Jason West and Joe Ales at river bank

Joe Ales & Jason West


Jason West: Welcome to episode six of the Underscore Transformation Podcast, my name is Jason West.

Joe Ales: And I’m Joe Ales.

Jason West: And together, we’re the founders of Underscore.

Joe Ales: In this episode we’re focusing our attention on vision, objectives, and design principles. So many aspects of functional transformation are unknown and unknowable when you begin, so by their nature, these programmes tend to be disruptive, often formed in response to existential threats or urgent opportunities. Sometimes timelines can stretch well beyond annual budgeting cycle, and information often builds over time; these things tend to put us into territory of unknown unknowns.

In these circumstances what your team needs is clear, simple direction, that will allow them to make decisions in the moment and that will ultimately get you to that destination. So Jason, how do organisations go about achieving this?

Jason West: It starts off with the vision. That destination: where are we going? And being able to articulate that in the really simple, compelling way, that engages people at an emotional level, as well as an intellectual level.  What we’ve found works really well in in the past, is you’ve got to communicate with people in a number of different styles. So some people will respond to things written down, others it’s having conversations and talking to perhaps their manager about it. Others want to hear from the absolute top of the organisation about where we’re going. But I think the key thing is that you include more than just words, so as much as possible, include pictures: that can be a really effective way of engaging quite a large group of people. And we’ve had an experience recently haven’t we, where we worked with a client of ours where they were transforming their finance function, and it would be fair to say there was a degree of scepticism about putting 300 finance professionals in a room and asking them to draw pictures. Because, you know “accountants don’t do stuff like that.” They were a little bit nervous about the exercise, but it was incredible. So we had a graphic artist come down and he kind of got groups of people around this huge room; a big A0 sheets of paper, and got people to draw out themes: “here’s our destination, this is what it’s going to look like, and feel like. Here’s where we are today, and here’s some of the problems.” And in the journey to get from one to the other and the level of artistry that came out of these alleged “reserved accountants” was amazing.

Joe Ales: I think it but it might have put the artist out of work based on the quality of the drawings [laughs]. But actually it really helped illustrate the journey that the organisation has to go through to get to that endpoint. And actually, what was really interesting about this particular exercise was that actually everybody could relate to every image that was on that final picture. And that picture is being used throughout the programme as their vision, so words almost are insignificant compared to what that picture is. It’s an exercise that we’ve done with twice now, and it’s proven very effective in helping, in this case the CFO, illustrate where the organisation wants to get to.

Jason West: But vision only really gets you so far. You’ve got to make sensible, appropriate decisions along the way. One way of providing that guidance to the programme team as they’re thinking through “well what are the things that we need to decide on? What are those new process or new systems, new policies?” Whatever it might be, you need to think about the strategic objectives. So these really do need to be well thought through. You shouldn’t have perhaps too many, they’ve got to be pretty high level. But they’ve got to be SMART: they’ve got to be Specific. It’s got to be Measurable. They have to be Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.

And it’s really important to land those objectives with key members of your leadership team. So actually putting owners against specific metrics or specific objectives really helps to ensure ownership and that there’s somebody that feels personally accountable for ensuring that that gets delivered.

Joe Ales: Very outcome focused these objectives need to be. They are not your how are you going to execute your change? It’s what is destination going to look like when we get there? The transformation is going to take us along this path this; this is the vision at the outset and these are the outcomes that were going to achieve once we get there. And actually sometimes even beyond [completion] because sometimes you don’t achieve those strategic objectives at the point of go-live with your transformation or a system implementation; whatever change your executing.

Jason West: Yes, and some of them you might actually deliver before you know a big bang of technology; you know they really are those key milestones along the way, and linking your benefits realisation to those milestones is an essential way of ensuring you actually deliver your business case. And they do help during design meetings; you know if you have them there you can say “we’re talking about a particular point: does this take us further towards or maybe further away from some of these strategic objectives?”

And you can get into a bit of conflict between different objectives at times, and I think really that’s where the design principles act as a compass. So if your vision is your ultimate destination, your strategic objectives are you’re milestones along the way, then the design principles are the compass that help people kind of steer their way towards those objectives.

Joe Ales: And these are so, so important. Design principles are really important because actually it’s a way of translating, at a programme level further than the organisation, into language that actually people might understand. Sometimes strategic objectives are confidential because there’s some potential inner restructuring, maybe efficiency objectives that you don’t necessarily want to expose to those in in the project. So absolutely it’s a key objective of the sponsor, but sometimes it’s difficult to be totally transparent about what the programme is trying to do, especially if there’s an efficiency associated with it.

So the design principles are an easy way of translating some of that: the strategic objectives, into operational design.

Jason West: I think it’s important to think about the number of design principles that you have. You can have too many.

Joe Ales: Yes, and if they start coming into conflict with each other, then you’re doing something wrong.

Jason West: Absolutely, and it’s an area where it’s always worth spending some time in. Getting people engaged in laying out your design principles; you need to have a really clear understanding of what the objectives of the programme are. So, to your point earlier, you can’t go too broad with these kind of principles when you’re putting them together, but actually getting input once you have some of those principles, and kind of just road testing them out there. But when we think about the number of them you don’t really want any more than nine; you probably want somewhere between four and eight ideally. It becomes a bit too difficult to keep them all in your mind when you’re in a design workshop, or you’re thinking about how you’re going to map out your future process for whatever it might be. But actually having a combination of simple statements with then a bit more information and a further description against them, so the six or eight simple statements which is really easy to refer back to. But then there’s that kind of further description that sits behind them and having them printed and up on the wall available for all your all your programme meetings, or your design meetings that you have that just constant touchstone to go back to. If you’re sitting in a design authority and trying to mediate between the demands of one process owner, versus another, you know what you design principles are and it’s going to help you.

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Joe Ales: Another point in your design principles is prioritising them. You are going to come across conflict, it’s inevitable. But if you have these things up on a wall, then you refer individuals to these and say “do you know what you we are debating about something that is priority one versus priority seven, so priority one stands and let’s move on.”

It’s really important to use these design principles to unlock debate. Allow the programme to move, allow you to progress.  Stop dying in ditches over things, because actually what the executive agreed is “I want a vision that gets us to A. There’s a set of strategic objectives there we are going to deliver when we get there, and these are the right design principles that are going to support us in making the right design decisions to achieve a strategic objectives.” It just allows fluidity into the whole design, whether it’s policy, process, technology, operating model etc.

Jason West: It’s important not to put your design principles in a draw after you finish the design process. They really do need to be an active part of your programme even through to your change management. If you’re thinking through how you’re engaging people in the communications you’re putting out there, how does that align to the design principles that you had on the programme? So if you had a principle of keeping it simple, for example, and you have really complex ideas, or you’re communicating in complex language, that really doesn’t line up. You’re not walking the talk.

Joe Ales: This really interesting point actually, because the design principles are not just in terms of what you’re implementing. Your right, they are taking you across the entire programme. It’s about taking that that design principle and applying it to your change. Design principles must never be put in a draw; it must be lived and breathed throughout the lifecycle of the programme. So they must link to strategic objectives, but the audience involved in that might be different to those involved in design. That’s where the exec steerco or the sponsor’s compass comes in, in terms of what stays in scope or not in scope. Very often we see the pressures of a particular system implementation or a particular sort of transformations and it drives the individuals in the project to make a set of decisions about what goes into scope and what comes out of scope. You need to use your strategic objectives as a tool to help you validate whether something stays in scope or not. So the exec must always have strategic objectives in the forefront of their mind when they’re reviewing the progress of a particular programme.

Jason West: Yeah be cause it’s all too easy for the people that are delivering that programme to get fixated on what they’re doing right now and what’s just around the corner, or this risk or that issue that you’re managing. It can be so easy to get lost in the detail of just managing the change that you kind of lose sight of “why” and “what.” So that’s a key role for the exec steerco and the operational steerco as well.

I think the other place that design principles kind of come to the fore is in testing; so actually as you’re testing your new processes, or your new systems, you should actually give your test manager your design principles and say “you’re going to be looking through this stuff; you’re looking for defects and those sorts of things, but actually are we meeting these design principles? Where have we been deviating?” And any decision to deviate from a design principle really does need to be thought through very carefully, as you as you said. But also, keep a record of it; “we’ve made a conscious decision to break with this design principle, in this specific instance, because of these good reasons.” And actually document that. It can seem so obvious at that point in time where you make the decision, but three months later after you’ve gone live and all the consultants and the contractors have left, that decision just becomes utterly unfathomable. Having that record, and I think that’s true of nearly all decisions on a programme, that you have that discipline that you have somebody that’s there tracking the decisions: why they were made, who made them and when, where, how, who was involved.

Joe Ales: And even beyond go-live: as you’re migrating whatever change your implementing into some sort of BAU, and nowadays with technology as we know it changes evolves every four months. All the time there brings about new functionality, new modules etc. keeping those design principles forefront of your mind, as you outlined earlier, as a compass that helps you make the right design decisions, will help you embed the change that you’ve initiated.

Jason West: Absolutely. So in summary vision is absolutely critical: it needs describe your destination with real clarity and engage emotionally; use words and pictures.

Joe Ales: And engage as many people as possible in helping you describe what that journey is going to look like. You absolutely will have the destination in mind. But you won’t have the detail about how things operate in reality. Those individuals across the organisation will.

Jason West: Strategic objectives: absolutely key. Make sure they are SMART, make sure they are owned, and someone is accountable and being help to account for delivering them. And design Principles are going to help guide your way and make smart decisions in the moment. But really invest time in this area and be mindful that there’s no conflict between the different design principles. Also don’t have too many. Those three things will absolutely help you get to your destination in the best shape possible, and help your team make decisions in the moment, when you as the sponsor can’t be across everything, and they’re fundamental to the ultimate success of your programme.

Joe Ales: Thanks Jason. So next week is the all-important topic of governance and decision making. We’d love to hear your feedback on this episode so please contact the show via Twitter @UnderscoreComms, or via our website: underscore-group.com. Please remember to subscribe and share.