Tunnel vision

How good are organisations at ensuring that their change initiatives actually result in the ultimate benefits they intended, against a constantly shifting market backdrop?  And how good are Project/Programme Management professionals at keeping benefits foremost in our minds when managing risk?

In this three part blog, I argue that risks to benefits realisation from outside the direct scope of the programme have particular importance for many large, long-term initiatives, and yet may be under prioritised. To address these risks, organisations need a sound understanding of how outcomes cause benefits, and any assumptions these links are based on. It requires planning approaches that are rigorous, but potentially to some extent flexible, and relies on proactive monitoring of disruptive risks which may be external to the programme. The purpose of this thread is to stimulate discussion on the issue and possible approaches.

The Channel Tunnel, which opened in 1994, failed to ever get close to averaging 20 million travellers a year as it had projected. Even before the first train had passed through the tunnel, EU aviation regulations had been revised to allow easier access to European airspace, triggering a boom in low-cost airlines and drawing customers away in droves. The tunnel programme was successfully delivered, but by the time it was operational the market landscape had changed, in such a way that the benefits attracting such investment never materialised.

In his Spectator article, David Starkie predicts that the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail programme risks becoming another costly ‘white elephant’, as by the time it is completed in the late 2020s/2030s, the relatively modest travel time reductions and extra capacity expected may be superseded by technological innovations such as driverless cars.

An initiative can fail to deliver its intended benefits, even if it succeeds in delivering outputs, outcomes and/or capabilities. On massive, highly complex initiatives found in national infrastructure or defence for example, should we not devote more attention to any risk which could make outputs obsolete before they are operational? How closely was the tunnel programme monitoring developments in air travel, and did it appreciate the risk they represented?

When (if?) the first HS2 trains are eventually running, driverless cars may be fairly commonplace. In such a timeframe, more radical developments yet may emerge, such Elon Musk’s ‘Hyperloop’, a somewhat terrifying proposal to fire people through vacuum-filled pipes at 700mph. Musk claims that travelling from London to Edinburgh could take as little as 50 minutes, which would render conventional rail travel obsolete. Whilst I would seek to avoid making any ‘we’ll-all-be-living-on-the-moon-by-1985’-style prophesies, given the pace of disruptive technological change, or indeed political upheaval, how should massive and lengthy programmes protect the benefits they seek to create from such risks?

In part 2, we will focus in on this subset of risks to benefits and examine how they impacted a major aviation programme.