Change you can believe in

I’m all for trying out new things. After all, this is how we develop – both as individuals and as organisations. But changing what we do and how we do it takes both time and effort. And, frequently, money. So it’s important that, before embarking on a new initiative, project or programme, we have a clear idea of what we are trying to achieve, how it will work and how we will know whether or not we have actually achieved it.


All too frequently, however, organisations overlook these initial steps and just leap straight in.

It might be because there’s a new fad in the sector and everyone just takes for granted that it’s the right thing to do. It might be because a new CEO has come in and wants things how they were in his or her previous organisation.

Or it might (and I write this slightly, but not entirely, with tongue in cheek) be because the organisation simply has a culture of launching into things without thinking them through.

Now, I’m all in favour of cracking on and doing things, rather than spending months procrastinating, sitting in meetings and drafting and redrafting project plans and risk assessments. But I really do think that a little bit of thinking and planning up front can pay genuine dividends in the longer term.

Because while it’s important to get things done, it’s perhaps equally important to ensure that they’re the right things.

A clear objective

Before we launch into any new project or activity, we need to ask ourselves what we are seeking to achieve. What is the problem that we are trying to solve? What are we trying to change and how are we trying to change it? What will be, do or work better as a result?

A clear objective, in my view, lies at the heart of any successful project. If you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, the chance of achieving anything is slim.

I’m sure you’ve read about SMART objectives – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. Everyone goes on about them all the time. That’s because they work. They help us to get things done. Fuzzy objectives – or no objectives – just send us chasing our tails and trying frantically to find something we have achieved when the boss asks for a progress report. (Don’t laugh, we’ve all been there…)

Knowing what works

Once we know what we want to achieve, we need to figure out how to achieve it. This may seem insultingly obvious, but it’s a crucial step that seems frequently to get overlooked. It’s absolutely vital that we have at least some confidence that what we’re about to spend lots of time, money and effort on has at least a reasonable chance of leading to the achievement of the objective that we’ve just set ourselves.

The easiest way of getting this confidence, of course, is to see whether the thing we’re planning to do has worked somewhere else. It’s also important, though, to understand how and why it has worked. Because sometimes things work only in a particular set of circumstances or because of the particular individuals involved. And sometimes it’s just dumb luck.

So do your research. Look at what other organisations have done and how things have turned out. Look into the academic and practitioner literature. Ask consultants and software providers, for example, how they can demonstrate that the thing they’re offering will achieve the benefits they claim.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you need to stick to tried and tested approaches. Sometimes organisations need to take a punt on something new, something that might work but might not. But it’s important to do so consciously.

So go ahead with an innovative project, by all means, and see how it turns out. Perhaps start small, though. Maybe try a pilot project and see how you get on, before you commit your organisation to a major change project.

Recognising when you’ve achieved your objective… or when you haven’t

The downside of having a clear objective for a project, of course, is that it will be blindingly obvious to all involved if it doesn’t get achieved. This, I suspect, may be one of the reasons why so many organisations shy away from setting such objectives in the first place.

In my view, though, (and to paraphrase Tennyson almost beyond recognition) it’s much better to have a clear objective and to not achieve it, than to not have had an objective at all.

After all, sometimes things don’t work out. Provided you had a sound objective and thought carefully about how what you did could help to achieve that objective, it’s fine with me that it didn’t quite work out. You’ve tried something. You’ve learned something. And now you can move on.

What is important, to me, is that you’re clear from the start about how you will measure the success (or otherwise) of the project or activity. So if you have, for example, an objective of reducing staff sickness absence by 5%, I damn well want to see you measuring staff sickness absence levels. Or if you’re launching a new programme to increase student satisfaction levels, you’re really going to need a way of measuring student satisfaction.

And there’s lots of help available, too. For a start, have a look at the University of Strathclyde’s Evidencing Benefits project.

One of the (many) things that really gets my goat is when an organisation justifies having undertaken a project with a long and diverse list of highly spurious benefits, many of which sound improbably difficult to measure or to prove. This tells me that either (a) they didn’t have a clear objective for the project or (b) they did but didn’t achieve it and are trying to hide that from me (or someone else).

So next time you start to think about a new project, begin with a clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve. Think about what you need to do to achieve your objective. And put in place a mechanism for assessing whether or not you have achieved it. Sure, it makes you more accountable, and that’s scary. But it’s the right thing to do. And you know it.

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