Setting-up for success

Early season vineyard near Sant Pere de Ribes, Catalunya, Spain

Many times I have been involved in programmes where fundamental decisions are being made quite far down the line. So far down the line that the cost to mediate the consequences of not having made the decisions earlier can be very high. These often are decisions that concern scope, for instance. Or governance. Or on resourcing strategy. And so on.

There are some very basic things, though, that we should get right at the onset of an engagement. Just like we cannot create a great wine without spending significant time and money setting up the vineyard.  I suggest, it is worthwhile spending at least the first 2-4 weeks to get the basic elements right.

This 2-4 week period I would simply call the Initial Analysis and Set-Up Phase. Sounds easy, but it is crucial for the programme’s success.

There are some basics that we should cover early on and should be properly understood by those who sponsor the programme. It clarifies what we want to achieve and how. Things like:

  • Clarity on who the key stakeholders are
  • Understanding of what ‘success’ for the programme means for those senior stakeholders and how we will measure that success
  • Agreeing a comms structure that engages the key stakeholders and their interest
  • Being very clear on the scope. What is in scope and what expressly is out of scope.
  • Agreeing how the programme will be governed. Most likely on different levels and perhaps differently for different programme phases.
  • A detailed programme plan with agreed resources

Let’s talk through these in order.

Key Stakeholders, success criteria and stakeholder plans

A workshop with our sponsors and/or programme director will tell us who have a real stake in the success of the programme. We need to ensure we have all stakeholders identified. That is not as obvious as it may sound. They need to represent all the different parties and interests of the organisation. If, for instance, the CFO is the main sponsor of a global ERP implementation (which they often are), we must also engage the COO and the operational directors in each of the key geographies. It is very likely that these stakeholder groups will define success differently. Where the CFO might be focused in her bottom line and cost savings, the COO might be more interested in minimal disruption to his business. We need to understand all inherent tensions that exist early on. Wicked questions are the perfect way to express these issues.

It is essential to play back where there is agreement and where there is divergence in opinions. Because then we can create associated plans and interventions that keep exploring these agreements and tensions and it enables us to build the best possible a governance structure where these tensions are represented.


Often problems are caused that it is unclear what exactly is included and what is excluded in the programme’s scope. Often, this is deliberate. After all, if senior stakeholders disagree on some important elements of the objectives or success criteria, it is much easier to postpone talking about it until much later. Particularly, because often some of these items have been ‘undiscussable’ for a long time. Even worse, in my experience, it is not unlikely that some of these tensions are at the core of why the programme has started anyway!

But, it is clear that it is much easier to address any scope issues early on. Because, one way or another at some stage, the scope boundary conversation will happen. But, by that time much might have been invested in the programme and changing or tightening the scope is both financially and politically much more difficult. This can, for instance, have serious budget issues.

Agreeing the scope, including what is expressly out of scope, early on makes that the programme’s governance structure can deal with clear boundary issues when they emerge. Change orders can be agreed, with new budget, time and so on, agreed between the key stakeholders.


It is often assumed the governance is clear. It rarely is. Governance happens on multiple levels, with multiple different stakeholders. Overall programme ‘gate’ decisions will be made on a programme board level. The programme board may meet every quarter or every month or so. Operational decisions may need to be made on a much shorter time frame. This can be related to a specific part of the programme (e.g. a deployment), or design decisions regarding the architecture of the solution, or the change of a global process. Each of these decision areas requires its own governance board or team. Often operational or tactical decisions need to be made much closer to the ‘shop floor’, requiring a dedicated working group of sorts.

The key of a good governance model is that the terms of reference of each level are clear, and include how the escalations and integrations between these levels work. They need to be agreed up front. With clear participation. And include who has the decision rights, agree rights, recommend rights, and so on, for each type of decision. This creates clarity early on. Before key issue emerge that ‘in the heat of the moment’ can cause communications to break down (for instance). And often bring the programme to a halt.

Even when this governance structure is well established, it could well be that for different phases of the programme, the structure needs to change. For instance, if I am in the design phase of a new global operating model, I may require a different governance structure, from when I am implementing the agreed model globally.

Programme Plan

With the scope nailed and the governance model agreed, we can start to create the programme plan. This is also important, of course. This must be a fully resourced plan, which includes both programme and business resourcesat least to the next major gate. Because without that commitment to mobilise the right resources at the right time, the programme starts very lopsided and can be in trouble before all is started or ends up with expensive external resourcing treading expensive water!

With the Scope and the Programme Plan we can start the first gate meeting (‘kick-off gate”) with the programme board. These key elements, including the governance structure are signed off and we can start mobilising the teams(if we hadn’t started that yet), including all agreed business resources, governance structures and so on.

This all sounds very logical and easy, right?

It is surprising, though, how many programmes I have run into where investing this initial period is frowned upon or where lip service is being paid to scope, governance and so on.

And this is how issues start at the very onset.

Do you have good or bad experiences with initiation and set-up of programmes and initiatives? Does some from this post resonate with you?