Why lack of accountability puts your change programme at risk

By Amy Finn

Change programmes are part of corporate life. Every once in a while organisations take the difficult and costly decision to replace technology systems, develop new products, re-structure or focus on different behaviours. The disciplines of project and programme management have been developed to try to simplify and structure these large, complex and necessary changes.

But all too often they don’t deliver the anticipated benefits. Research by Forbes research into reasons for programme failure include lack of strategy, lack of alignment and lack of cultural alignment. In my experience, the real reason that many change programmes fail is lack of genuine accountability. Even when organisations have invested money, had difficult conversations and mobilised teams, they fail to nurture transformation in a way that will make it successful.

Here are three ways to create the right conditions for success:

Make one person accountable

This sounds obvious, but in some cases surprisingly doesn’t happen. At one central government department, I asked a Transformation Lead if he could name the people accountable for each of the 40 programmes in his transformation portfolio. He admitted he couldn’t. This meant he had no one to hold accountable if the programme wasn’t progressing to plan, or didn’t result in the benefits anticipated.

Collaborative organisations often promote team accountability. But this can mean a collective failure to take individual responsibility for programme success – in other words, no one feels on the hook for real ownership. There should be one person whose role it is to ensure programmes have the visibility, energy, people and financial support they need. 

Show people it’s important

Even once decisions have been made to invest millions in a change programme, it’s amazing how little time and focus organisations often give them. At a recent one-day team event for an airline, the programme lead for a multi-million investment in IT transformation was given just 10 minutes to provide an update on progress. Having worked on many large transformation programmes I know from experience how difficult it is to get time with senior teams to consult, gain feedback and check progress.

So why isn’t change given more of a focus? The answer is simple – it’s usually that ‘business as usual’ is the priority. And business as usual is busy.

Leaders must ensure that transformation is the focus of more conversations. They should truly sponsor and nurture the programme team so they have a clear vision; give up time to talk about the programme and advocate its benefits. Make clear that failure to change isn’t an option.

Ensure the programme team know their job is to make it everyone else’s job

Another reason that change programmes fail is the very fact they’re seen as ‘programmes’. They’re viewed as activity that’s entirely separate to delivery of business as usual – often worked on by a separate team of contractors or consultants. That gives the impression transformation is a time-bound event that’s someone else’s responsibility. But for change to stick we need hundreds – sometimes thousands – of employees to think and act differently. So it’s essential that it’s everyone’s responsibility to make it a success.

That means programme teams shouldn’t be too internally focused. Their role is not to ‘do to’ the organisation, but to help employees take ownership and personal accountability for making it a success. That means giving them proactive roles in making the change happen – from updating processes to delivering engagement sessions to help people understand the change and how it will impact them.

Change is part of our everyday lives and requires time, resource and money. So make people accountable. We’ve seen individuals rise to the challenge when they’re given real responsibility for making something happen.

About the authors

Amy Finn PA people and talent expert

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