Blog Archive

Tunnel vision: the light at the end of the tunnel

In parts 1 and 2, I discussed how organisations deal with risks that impact the realisation of programme benefits, but which are not derived from within the programme itself. We examined case studies of very large, long term programmes which, despite delivering the capabilities planned, failed to deliver benefits. Diagnosing what went wrong, we narrowed our focus to risks of disruptive change in the market, which negate benefits, and to flawed assumptions in how outputs, outcomes and capabilities should lead to benefits.

Having distinguished this subset of risks, what can be done to address them and what guidance do P3M methodologies offer? A review of mainstream textbooks turns up a limited amount. True, "Managing Successful Programmes" (MSP) takes the stance that it is at programme or portfolio levels that Benefits Realisation traditionally lives, and therefore MSP has most to say on the issue. Benefits Mapping is advocated to identify risks, and the risk-benefit interaction is clearly communicated. However, MSP does not distinguish between internal risks to benefits (also risks to delivery) versus those in our subset. A scattering of comments across the benefits section of MSP warn of ‘overlooking strategic and long-term issues’, mapping external dependencies effecting benefits, and monitoring ‘changes in the business environment’, but none use risk-specific language nor are they collated under risk as a heading. MSP falls just short of drawing them together or offering a joined-up approach to addressing the problem.

Is this, then, an under-prioritised area? Whilst there may be a shortage of mainstream literature, there are several practices and concepts which are likely to be helpful:

  1. Rigour and clarity at the outset; organisations spend resource and time modelling costs, perhaps because cost is relatively easy to understand, but do they apply the same discipline to understanding benefits? Benefits should align to strategic objectives, be well defined (quantified if possible) to allow a solid baseline, and crucially form the starting point for projects, before selecting approach or solution. They should not be fleshed out retrospectively to 'justify' an idea already created.
  2. Apply Systems Thinking on benefits; Provide comprehensive benefits mapping and profiling, with more rigorous recording and testing of assumptions about how outcomes will deliver benefits. This may also include Sensitivity Analysis, to identify where benefits are particularly fragile. This approach can draw out risks to benefits that may not be immediately obvious.
  3. Increase profile and regularly review; Ensure your governance, and your reporting, puts benefits front and centre in stakeholders' minds. Alongside those benefits, monitor the risks to them, and early warning indicators. Encourage stakeholders to revisit benefits regularly, not just when approving the Business Case, but as part of the reporting drumbeat.
  4. Use an 'agile' (not necessarily AGILE) approach; This may not be easy on major infrastructure, or defence projects for example. But even here, if elements of the solution can leave latitude (and budget) for controlled change in specific areas, and if there is a willingness to experiment and defer decisions, then it may allow the outputs to evolve to be more fit for purpose on delivery. For example, a warship will take many years to develop, but the specification for some weapons, countermeasures, sensors or systems onboard could evolve in parallel with outside threats and new technological opportunities. Such approaches must be supported by appropriately flexible contracting and the right skills and toolsets.
  5. Tackle the cultural barriers; Such as a lack of willingness (or courage) to change direction on major, politically exposed initiatives; a lack of incentivisation to prioritise long term benefits (senior stakeholders' tenures may be much shorter than the project lifespan and there may be pressure for 'quick wins'). Success requires a mature, open organisational culture with a sustainable and long term strategic focus.

In summary, addressing these challenges undoubtedly involves 'doing the basics right', but in some cases will also require new approaches and a change in mindset. The above suggestions are a starting point and I hope will stimulate further discussion. BMT is always happy to engage with professionals and organisations to learn more about their own experiences and challenges in this field.               

I hope you have found this blog series informative, and I welcome any comments and experiences you may wish to share.

Tunnel vision - part 1

Tunnel vision: going deeper - part 2