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VOICES | In the Trenches

How one organization turned around a failing program.

Deniz A. Johnson, PMP

with a company that turned around an ambitious but troubled business transformation program. Recent changes in industry regulations and new competition in the market required a new look into company operations. The company's leaders realized that they needed to improve the way operations were handled. Operations were very manual and paper intensive, and incoming requests usually took a long time to process. The organization also had trouble adjusting when regulations changed, since it had a large workforce and a rigid process.

The challenge is to find the right approach that will work with the organization's DNA.


Senior executives strongly agreed on the need for change. They worked with external consultants to define a roadmap, then established timelines, goals and actionable steps to reach them. Automation was a key expectation, and state-of-the-art products were identified after a very inclusive selection process. A three-year business strategy and a two-year program were established.

However, this vision and momentum was lost during the translation for implementation. The organization overstaffed without really focusing on what it needed. Since this was a high-visibility program, twice-weekly status reports were instituted for the executive team, along with a weekly meeting. All the meetings and oversight took time away from accomplishing tasks.

Requirements were gathered too quickly by product experts who were unfamiliar with both the industry and the organization's work. At the end of nine months, the program budget was more than 70 percent gone. Development had started, but there were significant disagreements on the architecture needed to satisfy requirements. The first prototypes were met with dissatisfaction from users.

Something needed to be done. Reorganization of the impacted departments followed. Next, all outsourcing vendors, most of the project managers and all consultant resources were laid off. The project came to a stop. Demoralization set in. Executives began trying to figure out if the goals identified were even attainable.


As a last resort, a new program manager/senior consultant was brought in. Though all levels of the organization were skeptical that turnaround was even possible, a few key steps were taken to get the program back on track:

1. The right resources for the right tasks. A small number of consultants who were familiar with the industry, the company and the products were brought in.

2. Back to the basics. The requirements were revisited. Functional requirements were detailed, and technical requirements were clarified. Business process improvements and workflow changes were incorporated. Business users were engaged in defining the improvements for further buy-in.

3. Clarity on governance and communication. The roles of the team and program governance were clearly defined. Governance meant just enough process as needed—nothing more, nothing less. The project team identified communication paths, and executive communication was delegated to the stakeholders and program manager on a biweekly schedule. Project statuses were reduced to once a week.

4. Development and architecture were better integrated into the project meetings. The business team, analysts, quality control experts and technologists discussed the weekly development deliverables together so there were no surprises by the time the second prototype was presented. Usability became a key component of success.

After three months of rigor, the program started to show clear transformation and progress. While these are a few steps that worked in this case, there is no universal recipe to turn around troubled programs. The challenge is to find the right approach that will work with the organization's DNA—the way it does business, its culture and its values. PM


Deniz A.Johnson, PMP, is a consultant and founder of Pera-Partners LLC, a management consulting firm specializing in IT strategy/implementation, business transformation, program management and IT governance in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.




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