Lessons Learned from Suspended Transformation / by John Schlichter

by John Schlichter

Change can be hard, especially transformation of an organization’s ability to implement strategies through projects successfully, consistently, and predictably. It usually involves trade-off’s. Summarizing some basic trade-off’s, a widely quoted platitude goes something like this: “You can have it good, cheap, or fast. But you can only pick two. Good and cheap won’t be fast. Fast and good won’t be cheap. Cheap and fast won’t be good.” See Figure 1.

Figure 1: Good, fast, or cheap. Pick two.

Figure 1: Good, fast, or cheap. Pick two.

I have seen people try to game these trade-off’s, expecting a miracle (Figure 2), which reminds me of another platitude: “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.”

Figure 2: “Free” is not a way to resolve trade-off’s between cost, quality, and speed.

Figure 2: “Free” is not a way to resolve trade-off’s between cost, quality, and speed.

Quite some time ago, OPM Experts LLC analyzed these kinds of trade-off’s in a company’s Organizational Project Management capability transformation. We performed a root cause analysis on behalf of the client to capture lessons learned from the organization’s decision to suspend its transformation (Figure 3). Are these lessons useful?

Figure 1: Lessons Learned from a No-Go Decision Midway Through an OPM Transformation.

Dr. Russ Ackoff (a peer of Dr. Edward Demming) has explained that over two thirds of managers surveyed who authorized quality improvement programs considered those programs to have been failures, and Ackoff believed that the reason why those programs failed is primarily the fact that those programs had not been embedded in systems thinking (Video 1). The viability and success of a system is a function of the interaction of its parts. Failure of a system is emergent from failures in the respective interactions of its respective parts. If improvements of the parts of a system are treated separately you can be certain that performance of the overall system will not be improved.

We must approach the improvement of organizations as systems, and not only ask what is wrong that should be fixed but what could be right that would be both amazing and worth the effort. Incrementalism is the enemy of transformation. As Ackoff said “You’ll never become the leader through continuous improvement…… You become the leader by leap-frogging.” If you fail to treat the improvement of an organization as a system, then you risk losing momentum as soon as you start. Do not seek efficiency gains in parts of the system before allowing improvement of all relevant interactions among all parts intrinsic to the minimum definition of effectiveness. As Ackoff has said “The difference between efficiency and effectiveness is the difference between knowledge and wisdom.”

Video 1: Dr. Ackoff explains the difference between "continuous improvement" and "discontinuous improvement" as seen through the lens of systems thinking.

Related: Systems Leadership and Platforms: How to mobilize people to transform systems and build the platforms to scale these efforts by John Hagel and Gemma Mortensen, Co-Chairs of the Global Future Council on Platforms and Systems at the World Economic Forum.