Has my public sector transformation programme got too big?

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Yes. Without knowing you, your programme or where in government you work, I can answer this question with total confidence. Your transformation programme is too big and you should either stop it or dramatically slim it down immediately. This might all seem a little tongue-in-cheek but I’m deadly serious. If you work on a thing called a transformation programme (or similar) in the public sector, it has already got too big. How do I know? Let’s just reflect on how transformation programmes are created.

First, someone senior has a vision of what the organisation could be in the future. They then spend months or years evangelising for this vision in the face of both active resistance and apathy. Slowly momentum is created, reports are written, commissions pronounce, business cases are developed and the tide seems to turn.

As the organisation senses the change, cynics become converts and resistance becomes encouragement. Long-dormant initiatives are given a new lease of life by plugging them in to this exciting new programme. The failure of past or ongoing projects is hidden by adding their objectives to the aims of the new programme. The prospect of a big juicy “approved business case” is irresistible to every half-baked brainwave and self-proclaimed “change agent” from across the business.

As momentum grows, so does the programme. Like a snowball rolling down the hill, the more momentum it gets, the bigger it grows. Soon, it is completely out of control. Those that worked so hard to establish it are left staring in horror as its scale and complexity swamps them.

This scale and complexity is justified by talking about “economies of scale” and “avoiding duplication” while conducting “gap analysis” between the “the current operating model” and “the target operating model” but no-one can describe the thing the programme is supposed to achieve this week.

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Urgency becomes the watchword. “Delivery by April 2020” (insert the year of your choice) becomes the rallying cry. The tight timescales compress the delivery plan and add greater complexity to the dependencies. At about this point that the programme starts recruiting hard, desperately hoping that adding people will reduce complexity and add velocity and control. It does the opposite.

Eventually, you have a £100m+ transformation programme going at full pace. Loaded with unrealistic or impossible aims, led by people as confused as the staff, burning money, measuring nothing important, delivering no benefits and regularly moving that “deadline” for the “2020 end-state” back by a few months here or a year there.

If you’ve worked in government transformation programmes, you’ll almost certainly recognise the evolution described above. If you’re working in one now, it almost certainly applies to your programme. That’s how I know that your transformation programme is too big — like a hurricane being “too windy” — being “too big” is just part of their nature.

So what should be done about it? The pithy answer is sequencing over concurrency. In other words, do things one at a time, not all at once. Imagine the smallest achievement on the road to transformation you can think of, halve it in size and scope and then deliver this seemingly tiny goal with as few people as you can possibly use.

Keep doing that until you’re great at making things happen and have genuine delivery velocity. Once up-to-speed, sustain this velocity with clear objectives, good management and (a small number) of great people. Sit tight within the business, never call yourselves a” transformation programme”, never publish grand visions, just make small things better one thing at a time.

If you keep that up for 5 years, you’ll be able to transform any organisation of any size.