Sticks and Stones Will Break My Bones…

…but keychains and logos do not a business change deliver. I’ve been ranting on this topic for as long as I’ve been blogging but rarely, if ever, have I actually blogged about it. So count this as “been a long time coming”.

In government (maybe that should say “Whilst working in government”, lest you think I was actually “in government”) I used to lament that “Having a policy is not the same as delivering one”. Too many long in the tooth mandarins would believe that making a pronouncment was the same as it coming true – for instance, “we’ll deport all foreign, non-resident, criminals at the end of their sentence” or “we’ll pay the right amount of tax credits to all those who claim”. The work would go into crafting the words behind the legislation but not into ensuring that the legislation had the right effect and worked on the ground in real circumstances. That would be like, as an example, a big computer vendor releasing a piece of software designed to make your system more secure that actually increased your exposure to hackers and having to fix it later. Oh, hold on, that happens all the time (and it doesn’t matter with o/s you have)

So, if having a policy is not the same as delivering one, then having a catchy programme name with an accompanying logo isn’t the same as making change happen. Yet how many programme teams spend their first couple of weeks coming up with that “catchy name”? Catchiness is in the eye of the beholder of course. Internal names mean little to external eyes which is often the point, especially in takeover or security situations, although even that seems to be changing:

Discontinuing Protection of Unclassified Project Names

In keeping with the spirit of Executive Order 12958 to protect only the informtion that must be protected in the interests of national security, the Chief, Office of Policy has determined that there is not sufficient cause or justification to continue to protect unclassified project names. Therefore, effective immediately, UNCLASSIFIED project names (i.e. VICTORY, BEANPOLE, etc.), will no longer require protection with the FOUO caveat when separated from the classified project descriptions.

Who knows what people were thinking when they decided that the very word “Victory” might need to be classified? Nelson must have turned in his grave that day. And, as for beanpole, nothing like creating a project name that is fully disassociated from anything.

Victory and Beanpole might, however, be examples of better than average project names. When it comes to “business change” (cue Twilight Zone music) projects, folks get far more creative. As the Intranet Portal Guide says, “The name should sum up what the project is all about and build on your vision”, before going on to say that names drawn from Greek Gods lead the pack (amongst a 14 page slide deck that comprehensively explores planets, dances, “e”words and more). Having worked for a telecommunications company named “Mercury”, messenger of the Gods and son of Jupiter, I know all about that.

I’ve seen names of explorers (that, sadly, usually provoke more of a snort of derision when the true history of the hero’s efforts are better understood); complicated acronyms spelt out by people desperate to make all the letters in the word “Euclid” mean something to someone; attempts at humour (that often combine acronyms too – I’ve seen “Muppets” spelt out 3 different ways in 3 companies in the last 5 years) and then project names that mean something to the people involved, an almost Freemason-like nod and a wink about something going on internally. I’ve been guilty in the latter case myself with “Caledonia” (whilst the project was highly successful, the name was consigned to the bin within a week in favour of calling it actually what it was – the Government Gateway).

So here’s a parable about project names:

The executives in a big company (thinking about ut, “the executives in a company” will do just fine) start a huge business change initiative. They pull a crack team together and give them the task of revolutionising the sales approach, integrating end to end with their suppliers, harnessing the power of the organisation and driving down costs in every aspect of the operation. The team get together to think about the brief. Their first task? Choose a name for the team and, ergo, the programme. It needs to be something catchy. Something to rally around. Something clever, funny almost – but only to the insiders; those who get the joke. After all, what’s a programme team if it can’t be a clique?

Soon after the project name has been chosen, communications briefs are prepared, pens with the logo embossed on the side and security card chains that proclaim the new name are ordered. The team festoon their digs with the logo and come up with more improbable acronyms to highlight what they’re trying to achieve: anyone for “Customer” aka Caring, Understanding, Sustaining, Till-ringing, Open, Mindful, Excited and Rubberising (ok I made a couple of those up)?

Any organisation of more than a dozen people quickly finds they have 1 project name for every 2 people in the building. Within a couple of weeks, no one knows what anyone else is talking about anymore. Project names are swapped like business cards at an evening at the Chemistry Club. People confuse project “Focus” with project “Approach” and Nutkin collides with Amoeba in everyday sentences; no one is quite sure whether Mars is further out on the timetable than Venus or whether Jupiter can go ahead without any further approvals, it being the chief god of course. The comms team for each go into overdrive to make sure that their project stands out. More pens are ordered – this time bigger and better. The colours on the logo are made bolder and an A0 plotter is ordered so that bigger posters can be produced. Soon, posters adorn every corridor in the building.

Plainly change is afoot. All of the activity all around only goes to show that. With all these projects underway, surely the organisation is destined for great things? Monthly reviews quickly descend into farce as projects compete with each other for executive attention. The organisation is so busy reporting progress on the snazzy new templates issued from the central team that all effort is diverted away from making progress to report what would have happened if everyone had actually been able to do work that month, rather than report progress. Competition increases for executive time. The early templates are dispensed with and each team starts to use their own, hoping for ever greater quantums of time. The executives are lulled into a false sense of security – they see their people scurrying around, always too busy to meet to talk about progress and assume that all is going well.

Some months later, it’s plain that nothing is changing. The troops in the trenches, the men with spanners, the people in the call centres, have all been oblivious to the efforts focused on achieving change. They’ve been carrying on, doing what they do, making the calls, fixing the engines, paying the bills, reconciling the accounts. But they’re doing it the way they’ve always done it.

Management realise that their organisation has misled them, that they’ve employed a series of (mis)directors who could go up against David Blaine. They issue an edict:

No more project names. Just call it what it is. Revolutionary, some would say.

If you’re changing your customer call handling project, they say let’s call it the “Call Handling Improvement” project; if you’re speeding up debt payments, call it “Making Debt Payment Faster”. If you’re furthering university clustering consistency (don’t even think of using an acronym), then say that’s what you’re doing.

The executives go further and require that the set of projects running at any one time in the organisation have to fit on a page, including the one line description of each. Anytime a new project arrives, it has to bump another off the list.

Further still, they insist on a single, consolidated communication on progress with every achievement backed up by visual, tangible proof from within the organisation that something has happened.

Monthly reviews get shorter and sharper; progress gets visible and doesn’t need to be written about so much. People take to attending progress reviews rather than sending the deputy’s deputy’s chief of staff’s assistant graduate. The organisation swells with pride as they see real change happening. Other organisations copy them and soon a revolution is underway. Books are written with titles like “Back to basics”, “Getting it done”, “Just doing it” and so on. Tom Peters even has a slide on it in his latest deck – with no acronyms in it and only one exclamation point.

Pen and keychain companies go out of business. There’s a national outcry about the loss of jobs in this under-appreciated industry. Workers, who have made keychains, with their own hands of course, as man and boy, cry for the TV cameras as they lament the lack of support for this once great industry. They blame the government, without realising that government continues to be their only customer but, alone, was unable even with its largesse, to prop up the industry. Even the government had struggled to come up with a catchy name for the ID cards project, rejecting “project barcode everyone” early on (despite that perhaps fitting the idea of just say what you’re going to do).

UK companies go from strength to strength and start to lead the world in productivity and performance. Even the Chancellor is seen to smile and nod sagely about how his “better regulation taskforce” had come up with the policy of banning project names.

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