Adapt or fail: How to manage scope on major programmes

Andy Cooke Sean Stewart Jonathan Coles

By Andy Cooke, Sean Stewart, Jonathan Coles

This article is the first in a series providing practical advice to Senior Responsible Owners, Programme Directors, and Programme Managers at the helm of major transformation initiatives. In this article, we focus on the challenges of managing scope on major programmes and provide recommendations to improve the likelihood of programme success.

The term ‘scope’ describes the managed aspects of a programme. A clear understanding of scope provides focus, identifies where investment is directed, and sets responsibility for managing change throughout the programme’s lifespan. It also aligns the programme with an organisations’ strategic objectives, and clarifies the programme’s aims.

Leaders recognise the importance of a clearly defined scope of work, but scope definition is fraught with difficulties that, if not properly addressed, result in a lack of clarity. The knock-on impacts include delays, cost overruns, increased stakeholder tension, and a loss of sponsor confidence – all making it harder to effectively manage the programme and fulfil its goals. Why is scope so hard to define, agree, and manage – and how can programme leaders tackle these issues?

The difficulty with scope definition

Defining scope is tricky for multiple reasons. First, major programmes are long-term exercises that, from initial concept to outcome delivery, can run for a number of years. Over time, shifting external factors influence the programme’s direction. These factors (including changes to strategic spending priorities, new entrants to markets, and policy or legislation reforms) cause instability in the programme environment and call for repeat re-evaluation of aims and objectives.

In addition, scope is defined in the early stages when it’s not always possible to fully understand what needs to be transformed. Programmes are frequently initiated with a high-level strategic objective that provides purpose and direction, but lacks detail. Major programmes, particularly those involving IT transformation, may also rely heavily on new, emerging capabilities that aren’t well-established or familiar. This lack of understanding can hinder scope definition and fail to engage the right stakeholders responsible for the associated change.

Relational dynamics between stakeholders play a significant role too. Major programmes typically span multiple departments and organisations, each with different responsibilities, contributions, and influence. Stakeholders have their own strategic and operational priorities which may conflict with programme objectives. These competing ‘end games’ can limit achievability.

Adopting an adaptive stance

Traditional approaches to scope definition assign tasks to specific parties – but this doesn’t always work in unstable, multi-stakeholder environments. Major programmes demand an adaptable approach, underpinned by a shared purpose and culture, to manage the high level of instability. Here, we outline three recommendations for successful scope-setting:

1. Take a modular, iterative approach

Establish a modular approach by dividing the overall programme scope into smaller parts that can be more easily defined. This involves grouping together parts of the scope into specific modules, and separating out areas of greater uncertainty versus those that can be more readily defined. Module definition can happen iteratively as capacity and understanding allows, enabling the overall scope picture to build up over time. From here, programme leaders can understand areas of high and low uncertainty for accelerated and slower development approaches. Any strategic change can be considered quickly at modular level, helping programme leaders to quickly organise teams and supplier contracts, manage major integration points between modules, and set module governance boundaries in line with overall programme governance.

We supported a UK Government Department to implement an organisation wide Identity and Access Management Service as a critical enabler for technology interoperability with allies and partners, by implementing a modular approach to scope definition. This enabled the department to get initial funding approval much more quickly by acknowledging the uncertainty about scope in the early stages by seeking approval against high level modules only. Implementing an iterative strategy to scope also enabled the department to easily accommodate the latest technological advances as they became available, while keeping the programme on schedule and to budget.

2. Use proactive change management processes to manage interventions

Robust change management processes are paramount for any successful programme, establishing a stable change framework able to navigate the inevitability of change. This also includes proactively identifying external factors which may necessitate change, enabling programme leaders to plan for change as opposed to reacting as it arises. This continuous assessment validates the relevance of objectives and scope while protecting the programme’s strategic direction.

We helped the Dreadnought submarine programme to implement a pan-government approval process for major contracts, streamlining the traditional layered approach by assembling an empowered, cross-departmental group with decision-making authority. An intensive briefing phase ensured robust investment decisions were taken, enabling the programme to move forward with clarity across a highly complex environment.

3. Achieve common ground to drive the right behaviours

To address differing objectives and viewpoints, find common ground and a compelling purpose for everyone to unite behind. Finding common ground requires extensive coordination, negotiation, and consensus-building among stakeholders with differing perspectives, interests, and agendas. Striking a balance that satisfies all parties while ensuring the overall success of the programme is a delicate and time-consuming process which needs to be sustained through the life of the major programme. Once the purpose is agreed, communicate it in pragmatic ways everyone can relate to, including impactful storytelling, simple visualisations, reminders in team meetings, and user journeys that bring ideas to life. This enables a relentless, shared understanding of what needs to be achieved.

A powerful example is the COVID-19 vaccine programme, which brought together different groups behind a shared purpose to vaccinate the UK’s adult population as quickly as possible. We supported NHS England and the UK Government to achieve this unprecedented feat, working with teams across NHS England to bring industry expertise, strategic insights, and practical support to turn this ambition into a reality. Setting a powerful sense of purpose from day one drove and motivated each team member to bring their best to the programme.

While scope can be tricky to define, it’s a vital task that can swing the needle of success. With a flexible, adaptable approach, major programme leaders can protect the robustness of the programme over time and bring stakeholders on board. In the next article in this series, we’ll explore the impact of ‘cost and schedule’.

About the authors

Andy Cooke
Andy Cooke PA implementation expert Andy is an expert in the delivery of complex technology enabled transformation programmes
Sean Stewart
Sean Stewart PA defence and policing expert
Jonathan Coles
Jonathan Coles PA programme management expert

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