Technological Change, Culture War and Corporate Failure

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I worked on an exceedingly large change programme. A small regional bank from Scotland had executed what is known in the jargon as a leveraged reverse takeover of a well-known English bank with a huge branch network. The ‘wee’ Scots were renowned for operational efficiency, acting as the back office for banking services offered by supermarkets and a high-profile conglomerate owned by a famous expat billionaire. The English bank had incredible brand presence and a substantial customer base but was hopelessly inefficient. The Scots has projected massive operational savings promoting huge shareholder dividend gains and had thus leveraged the sale. All they had to do was to execute one of the biggest change programmes in banking history

I landed in a team of contract project managers led by our redoubtable programme manager (let’s call him WJ) charged with executing one ‘small’ element of the overall programme. Our mission, which we had chosen to accept, was to migrate the details of 2 million bank customers from seven legacy systems to four new ones, over one of two long weekends: either Easter or Christmas.

That was the technical challenge, which was difficult and complicated but achievable. However, undermining our work a ‘culture war’ was playing out between the Scots and a few of the English. The Scots approach to project management and execution was light and agile. The English sought heavy and deliberate control, building on their intimate, proprietary knowledge of the legacy systems; they obfuscated and caused issues. Bear in mind this was all played out with the Scottish headquartered in Edinburgh and the English in London’s banking ‘square mile’. Internet usage at the time was roughly 10% of what it is now and the widespread use of smartphones was five years or more away.

I recall I joined the project in mid-2001, leaving in mid-2002, shortly after WJ parted company with the programme. The migration was attempted and failed once during my contract, over Easter 2002. It took a further two attempts before it was successful. To this day I believe the technological difficulty of the migration was responsible for at least two of the failed ‘cut-overs’, not helped by cultural issues. The roots of the other failed attempt sat squarely in culture. Simply put the Scottish and English tribes didn’t want to play nicely with each other, and the contractors acting literally and metaphorically as peacekeepers got caught in no man’s land.

The footnote to all of this was that the Scots, the Royal Bank of Scotland, failed completely in 2008 in the wake of multiple poor decisions laid bare by the GFC. The British government injected more than $90 billion of equity capital into the failed bank, with over $500 billion put into an asset protection scheme. RBS’s failure was attributed to poor governance and culture; not a surprise to those of us working on the migration programme of the early 2000s.

Six Steps in Leading Transformation

The project management team did a remarkable job in the circumstance we found ourselves in. WJ was an outstanding leader building on extensive experiences of delivering similar projects across the financial services sector and elsewhere, coupled to some professional development. I recall WJ was not a big fan of education and I suspect he is more a kinesthetic learner than anything else. One of my tasks was to support him in the development of programme plans and communication initiatives; I also stood in for project managers when they took leave.

Looking back, WJ intuitively and implicitly built his approach to programme management around the six transformational steps I reckon we all need to take if we want to change our professional selves or our business, or indeed to set up a new business. I’ve rehearsed those steps elsewhere, but they are:

  1. Understand your business

  2. Map change

  3. Understand the market

  4. Create stakeholder value

  5. Identify constraints and opportunities

  6. Create impact

WJ’s intuitive feel was built through experiential learning over more than 12-years experience of business and technology change roles. Since then he’s layered on 19 more years of experience in successful change leadership in some challenging programmes.

Fast-tracking Transforming Leaders

We can’t all be WJ. Sure, we can get the experience but for many of us it simply doesn’t register the level of success I know he’s enjoyed. He’s a remarkable human, and not just in programme leadership.

Without a depth of experiential learning and success, leading change is hazardous both for our businesses and our mental health. 12 years is a long time and the pace and scale of change we’re all seeing now won’t wait for us.

Across all industry sectors and all sizes of business, we need leaders who can transform businesses and we need to transform leaders themselves

You Want Certifying You Do: Transforming Leaders

One of the best ways to develop a successful transformation is to follow an appropriate and carefully designed programme of knowledge and skills development that is personalised to you and your problems. The planned programme should include close networks of people tackling similar challenges or having similar desires or needs and led by an experienced mentor. The programme leader should have not just an in-depth knowledge of business and life but the experience of transforming leaders, business and life.

Programmes such as these often lack genuine connections to the real world. Many people who lead them don’t have the life experiences and will rarely walk through challenges with you. A few celebrate your achievements with an accredited award; many do not.

Seek out someone who invites you to a personalised transformation that will work for you, celebrated appropriately.

The Transforming Leaders Programme offers a six-month course of intensive, practical and pragmatic training in transformational leadership. Mentored by a master of professional development who has led large-scale change, the programme covers:

  1. Strategic Thinking for Transformation

  2. Leading Strategy Design

  3. Leading Strategic Change

  4. Enabling Organisational Transformation

  5. Business Model Transformation

  6. Strategic Planning

Working with fellow participants you’ll develop practical usable knowledge and skills that will transform you and prepare you to lead business transformations. And your Certified Transformational Leader award is accredited by the Chartered Institute of Management.

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