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I was at a conference recently where I was facilitating a round table discussion to CIOs on managing cloud transformations, and then later doing a presentation on how to build future workforce capability.
An ex-colleague and friend asked, “What do you know about cloud transformation?” – bit rude... yet it was more about the organisational change side of cloud transformation than the technology – and I do know about organisational change.
When I was free to go to other sessions, I scanned the programme and went to a session that I thought looked interesting. Always keen to get a ring-side seat, I went for the front row, and the session turned out not to be what was advertised – either because I had in fact gone in the wrong room (a distinct possibility) or the speaker decided just to talk about something else (another distinct possibility). Being too polite to walk out, I stayed put and sat through 40 minutes of a technical presentation that I just did not understand. It was not all lost, however, in that I came out with a couple of free A5 faux Moleskine notebooks (you know the type) and a few free branded pens (can never have enough of these).
The only thing I did pick up in this "40 minutes of my life I won’t get back" session was when the presenter mentioned, in passing, the ‘Three-Fs Business Case’. What is the F in the Three-Fs business case? No matter how hard I try, whenever I say the "F-F-F business case" I always sound like Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs. Go on: say it out loud and say it quickly: "F-F-F business case, Clarice"!
So – what is the F-F-F business case? The three Fs are Fear, Fact and Faith. I have been trying to locate the source of this approach to cite, yet I cannot for the life of me find it. If anyone does know the original source, please drop me a line as I would like to read it. You can email me at email@example.com.
The basic idea is that investment decisions can be made on one or all of:
Fear – of not doing something. For example, not upgrading the technology, or not entering into a new market when the competition is. Fear can be linked in with Fact – the cost of inaction.
Fact – using data to inform decisions. For example, quantifying the ROI to show the business case is robust.
Faith – making decisions based on non-quantifiable benefits. For example, knowing something is right, hunches, faith – though you may not have all the data to back it up.
Thinking about my own experience, I was recently making a business case to my director and it was premised on Fear of continuing to do the same things and expecting different results (the classic definition of "madness"). On reflection, it probably had more Faith thrown in: “I’ve been here many times before and it didn’t work, so we need to do things differently”. By the end of the discussion, it was all down to Fact (quite rightly so, in this case) – get the data to make the numbers work! Data-enabled decision making.
Yet what has all this to do with project management and leadership? If we think about who makes the investment decisions on a project, there is a clear view it is the sponsor. This may not be one person (as good practice states) and the final decision may go through additional levels of governance, yet it is safe to say a senior individual is required to sign off the business case. Moreover, we expect leadership from this decision-maker on our project. And leadership includes making balanced Fear-Fact-Faith decisions – not just Fact-based ones.
Think for a minute what a business case actually is. It is a punt. It is a punt on something we have no guarantee will turn out to be profitable or beneficial. At the start of a project, the business case can be a lot of faith and/or fear, but maybe not much Fact (unless it is a compliance-led initiative – like GDPR – when the facts are easily quantifiable in terms of financial penalties. In this case, a whole load of fear is mixed in also). We can get some facts around time, costs and ROI to try to get some certainty that the business case is robust and the project is worth doing or continuing – yet when was the last time one of your projects came in exactly on time and budget? Therefore, the business case is still a punt!
I am all for data-enabled decision-making and using data to make better decisions (in truth, it needs to be done more), yet let’s not get too obsessed with certainty when certainty does not exist.
Therefore, even with a semi-fact-based project, we start with a lot of faith. And here is the true leadership role of the project sponsor – to have faith in their project and their project team. As long as this faith is not "blind" (i.e. trusting in something without any evidence), then it is major leadership behaviour to support and be an advocate for the change they are accountable for.
At the end of the day, maybe our project sponsors/leaders all need to take a leaf out of George’s Michael’s songbook when it comes to business cases, otherwise we may end up asking for certainty we will just never get.
In his own words: “Cause I gotta' have faith, faith, faith...”
To find out more about how QA can help build your capability and capacity in project management, drop me a line at QAL.OrganisationalConsultancy@qa.com.
Dr Ian Clarkson
Ian has worked with some of the world's largest organisations in all sectors and has been with QA for 16 years.
He was an author of the APM BoK 6 and a referenced reviewer to the most recent update to the PRINCE2 and MSP publications. Ian was on the technical advisory board for the development of the APM Higher Apprenticeship in Project Management, and also for the update to the APM suite of certifications for BoK 6. Ian is a regular blogger, podcaster, and contributor to the APM as well as the Project Manager Today magazine.
When he’s not helping organisations transform, Ian reads the latest articles and research on the topic. Maybe he should just get out more instead!
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I'm OK – You're OK: How to have adult-adult conversations in the workplace
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How does psychology affect business decisions?