David Colbear

Clairvoyance, delivering projects and the benefits of a discovery mindset

June 12, 2018

Sometimes when developing a large delivery programme we are asked to provide specifics about what we are going to be doing in 9, 12 or 18 months. It’s an understandable question. As a procurement officer you want certainty about what you are paying for.

But – to be frank – if someone can answer that question, they are either clairvoyant or an absolute beginner at delivering projects. As I’ve found on many occasions, it’s hard to stick to a plan on even the shortest project. Changes come at you thick and fast – data isn’t available, new (and often more urgent) challenges emerge from your analysis, political priorities change, and you can soon get stuck in project quicksand.

At iMPOWER we go into large programmes with a focus on our client’s long-term goal. We make sure we take time to develop a shared ambition with our clients about what our objective is, and then develop a set of primed metrics to monitor our progress. However, when it comes to planning the programme, we are deliberately more ambiguous.

Let’s be clear, we’re not making it up as we go along. We have a clear plan for the life of the programme, with a high degree of detail for the first 25-50% of it, and a broad plan for the remainder. But we work with our clients to create what we call a ‘discovery mindset’.

A discovery mindset is about the programme leadership being comfortable with not always having a fully mapped out plan for delivery, but instead designing and creating safe spaces for the programme team and stakeholders to participate and contribute in. The key thing is ensuring that the project achieves its objective – not how we get there.

The advantages of this approach are that it:

  • Creates space to pilot new ideas, but also space to tweak them (or step back from them) if there is a sense of doubt about their outcomes
  • Allows parallel activity where the best ideas get taken forward
  • Enables flexibility in resource and activity to take account of changes that can’t be predicted
  • Encourages creativity as people build on what has been learnt to try new and inventive things
  • Enables participants to challenge plans. A fully detailed, fully costed, fully resourced plan that has been committed to by everyone can be hard to unpick if unexpected events take place. A discovery mindset allows the flexibility to change tack when that is what is needed.

Let me leave you with the story of my loft (bear with me!). Early in 2016, with one small child filling the house with plastic toys and another on the way, my wife and I decided we needed more space for working at home and for guests to stay. The best solution was to convert our loft. We drew some pictures of what we thought was achievable, and then brought in some professionals who turned them into something much better. In the autumn of that year, the builders finally arrived. On a regular basis, they asked us questions about the details as they put the plans into place. Once the building was complete, we decided which colour best suited the new space, got a decorator in, and then decided where to put the furniture and hang up some pictures.

My point is this. Aside from some obvious restrictions like cost and time, it is the objective that is important, not how you get there. We didn’t know at the start what the layout of our loft would be, what colour the carpet would be or where the furniture would go. We just knew that we wanted more space and what we wanted to use it for. The same principle can be successfully applied when a local authority is embarking on a big programme: focus on the objective, and use a discovery mindset to get you there.

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