A Fool’s Errand

I referenced Stephen Jenner, the UK Government’s “rottweiler of benefits management” in an earlier post, Lies, Damn Lies and Business Cases. Stephen is also the author of a new book, Realising Benefits from Government ICT Investment – a fool’s errand, a copy of which he graciously sent me. It arrived just as I was heading off on a couple of weeks vacation which gave me the opportunity to read it without the usual interruptions. In reading the book, I can only agree with Donald Marchand’s testimonial in which he says: “Jenner provides very credible guidance and  methods on ICT project value realisation in the public sector. The book is timely, practical and a very good primer on contemporary “best practice” thinking in both the public and for-profit sectors.” Indeed, as I read it, I thought of it as a “field book” for benefits management, and certainly not one limited to the public sector.

Without giving away too much of the content of Stephen’s book, he starts with identifying three key elements that are required to manage value on an active basis – these are:

  • Planning effectively for benefits realisation by ensuring the benefits claimed in business cases are robust and realisable – eliminating “delusional optimism” and deception (“benefits fraud”) by:
    • classifying benefits;
    • validating benefits;
    • connecting benefits to organizational strategies/objectives;
    • ensuring a clear and shared understanding among all stakeholders of the benefits they will be accountable for, and the business changes they will have to make to realise the benefits; and
    • ensuring benefits are translated into real business value.
  • Identifying and capturing all forms of value created, including:
    • financial/economic, social, and political value;
    • value arising from cross departmental benefits;
    • the value of avoiding “things gone wrong”; and
    • the opportunity value of infrastructure investments.
  • Realising the benefits, and going beyond benefits realisation to value creation by:
    • ensuring clearly defined, understood and accepted accountabilities;
    • tying benefits to departmental and individual targets and incentives;
    • regularly reviewing performance throughout the full life cycle – encompassing the project and beyond;
    • going beyond reviewing to actively looking for additional benefits; and
    • continually optimising the overall portfolio of investments in IT and IT-enabled change.

The book is organised around these three elements, within which it provides many valuable  insights, and a wealth of practical methods and techniques, illustrated with examples, and peppered with some great quotes. (You’ll have to read it yourself to understand the “fool’s errand” bit.)

While the book covers a broad range of topics, what reading it really reinforced in my mind is the fundamental importance of having a complete, comprehensive and credible business case – one that:

  • operates at the program level – including not just the technology but all the business, process, people,organizational and other changes  required to achieve the desired business outcomes;
  • is supported by a benefits mapping process (be it Fujitsu’s Results Chain, Cranfield’s Benefits Dependency Modelling, or some other) to “connect the dots” and facilitate understanding and “buy in” of the those who will ultimately receive the benefits;
  • contains clear and relevant benefits metrics, both lead metrics for intermediate benefits and lag benefits for end or business benefits/value;
  • includes consequences by tying performance against metrics to the incentive/reward system;
  • is not a one time “grab the money and run” document but a living, operational document – updated and used throughout  the full life cycle of the investment decision; and
  • is regularly reviewed for completeness, credibility and comparability by an independent body, such as a Value Management Office (VMO), who can challenge assumptions, assure the quality of individual business cases, and ensure consistency between business cases.

As I have said before, it is the business case that lays the foundation for success or failure. A well developed business case, intelligently used and updated throughout the full life cycle of an investment decision, has an enormous impact on whether value is created, sustained, eroded or destroyed. The current view of business cases as a”bureaucratic hurdle” that has to be got through in order to get required financial and other resources, after which it can be ignored, other than possibly at the post-implementation review – often more akin to an autopsy than a health check –  pretty well guarantees significant challenges, if not outright failure. As long as this view prevails, we will continue to have trouble getting out of the starting gate when it comes to realizing the full potential of IT-enabled change.

As Donald Marchand concluded in his testimonial to the book: “The big question is will public sector managers and executives have the “will” to put the book’s prescriptions and methods into everyday practice with ICT projects?” History would suggest that we still have much work to do before this happens – and not just in the public sector. Much of what I and others have been espousing over the last 10 – 20 years, and what Stephen presents in his book, is common sense – unfortunately, common sense is still far from being common practice!

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