Assurance: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Assurance is a vital component of change delivery, and therefore an essential delivery competence, though, all too often, like a visit to the Doctor, it is applied too late. A recurrent theme for us at Partners in Change is that prevention is better, and cheaper, than cure – but you do need to make sure it’s the right prevention!
At PiC we have, across our careers, variously been consumers, purchasers, or providers of, and contributors to, programme assurance. When we set about designing our own service in this area we reflected on all of these perspectives, seeking to optimise the good, whilst designing out the bad and the ugly.
Assurance works best when the individual assurers ‘know their beans’. We have all had experience of more junior, or less seasoned, ‘box tickers’, who are able to see a plan, but not to assess whether or not it is a good and appropriate plan for the change at hand. As in many walks of life, the best assessors generally have plenty of hands-on experience themselves.
Even then, the ability to contextualise is important. I often advise clients that the best assurers can walk into the room and not only smell smoke in trace quantities, but also advise as to whether the smoke is good or bad, and then whether and how quickly action needs to be taken. What is bad in one situation, or one organisation, may be less of an issue in another, or at another moment.
Assurance is there to help organisations manage risk, but the best service aims not to score points – literally or metaphorically, but genuinely to help improve delivery. The provider will often have their own objectives, particularly if they are a well-known brand, and what can appear to be over-zealous is sometimes just cautiousness over the risk of future come-backs.
And in the best assurance there is some art as well as science: the ability to interpret the many pieces of information, and to see any patterns, and then to trace those back to their essential causes, is vital. Reflect on the aftermath of pretty much any disaster and raking through the ashes observers and assessors will often suggest that ‘the signs were there’. These signs are not always circled in bright red, and well illuminated; more often they are subtle and not so obvious – the skill in assurance is detecting these, and making the right calls, not being deceived by shadows and spurious outliers, or attempts to cover trails.
Bad assurance comes in many guises, and often it’s consequent to the ‘blind’ leading the ‘one-eyed’. If you really don’t know what you’re doing, or what you need to look out for, then seeking an assurance partner leaves you open to a poor purchase. Even in this case, common sense can still prevail, and it’s ‘caveat emptor’; take time working with your prospective partner (internal or external) to explore what is required, and how it will be delivered, before you commit. Even these exchanges can help you build confidence in your partners’ expertise, and also their behavioural fit, as well as your own certainty about what you need.
Some potentially good assurance can be spoiled by poor attitude, or poor positioning. The assessors’ behaviour is important – this should be helpfully critical but does not need to be cold or overly judgmental. Paving the way for the partners to land and do their job is also vital – ideally assurance is positioned as helpful, not as a stick with which to beat people: too often, whatever the initial intent, the latter situation can develop.
Bad assurance also has parallels with bad ‘bedside manner’ in medicine. The doctor appears, does some prodding and poking, makes knowing noises, orders more tests, but barely engages to explain any of what is going on. We often hear clients complain about assurance that arrives, explores, disappears, then drops a fifty-page report on the desk. The measure of effective assurance is not the thickness of the report, it’s whether the delivery is more successful as a consequence: reports are memorials to the endeavour, the physical justification of the fee. They may help convey messages, but they rarely drive the changes required. Ideally assurance is an ongoing dialogue, and any final report merely summarises that conversation, and reinforces how the learnings will be applied, and if they aren’t to be applied, then why not.
Assurance becomes ugly when the motivations are poor, or unsupported, and when the method and approach is ill-conceived, leading to poor outcomes.
Assurance should be motivated by a desire to help delivery, rather than to provoke or add energy to wars between functions. The risk in this later case is that the assurers get caught in a political minefield, and findings can become polluted or corrupted. Ideally, in this circumstance, the assurance partner sees this risk and refuses to engage, but they may not, sometimes because that darker motivation is well hidden, if realised at all.
Poor method will also lead to ugly outcomes. To return to the medical analogy this is akin to the wrong tests being applied to the patient, potentially leading to either false positives, or false negatives. Again, expert partners should not be falling into this trap, but clients who are self-diagnosing can occasionally lead assurance astray, and not necessarily consciously or with any mischief in mind. Teams with something to hide will also occasionally seek to distract or deflect. Providing the assurance partner with ‘AAA’ permission is vital, and with the right positioning delivery teams should welcome this: beware teams that are hesitant or resistant – however well founded their rationale may appear to be.
The final and most damning aspect of ugly assurance is when it fails to make a difference. It may be down to engagement or the report process and structure, but the assurance partner can often only go so far to make sure lessons are learned and applied – their tenure on the ground is often relatively short. Like the doctor prescribing a course of action, the patient has to follow-through with their side of the bargain. Even if assurance is ongoing, so that there can be some ‘policing’, the onus is still on the client organisation and the programme to make sure that issues are addressed, and recommendations are put into effect, so that the desired outcomes are realised.
Aficionados of Sergio Leone will be aware that ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ was preceded by ‘For a Few Dollars more’. Anyone embarking on assurance would do well to ask the question, would a few dollars more help? Our experience is that money spent on assurance is rarely poorly directed – even if only for peace of mind, and recognition of what IS working, as well as what is not, but that is not to say it’s always wisely spent, or adequately funded. So, do invest, but invest carefully, in assuring the right things, in the right way.
If you’re interested in exploring how to get the best form your assurance, please get in touch