to make it affordable and manageable? Be prepared to get creative with your change teams, for example:

  • If the issue is focus, try agile techniques– not just for technology but for process projects too. Dedicate a team. Fix release dates. Agree priorities. Watch them go.
  • If the issue is cost, try phasing and sequencing– get laser focussed on what adds the most value and deliver those first, park the rest. Or reduce the project run cost by phasing, reducing team size and negotiating payment stages with suppliers.
  • If the issue is complexity and cost, try just changing process and roles – it's easy to assume that you always need a new bit of tech. Not so. 

I worked with a leisure business who wanted to improve new client sales. Instead of spending a fortune on a new customer database, they changed roles and incentives to focus on potential clients, reduced red tape on offers and streamlined products to simplify selling. Sales increased. Significantly. 

It’s not just a choice of do or don’t do it – there are options within that spectrum that work. We can manage today AND deliver tomorrow at the same time. No horror stories in sight...

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