Throw another benefit log on the fire

Published 5/13/2021

A public admission… I’m a bit of a pyro. So, fire-oriented metaphors aren’t lost on me. When you build a fire, you start with small sticks and slowly work your way up to larger and larger logs as the base of the fire gets hot enough to bring larger mass objects to the point of ignition. When I think about the expectation of executives when it comes to the realisation of business benefits, the metaphor fits. Often we see people holding a match to a full size log and wondering why it won't light. So, they get the blowtorch out; maybe a bit of petrol to force it.

Many organisations battle with benefits. Either benefits aren’t being measured at all, or they are being measured, but they are too big or conceptual to land without a large amount of political mana to do so. Large benefits often come as a result of a large project and hence are open to manipulation. A big business case with estimated benefits that haven’t been tracked throughout the project can be “re-jigged” at the end to make these benefits “realised.” Or, these big benefits are so conceptual that the people in your business find it difficult to apply to their day-to-day roles.

Where it’s going wrong

Issues with benefits realisation appear in a variety of ways. Firstly - and probably the most common - is the “us and them” narrative between product/tech/delivery/business services and the rest of the business. This is a symptom of lost trust through the lack of, or poor, execution in framing benefits to the end user in the first place. 

Secondly, narratives exist around “benefit ambiguity” - often alongside agile delivery. Are you pouring millions into agile teams but unsure about what you’re getting? 

Thirdly, a lack of metrics linked to strategic goals and/or a clear understanding of the jobs to be done within the business makes it difficult to realise actual benefits. When these things are missing, there’s no post to tie your benefit horse too - or maybe more in line with the metaphor, no fire to toss the log onto!

Establish what’s important

A key first step to tackling benefits realisation is to make sure you’re crystal clear on organisational goals and how they are being measured (identify the fire). That doesn’t mean taking a guess yourself. It means getting in a room and agreeing with the stakeholders that matter. The answer is only part of the picture, the process of getting to the answer is the rest. Another key step (while you’re in the room) is to agree what is strategically important right now. No organisation can focus equally on all strategic goals simultaneously, and markets change all the time, so be clear on what’s important today?

Once you’ve established what’s important and how that importance is being measured, you’re ready to frame the benefits. Use small logs first. A small benefit to a single user in a single process is easier for the audience to extrapolate than a big benefit is to distill into something that’s tangible. The attraction is hard to resist, especially in a politically charged arena. Big benefits = big bragging rights, right? 

Some tips for getting this right - first time.

Use FROM and TO statements. For example; “prior to this sprint we have gone FROM Raul having to talk to four different people, extract data from three different systems, wrangle data for a week, and deliver a report which three other people had to reconcile to their source of truth and relitigate back and forth for another week, TO all users involved can now go to dashboard XYZ, and the latest, updated information is there for all to see in a format that everyone can understand.” 

Frame failure (better referred to as a learning opportunity) as a benefit by future casting the outcome had you continued. “If we had not pulled the pin on this project/failed fast during experimentation and continued on, we would have spent XYZ dollars and weeks unnecessarily.” 

Lastly, categorise benefits as either Direct or Enabling. Not all benefits are direct, let’s just admit it up front. So, be honest with enabling benefits. “Setting up the data pipeline means we are now able to begin creating dashboards to give business users the information they don’t currently have.”

As management consultants, we charge a fee, so we need to make sure that fee is justified and is delivering value for the benefit of the current and future projects we do together. Benefits realisation is important to us, so there is no need to question the why and we can focus on the what’s next. Then, together, we can add more benefit logs to the fire and build a bonfire where we are both enjoying the warmth it brings on a summer evening!

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