Winners need stamina

A question managers often ask is “Why do so many big change projects fail?”

It’s not so much the steps they take – all follow much the same basic steps when under way viz:

  • Record facts
  • Examine findings
  • Develop solutions

But where most go wrong is with other steps needed before, during and after the above viz:

  • Badly set up – unclear terms of reference, unquantified targets, lack of obvious senior management support, no links to corporate plans
  • Badly manned – ‘he got us into this mess’ appointments, lack of people with past success – lack of the right skills, experience and attitude – outside consultants put in charge so only they learn ‘what does not work’
  • Badly project managed –  lack of a timetable and accountabilities, little focus on customers’ needs, deadlines allowed to drift, too little or too much time and resources made available
  • Badly implemented – employees told to implement changes without understanding why, nor what’s in it for them – little effort made to ensure changes made work well after day one

With so many pitfalls it’s little wonder so many big improvement projects stumble, even fail – each one is usually announced with considerable fanfare – but initial enthusiasm for them soon wanes, effort becomes half-hearted and any measured results are usually meagre – hence interest moves on

The same applies at national level – over the last two years the UK has set up the following grand initiatives aimed at productivity improvement:

  • PLG – Productivity Leadership Group – aka ‘Be the Business’ (someone thinks this is appropriate I assume) – led by a group of business leaders – it appears their main output will be to inspire the UK’s long tail of flagging businesses with ‘best practice’ stories – it’s now in its second year of existence, but to what quantifiable effect?
  • PIN – Productivity Insights Network – sponsored by Sheffield University and economist Jim O’Neill – no known output as yet
  • Andy Haldane, Bank of England chief economist, recently appointed to lead a new UK government drive to improve UK productivity – but given HMG can only impact maybe some 20% of national productivity via their investment in infrastructure, R&D and training, we believe Andy’s chances of quick quantifiable wins are slim

And New Zealand has announced a similar venture – some of the biggest names in New Zealand business are to form a Business Advisory Council and advise Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on how to supercharge the New Zealand economy

The council is designed to advise the Government on how to build a productive, sustainable and inclusive economy that improves the well-being of New Zealanders

Jacinda said: “New Zealand needs a modern economy that has the investment, innovation and skills required to ensure we can all share in prosperity and opportunity in a sustainable way – to do that we need to work closely with business leaders, share ideas and consider solutions to overcoming barriers together”:

  • A mix of six women and seven men with small to large business experience, from across New Zealand, have been selected to provide advice
  • The council is expected to meet three times a year with the prime minister and her representatives
  • It will provide high-level, free and frank advice on policies that directly affect business, harness the expertise of the private sector to inform government policy and build closer relationships between government and business

“I will also be asking the council to gather advice from their peers in the domestic and international business community on some of the most important issues facing New Zealand including how we best grow and share our prosperity, support regional development, and transition to a clean, green New Zealand”

So, again, it’s a well-intentioned initiative, plus another feather-in-the-cap for those council members chosen – easy to set up and announce, easy to be seen to be ‘doing something’ about a well-known problem, easy for the government to park responsibility elsewhere, but unlikely to make any noticeable difference to the well-being of all, at least in the short term

Why so cynical?


  • The above national initiatives are a start, but improving productivity, even at organisation level, is invariably a long haul, not a quick fix
  • Once major initiatives are announced, few get down to the detail to ‘make the hard yards’ – and even fewer try to quantify what % difference they targeted or made
  • It reminds one of participating in the offshore Fastnet race – there’s much publicity and excitement at the start off Cowes as thousands of spectators watch the 200 or so boats begin their adventure – however, once past the Needles, each boat usually finds itself alone at sea with nearly 600 miles to go – whether they finish the course depends on just the skipper, crew and boat alone – there’s nobody else out there to help – and that’s when enthusiasm can fade fast
  • Everyone loves the upfront glamour of grand new initiatives – few love the hard graft that must then follow to finish the job

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