Spot the difference

Recently I was fortunate to have the opportunity to sail a small yacht across the Atlantic Ocean and back again.This provided a real break from the day job of helping clients implement and manage major change programmes. Real in so much as being away from email contact for two and a half weeks. When was the last time that happened to you?

Reflecting on this adventure, I wonder how different it really was to managing a complex change programme.

Objectives – Clarity on what we were seeking to achieve

The normal project sets its objectives in terms of time, cost and quality, which were echoed in this project alongside some different nuances. Time was critical, we wanted to complete the journey quicker than Columbus had (36 days) and had a deadline to be in the Caribbean by Christmas. We also differed from Columbus in that he had no real idea where he was going when he set off, a disaster for any traditional change project.

Health and Safety took on an entirely new meaning. Safety was uppermost in our thoughts as, being in the middle of the Atlantic provides very little opportunity for rescue if something goes wrong. It made us think about the risks we would take on and how we would cope with them.  Health was vital and needed accurate planning to ensure we had the right nutrition and exercise and stocking up on medicines and first-aid equipment.

Quality was a key factor in our objectives.  In this project we thought of quality in terms of having time and space in which to think. When all you can see is the sea in every direction and the nearest people to you are on the International Space Station – you know you have some space!


Prior to developing a plan for a change programme, we need to ask a series of questions in order to build up an idea of the critical path. In a complex change programme this might include questions which consider all of a programme’s dependencies and mapping the most effective way of integrating them. Our plan required us to answer some fairly basic questions regarding day to day survival. We would have no opportunity to replenish resources en-route so needed a comprehensive stock of produce. It is not often that you are so far from a convenience store for such a long period of time.

Questions such as: How long will it take? What will the weather be like? How many crew will we take? What did we expect to break (people, sails, equipment…hopefully not in that order) and so what spares would be need to bring?

We did something that looked remarkably like scenario planning before we set off to the supermarket in Spain to buy food (our first contingency plan necessary here to navigate the choppy waters of a Spanish supermarket when none of the crew spoke or read Spanish!), the chandlery for boat bits and the chemist for morphine.

Assembling the team was critical. A basic level of technical sailing skills was important, but the ability to work as a team was essential for all of us, not least the skipper.

Finally, our plan was complete and our last task before leaving Europe bound for the Caribbean was a final check to make sure we had everything.  It felt very much like ‘Readiness for Service’ check before going live with a new product!

And so to Sea/ Managing Risks, Issues and Resources

Like any project, we then had to negotiate the length of time we took against the quality of the outcome. The faster we could go, the quicker we would arrive, thus putting less strain on our resources. With a water capacity of 400 litres (about two bathfuls) between four people for three weeks, husbanding our resources was vital and speed was of the essence.  However the faster we went, the more likely we would be to break things – which could then result in disastrous consequences. We had to actively manage risks as they came along, recognise when we needed contingencies and compromise short term goals to keep  us safe and the project on track.blog02a

Risks came in all shapes and sizes, from sprained muscles in a back, a full blown Atlantic storm with 15m waves to the sublime peace of a 15m Sperm Whale surfacing within 20m to have a look at us. Each required different planning and well-rehearsed execution of responses.

Whatever else, part of my job was to manage these risks, support and drive the team forward, motivate and get the team working together.

Managing Stakeholders

Long gone are the autocratic days of Captain Bligh, where the Captain is only answerable to God and the crew did exactly (and only) what they were told.  To make this project succeed and achieve everyone’s objectives we had to consider what people would need as they went along and where they were required to be emotionally on the journey.  External stakeholders were made up of families at home, work commitments and others who required communications as we progressed.

We also had to manage, and respond to, the environment we were in.  Sailors are a notoriously superstitious group of people, and we are always at the mercy of Poseidon (the Sea), his son Aeolus (the wind), Apollo (the Sun), Artemis (the moon) and Zeus (the sky) and Athena (wisdom).  They needed appeasing and we needed to draw on their strength.

The celebration at the end, where we appeased Dionysus (God of wine), was like the post implementation party – did we really do that??  Were we crazy??

Post Implementation Review

Whenever I look up at a clear night sky, with Venus twinkling to the west, the unmistakable Pole Star and the refreshing friendliness of Orion Marching his way across the sky in relentless pursuit of Apollo, I think back to what we learnt about ourselves, what would we do differently next time, whether the next one would be as challenging and how soon could we do it…?

Ok – it’s all over now and so back to the day job, or did I ever really leave it?