More than any other sector in the world (with the exception of perhaps the public safety and the military sectors) change control is vital within financial services. Having delivered multiple projects in tightly controlled environments it is clear that this topic is worth more than a cursory glance. In this blog I am going to consider why change control is important to COOs and what it means when trying to deliver projects in a tightly controlled environment.
Why is change control important?
We've recently seen multiple system outages (i.e. the RBS Group outage in 2012 & again a similar disruption in 2013) across core business systems in large high-street banks which have had far reaching effects financially and reputation wise. I'm not saying that a lack of change control was responsible for the outages however in the world of software and IT the only way to combat and reduce these unforeseen and costly problems is to adhere to strict change control and to use the financial term, checks and balances.
Change control is vital to ensure you keep your projects on track without disrupting other business functions and more importantly not compromising your customers or your reputation. It's not just about ensuring tests have been performed or delivery documentation is completed, it is vital to have those yes, but also about awareness around what a project is trying to do and the ramifications that any change may have on other systems, your customers or even other projects.
With properly implemented change control you create an environment that welcomes the question why, builds confidence in your projects and aids the creation of your business vision - which is incredibly important in a tightly controlled environment like the financial services sector.
But be careful!
The flip side is making sure that you are not stifling your business innovation in an attempt to control all changes. This is a delicate and fine balancing act - allowing for innovation in a tightly controlled environment. I won't go into this topic in more detail now but suffice to say, from my experience this is most definitely possible with the right attitude, the right change processes and an open mind.
What does change control mean for project delivery?
Delivering projects whilst adhering to string change control is a challenging. Not only does the delivery have to be right in all cases, the project must take into account the extra hurdles that have to be successfully traversed in order to deliver the project. This reaches right to the core of projects from original estimates, impact assessments, viable back out plans to the testing and final delivery processes.
The worst thing that your project teams can do is to underestimate the impact of this. A simple oversight, such as coming across an unanticipated set of technical restrictions like a firewall, can set a project back months.
OK "months" sounds harsh and perhaps many would disagree and think this issue too trivial to result in such a delay however consider this; if one of your projects is delivering a solution in a network that is used by millions of your customers with billions of pounds traversing that network on a daily basis, any deviation from a plan can result in major rework required, redevelopment and further change control - a costly oversight indeed. Worse still - imagine if that change went wrong!
The main pitfalls...and how to overcome them
Whilst there are many areas you need to consider when dealing with projects in tightly controlled environments (self-awareness and experience included!), from my experience there are three major pitfalls, the impact of which are often underestimated.
1) Assuming a project will not impact others
It is vital that your project teams are self-aware about what they are trying to achieve versus what is happening elsewhere in the business whether it be other projects or change freezes. It sounds simple but the number of times this simple check is overlooked is quite high and this can result is lengthy delays when it is realised at the last minute which inevitably increases your project costs unnecessarily.
Tip - A good way to make sure that both you and your projects are self-aware is to assign the key players in projects the task of keeping their ears to the ground on specific areas and not just at the start of a project but all through its lifecycle. Log what you hear and review and address them as risks to the project. The more information you have coming in, the less likely you are to be surprised by something new!
2) Underestimating the impact of internal and/or global market events on projects
It is not just about internal research but also taking external factors into account. Especially in the financial services industry, global market events can mean big changes to any project regardless of what area a project resides in. I doubt very much that many UK based high-street banks were allowing any changes during the major banking outage we saw last year. It is not possible to account for every eventuality however risk management and forward planning are crucial here.
Tip - By ensuring projects have a coherent plan at all times, you can clearly articulate the proposed changes and be able to react proactively to new risks then you and your change administrators can have the confidence that your projects are not at risk to any rise in the level of change control. This could mean fleshing out "what/if" scenarios or simply creating an incredibly detailed implementation plan that can be applied to any scenario.
3) Not keeping change stakeholders informed and up-to-date
Normal project documentation is sufficient to ensure that projects are managed well but a proactive risk register and up-to-date proposal documents are the key to ensuring that key change stakeholders are on board. A project that does not engage with their stakeholders enough can often fall fowl of delayed approvals owing to a stakeholder's lack of understanding or (at its most basic level) not accounting for missing stakeholders on leave!
Tip - Change stakeholders by their nature are very often not close to the day-to-day running of a project so ensuring that information they have it up-to-date is key to their approval process. Making sure that change requests are complete, correct and confidence inspiring are great at making project changes run smoothly through the approvals process.
As I mentioned earlier, the financial service sector is but one on a list of sectors that are tight with their change control and to be very honest I can completely understand where this need for change control comes from. Should other sectors pursue such an extensive change control system? Maybe not - if your change control mechanisms work for you and your industry then there is no need to change them.
However what I would suggest is regular review and tweaking of change control mechanisms to ensure that there are no gaps and also you are not preventing your business from growing by stifling innovation with too much control.
My final word on the topic is to make sure that if you are delivering a project in a tightly controlled sector like the financial services sector - do not underestimate change control, embrace it, work with it and of course don't allow it to stifle vital innovation that could see your business get that competitive advantage that can make all the difference!