Dave Jepson considers the change management lessons highlighted by the cancellation of the northern leg of the HS2 project.

As a northerner I have a personal view on the merits, or not, of HS2. The release of today’s non-news regarding the cancellation of the proposed programme much beyond Birmingham will be welcomed by some, and berated by others. For my purposes here, that is by-the-by.

I caught a brief item on the BBC News yesterday that reprised briefly the reasons why the programme might be stopped, and, yet again, I was struck by the recurrent themes that often derail complex change.

1 – The original case was overly optimistic on benefit and cost.
2 – Costs spiralled, not least due to scope creep, but also due to an approach to costing that was, apparently, overly cursory.
3 – Context changed: here’s the real rub, and one on which we have counselled many clients: the longer the programme, the bigger the risk.

Grant Shapps was right to say that the Government could not have foreseen Covid or the Ukraine conflict, but to not have provisioned for any very significant change in context would seem either optimistic or naïve.

That said, we at Partners in Change have been involved in many major transformations where the same presumption of enduringly clement conditions prevailed to the exclusion of any other possibility.  Even the driest deserts have rain now and then.

But one thing to be recognised here, and possibly applauded, is the willingness to rethink.

Hold aside the political argument for long-term investment in infrastructure as a good thing in itself. Any major investment, and particularly one predicated on a long period of spend before any significant benefit is realised, should be reviewed for continuing cost-benefit, and more generally in terms of changing opportunity-cost.

One of our services is Assurance, and down the years we have seen many examples of ailing ‘pet projects’ which really might have been put down, or better treated, far earlier.

What stops this happening? Often it is emotional investment, or a desire for the original dream still be true. Say what you will, it takes a hell of a lot of resilience and self-belief to stop a big investment, particularly one with a lot of stakeholder and personal emotion attached.  And mark this, every failed project you ever saw – and there have been plenty, is one that could have been stopped, but wasn’t.

So, if you’re currently sponsoring or leading a major change programme, resist for a moment the temptation to judge the HS2 decision, and instead take the opportunity to reflect.

Is your change clear on the real cost-benefit? And have you already established the circumstances under which you might decide to stop? Finally, is it structured so that you can stop early, with benefit, if you need to?

I do wonder where we might have been had they started building from Leeds, or Manchester?  It might have been a more powerful statement of intent, but it might also have been harder to reverse out.