Soft capabilities underpin hard outcomes
Helmsman recently worked with an Australian resources company with international operations in remote and inhospitable environments.
Effectively managing operations ‘in the field’ is an essential part of this business. Managing their equipment and assets, and ensuring operational efficiency on-site has a direct effect on financial results.
What appeared to be the problem?
A significant technical issue emerged within one of the client’s field operations. The issue had existed for some time, though was not recognised as a potential risk to operations. When it was picked up, an unclear process for resolution created a significant opportunity for misinterpretation and thwarted expectations.
Ambiguous technical data and blurred accountabilities led to contradictory conclusions, then delays in escalating the issue to senior management resulted in frustration and a charged situation between the business areas involved. While the issue was eventually resolved in an engineering sense, it left a trail of division in its wake. In the client’s words, the way the solution was reached was “not very elegant”.
Helmsman were asked to investigate the ‘ways of working’ that the client had used and how they could be improved. Superficially, this could have been interpreted as simply as what the engineering solution should be. However, upon investigation, it was clear the client had a talented technical team and determining the engineering solution was well within their capability. By not taking things at face value, we were able to uncover a difference between the perceived cause and the actual problem.
Helmsman applied our Operating Model approach to this challenge.
A key benefit of our Operating Model approach is that it doesn’t over-emphasise technical capabilities such as governance and process, which can often ‘put the blinkers on’ technically-oriented businesses. Instead, it complements ‘hard’ capabilities with “soft” dimensions of the challenge such as leadership, accountability, areas of ambiguity and executive alignment.
Through engagement with a range of people involved in resolving the issue – from the field teams to engineering designers and risk managers, it appeared that there was more to be discovered.
What was really the problem?
Analysis of the ‘ways of working’ revealed the root cause was tied to asset ownership issues and an operating model failure.
Examining these underlying issues, we recommended improvements across each dimension of our Operating Model, including:
- Improving clarity of accountabilities within roles and simplifying process participants
- Refining risk management processes and their application
- Reassessment of risk tolerance thresholds
- Streamlining the way communications are handled, from both process and behavioral perspectives.
Three key learnings can be taken from this case:
- What, at a superficial level, may appear to be a set of simple issues, can in reality turn out to be a very complex system of overlapping challenges. Relying solely on a technical or engineering perspective would not have yielded this insight. Similar observations are common in our Project Performance Diagnostic where businesses with strong technical foundations have great strength in ‘hard’ disciplines such as project management and technical capability, and less around social and contextual challenges.
- Ensure that you have diagnosed the right (and root) problem before embarking on solutions—or you could be answering the wrong question. In this instance, without addressing the root cause issues, similar issues would likely have recurred across various areas of the business, resulting in the same internal challenges, ‘inelegant’ solutions, and detriment to organisational relationships.
- The key drivers of complexity and eventual success for technical issues are often found in the ‘soft’ dimensions of the complexity system: “Social”, “Contextual” or “Ambiguity”. These dimensions are frequently critical to success—especially in the early stages of project development, where value is defined and leveraged most strongly. Satya Singh pointed to this in his recent blog: “If you’re looking for project value in delivery, you’re already too late”. There are many advantages of an holistic approach to project performance that balances the impact of ‘soft’ factors, as well as more traditional ‘hard’ factors like project management and technical capability.
Complexity Conquered is Helmsman’s blog, focusing on understanding and managing significant and complex projects.
Helmsman are the experts in complex project, contract and asset performance. Helmsman’s Project Performance practice has deep experience in understanding both the complexity of specific projects and identifying the Complexity Cliff in organisations, and developing approaches to ensure capabilities and controls appropriate to your project needs are developed and maintained.