You have probably heard the story. The passengers waiting in the 50-seat regional commuter jet are somewhat surprised when the Pilot and Co-Pilot walk in, each wearing dark glasses and carrying a white cane. “Must be a prank,” the passengers reassure one another.
A few minutes later, as the jet gathers speed and begins to thunder down the runway, the passengers wait for that little reassuring tilt that tells them the aircraft has rotated and is heading for the sky - and it doesn’t come. Those seated by the windows start to panic; the runway is disappearing with terrifying speed.
At last it is all too much. Screams of terror fill the narrow-bodied jet - at which point, up goes the nose and the plane leaps skywards. As the panic subsides, a voice is heard through the cockpit door.
“Frank, one day they aren’t going to scream until it’s just too late, and then we’ll be off the end of the runway…”
So why not Google ‘implementation success rate’, as I just did, and see how many corporate programmes of all kinds never make it into the air.
Most of the analyses of programme failure I have ever seen, suggest either that the technology involved is flawed (a minority) or that those driving the implementation somehow lack competence (a majority). In terms of our story, that is like saying the plane is defective or that the pilots lack skill; which means solving the problem requires upgrades to the technology or the leadership - or both.
I would like to offer an alternative suggestion.
The real problem with most implementation programmes (technology, software, strategy, whatever) is that those driving the process can’t really see where they are going or what they are doing with respect to the organisation as it actually is, and are therefore relying on the screams of those around them to know when they have gone far enough.
It is rarely the technology or the plan that fails. It is true that few programmes have the leadership they need, but that is not because of a lack of technical aptitude. The real problem is the inability of most leaders to simply understand themselves, let alone the people who make up the organisation; and therefore their difficulty in seeing how everyone - leaders, individual employees, teams and larger units who make up the organisation - might be able to address the required change and successfully adjust their understanding and their behaviours.
Unfortunately what we are most blind to is our own blindness. So even if we realise that people were somehow involved, we chalk up another one to ‘the vendor’, ‘failed leadership’, ‘change resistance’ or whatever; when in fact all we needed to do was understand the people who make up our organisation, a little.