Heading off a shambles

My American colleagues were very taken by my use of the word 'shambles', or sometimes 'shambolic'. Apparently they are not words in common US usage (neither is 'donkeys years' fyi). I'm wondering if this is because America is so rules bound and regulated that a shambles couldn't occur or is it because US culture makes the notion of a shambles outside their conceptual thinking? By the way if you're wondering, a shambles is a state of total disorder. Here's are recent examples of the words in use.

  • Labour have attacked the government's response to a backlog of up to 30,000 passport applications as "shambolic".
  • Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper demanded Mrs May apologise to thousands of people whose travel plans have been thrown into doubt. She said: "This has been a sorry shambles from a sorry department and a Home Secretary who can't even bring herself to say the word.
  • Remember the 2012 Olympics in the UK? There was much talk of chaos and disorder in the offing as preparations proceeded and indeed there was one potential derailer around the security contract (awarded to G4S) for the event which ultimately led to the CEO, of G4S Nick Buckles, resigning. He 'told MPs that he regrets ever signing the Olympic security contract that has turned into "a humiliating shambles" that has left his company's reputation in tatters.'

But this shambles was an outlier not the norm. To everyone's amazement the Olympics were a triumph of organization and, in management-speak, 'achievement of desired outcomes'. The report on this in the Daily Beast 'Take a Bow London' is a delight to read while the more sober report on transport arrangements presented to Parliament after the event in November 2012 notes, with characteristic British understatement, that

Before the event there was a great deal of concern about the ability of London's transport network to cope with the higher than expected passenger levels associated with the Games and to deliver athletes, officials and spectators to and from events around the capital in a timely and efficient manner.

In the event, the Games passed off without a transport hitch and figures indicate that over the whole period of London 2012 over 100 million journeys were made on the Tube; 11 million on the DLR; 10.5 million on London Overground; the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme saw a million hires; buses travelled 40 million km; and there was an average ten per cent reduction in traffic on the Olympic Route Network during peak hours.

This success was achieved by the establishment of an Olympic Transport Authority (OTA), tasked with the responsibility for transport within the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA). The OTA oversaw the programme management of related infrastructure projects and was responsible for the delivery of real-time integrated coordination and control of transport during the Games".

Note the reference in the above to 'programme management'. It turns out that the Olympics were organized using the Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) methodology. A succinct case study from the Association of Project Managers outlines how this was used across the Olympic Games as a whole.

One of the features of MSP is the set of governance themes that underpin it. Typically a steering group is established to steer the project to success and mitigate the risk of anything with a hint of the shambolic happening and there is no shortage of guidance on the roles, responsibilities and benefits of governance bodies like these. For example(s), a 108 page report from the IMF discussing governance is firm that good governance leads to trust, confidence, and economic development i.e. no shambles.

Unfortunately, however, even with governance frameworks the shambolic can happen. Regardless of structure and process heading off a shambles is akin to the proverbial herding of cats and almost all big public change programmes are pilloried for achieving the shambolic. A wonderful exception is this pulling off of the London Olympics. This is attributed to:

  • The emphasis placed on the formalities of programme management: bringing structure to the programme, pulling together high-level plans, ensuring cross-programme and/or integration risks were managed effectively, tracking issues and progress, updating the programme brief, continuously clarifying the aims, organizations and governance arrangements across the programme, reviewing the effectiveness of governance structures and adjusting them to meet changing circumstances and to evolve with the lifecycle of the programme, learning from previous programme experience to spot where things may be falling through the gaps, identifying scope gaps and overlaps in good time thus avoiding a more expensive and difficult to manage situation if left unaddressed, staying alert and responding to changing contexts and environment and responding flexibly to these.
  • And more importantly, attending to the often neglected human aspects of programme management. On this, Heather Sinclair, Programme Assurance Manager said, 'It's important to establish good working relationships, to ensure challenges and problems can be resolved quickly.' She also says it's vital to take a pragmatic approach – dealing with so many different organizations, both public and private sector and both large and small, means that a 'one size fits all' approach isn't always going to work. 'In fact with the best will in the world it's never going to work. So it's important to have a thorough understanding of everyone's roles and who is responsible for what – and not be afraid to let people get on with their jobs. A flexible approach and being able to communicate your aims effectively is crucial to get people on side, build cooperation and get things done,' she says.

One way London 2012 approached essential relationship building was to form networks across organizations to bring together people with similar remits to enable communication and sharing of best practice. These networks ranged from informal knowledge sharing forums, to more structured and focused decision-making groups. Janette Lissaman, 2012 Programme Office Manager said, 'A paper report does not mean you know what is really happening. What you need is for people to be open and honest with you and good communication is key. We have to deal face to face with stakeholders too.'

Her colleague agreed: 'Winning over the hearts and minds of your colleagues is just as important as the process. The ability to manage successfully relies on collaboration and creating a programme management family. Constituent parts of the programme are massive programmes in their own right.'

That's good advice to take on the human aspects of programme management and there's more. The 2012 Olympics avoided dropping into shambolic by:

  • Securing united leadership support from the outset
  • Breaking down organizational silos and bringing together different people by theme rather than by function,
  • Using various cross-cutting approaches to issues to build relationships across departments and organizations
  • Preparing people for working in the new environment when issues would need to be identified and resolved quickly by those with the expertise, authority and experience
  • Developing skills in dealing with unpredicted situations appropriately and efficiently
  • Using the senior levels of governance to focus on preparations and setting strategic direction (not delving into the detail).

In my experience selecting the right Steering Group members is critical to getting the technical and the human aspects of a programme right. I liked the list of selection criteria from one local authority's practical workbook introducing people to the specifics of a programme steering group. The suggestion is that steering group members should have the time, inclination and clout to be able to:

  • Do things (not just sit there)
  • Make positive proposals (when ideas are needed)
  • Ask questions (if information is needed)
  • Offer alternatives (to create agreement)
  • Build on proposals (to cement group vision)
  • Test ideas (not reject them out of hand)
  • Explain opposition (not just flat rejection)
  • Help others (to cement solidarity)

I'd add in that if someone is a Steering Group member that it should be clearly stated as one of their performance objectives, that a sufficient amount of time is allocated to the role – it's part of the day job, and not something to be squeezed in around it, and that they are measured on their contribution to the effectiveness of the programme.

If you take all the steps outlined above you will have taken the right steps to head off a programme shambles. What tips have you got on this topic? Let me know.