Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Blueprints for Success or Recipes for Disaster?

I've seen a few articles recently about using 'blueprints' for the successful implementation of organisational change, especially in the IT industry. I rarely read beyond the title because I believe there is a fundamental problem in the concept of using a blueprint for anything other than what the original term designated, namely: 
blueprint is a reproduction of a technical drawing, documenting an architecture or an engineering design, using a contact print process on light-sensitive sheets. Introduced in the 19th century, the process allowed rapid and accurate reproduction of documents used in construction and industry.

I know there will be people out there accusing me of being pedantic and that over time the term blueprint has come to mean a template, plan or design that may or may not be reusable. But the fact is that many people will associate the concept of a blueprint as being a very detailed schematic without which certain projects will be doomed to fail. From there you might be then be forgiven in thinking, that if you have a proven blueprint, you are guaranteed success for future undertakings. You probably couldn't be further from the truth.

As a leader, it took me precisely two change initiatives to work out that blueprints don't work in that context - and in fact very rarely work in IT projects of any description, unless they are relatively simple, repeatable infrastructure projects. As soon as the level of complexity is increased, the blueprint becomes a millstone rather than an aide.

Having worked within organisational project and process improvement teams for some years, I eventually found myself responsible for setting up and managing a new team from scratch. Having built a very successful group with a global reputation, I was asked to repeat the process with a larger organisation. Over-enthused with my previous success I made the assumption that I could use the 'blueprint' and repeat what I had previously achieved. What I failed to take into account was that even a few hundred miles away, the culture within the same organisation was completely different from where I'd come from. My 'blueprint' failed and so did I. 

Except in very small companies, cultures are often very different across the business - different attitudes and sub-cultures prevail between departments, and even within the same department there may be further sub-cultures between different buildings or even different floors in the same building. When companies go across countries or continents, the differences will magnified enormously and any previously successful blueprints will be mostly worthless.

There are, however, alternatives to blueprints which can help enormously to tilt the scales of change in favour of success. Using a change management framework, either homegrown or from external sources is a necessity not an option (yet many large organisations still fail to understand this and wing it with all their change programmes). Integrating good project management practice into your change process will help enormously. 

The greatest chance of succeeding with change initiatives is to make use of the expertise in your organisation that is hidden in plain sight - the people who do the day to day work, not managers and consultants who have their own agendas. Involving people from the outset will help prevent you from making dumb decisions, from disenfranchising the work force, and for misunderstanding or misinterpreting the organisation's ability and desire to handle specific changes. 

Blueprints are fine if all the materials and conditions and constraints defined within those blueprints are available or can be met as specified. If they aren't, then the blueprint is probably no longer valid and needs to be modified. 

A half decent cook will be able to follow a recipe and adjust things as they go along to allow for deviations in ingredients, number of diners, time available and a myriad of other variables. If you are leading change initiatives you need to follow the same principles. It won't take long to find out that it's the recipes that help you succeed and the blueprints will guarantee your failure!

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