The Covid Vaccine Journey: Miracle or transformational excellence?

It is fair to say we all owe a great debt to the brilliant work that has driven the development of the various vaccines that have emerged around the world in the past few weeks. Each of the three widely reported western programmes seems to have achieved their desired outcomes in 10-20% of the time that convention would suggest is required. History will record this as the latest example of brilliant teamwork delivering an outcome that set new standards in efficiency and effectiveness.

But what success factors helped these teams deliver so well, and what can we learn to help our own programmes deliver faster and more effectively? We assembled a list of nine components, most of which can be applied to every change or transformation programme:

1: Unlimited budget!

There’s no denying that this would help any programme accelerate, however, unlimited funding is almost never available, and even big budgets generally come with conditions en route.  CV19 differs from most ordinary pharma ‘R and D’ in that it had a ready and increasingly desperate market, coupled with a problem that was perhaps a little less challenging than some of the more intractable medical challenges. Other examples of accelerated delivery excellence we have seen have also benefitted from a combination of time pressure and relatively unencumbered funding, for example the ‘race for the moon’ in the 1960s.

2: Focus – absolute focus

Organisations can fill their time with process, procedure and non-core ephemera that distract or detract from efficient and effective delivery. By removing and isolating teams from the day-to-day (perhaps to off-site locations or project rooms away from the hubbub) focus is more easily achieved.  Focus is also about task clarity: many programmes and change initiatives are distracted by ‘can you just’ type requests. In the case of CV19 the target outcome was absolutely clear.

3: Association with purpose / outcome

People work better and with more enthusiasm when they truly associate with purpose, rather than simply go through the motions of a process.  Leaders should ensure that there is both a rational and emotional connection to what is being delivered by the change. Incentives for completion can motivate, but generally people are more motivated by the intrinsic reward of being part of a higher purpose.

4: A team that works well together

The most successful teams are often not made up simply of the ‘best’ experts available, they are designed from the ground up, first and foremost to work well together.

Teams fail to work well for a number of reasons:

Misaligned purpose can mean political and personal issues often stand in the way of progress with both entrenched views and uncertainties around the post-change world driving friction and dissonance.

Teams can also be poorly balanced in terms of missing (or over-subscribed) skillsets meaning things simply do not get done efficiently or effectively.

Covid-19 has shown us that a strong association with purpose can perhaps overcome political and personal issues as members of the team rally round the cause: the global collaboration on the CV vaccine has been unprcedented.

The balance of skills however must never be discounted in the first wave of enthusiasm and focus – no amount of positivity can overcome a missing component for long.  Another reason why deep pockets help is in building resilience: It is no coincidence that in sports the most successful teams often have bench strength, and military battles often go simply to the strongest side.

5: Time-criticality

Looming deadlines tend to accelerate teamwork and output.  Many readers will be familiar with the plot that shows how attention levels react to increasing pressure.  When pressure is low people relax; too high and they become over-stressed – either cracking, or making mistakes.  There is a sweet spot.  In long programmes breaking the marathon into the constituent miles helps, and in change early quick wins are massively affirming and confidence-building for all stakeholders.

 

6: Parallel processing

By identifying which activities can be done in parallel, outcomes can be accelerated and, importantly, a greater number of early ‘wins’ and accomplishments can be reported helping keep faith in the programme within and beyond the team.  For example, the construction of the pipeline from Yorkshire to the Kielder in the 1990s proceeded at record pace because of innovative parallel processing in the physical laying.

 

7: Take an 80:20 approach

In any project it pays to be clear on the elements that need only be ‘good enough’, versus those that are mission critical and must achieve excellence. It’s likely that the ‘good enough’ components may carry some risks; as long as they are declared and discussed then all proceed with an understanding of the risk versus reward on which such decisions hang.  It is not unusual for high profile IT implementations to fail at the ‘live’ point due to inappropriate corner-cutting in testing, or for risks to have been misjudged.  You may recall the Challenger shuttle explosion had in its roots some similar ‘expedience’.

 

8: Rapid sign-off

There is some debate that suggests the UK’s early vaccine approval was made possible because a number of the EU’s certification steps were not applied. If this was the case, it is unlikely we will ever know whether the EU rules were designed to add essential robustness or were in place simply to placate multiple stakeholders.  Whatever the case, many programmes are delayed at sign off because political issues have not been resolved or those needing to apply signatures have not been kept informed and ‘on-side’.

 

9: Smart thinking

Successful programme delivery is often characterised by a willingness to review process ‘in-flight’ and not allow methodology doctrines to unnecessarily dictate what happens next. Leaders of such programmes identify what can be accelerated and how it might be achieved, without letting such reviews delay the start of the journey, improving as they go.

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The list above shows that the triumph of the Covid-19 vaccine programme required no ‘miracle’. Unlimited budget is rarely an option but each of points 2 to 9 can be employed by anyone leading change or transformation, no matter what the scale, to accelerate activity and deliver well.

Employing some or all of these ideas will move any programme forward, but the role of the leader must not be underplayed. To fully realise the potential of each of the options above, leaders require a rare combination of skills. They must both inspire and relate to every member of the team whilst clearing the route ahead politically and practically. Together, these are the oil that keeps the engine of innovation and delivery turning.

Post by Craig Ryder

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