More than any other sector in the world (with the exception of perhaps the public safety and the military sectors) change control is vital in the financial services sector, without reading the rest of this blog I think the majority of people would agree with me. After delivering multiple projects in tightly controlled environments I think it is a topic worth more than a cursory glance. In this blog I am going to consider why change control is important to business process owners and what it means when trying to deliver projects in your own tightly controlled environment!
Why is it important?
In the last 12 months we have seen multiple system outages in core business systems of large high-street banks which have had far reaching effects both on a financial level as well as a reputational level. 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 not just about making sure you have a test environment that reflects your production environment or making sure that you have evidence that your testing has been completed successfully. It is also about awareness around what you are trying to do and the effect 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 - 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 team’s 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 it mean for project delivery?
Delivering your project whilst adhering to string change control is a major challenge. 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 maneuvered in order to deliver the project. This reaches right to the core of the project from original estimates, impact assessments, viable backout plans to the testing and final delivery process.
The worst thing that your project team can do is to underestimate the impact that a tightly controlled environment can bring. A simple oversight such as coming across an unanticipated set of technical restrictions like a firewall for example can set a project back months.
“Months” sounds harsh and perhaps many would disagree and think that a trivial problem like that is not indeed a problem however consider this; if you are delivering a solution in a network that is used by millions of 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.
So what are the main pitfalls?
There are many areas that you need to take into account when dealing with your tightly controlled project environment and of course being realistic, experience and some self-awareness are what will help see you through most of this pitfalls. But three pieces of advice come to mind from my experience.
Project Self awareness
This is key - It is vital that your project is self aware about what you are trying to achieve versus what is happening elsewhere in the business whether it be other projects or change freezes. It sounds like a basic task however the number of time this simple check is overlooked is quite high.
A good way to make sure that both you and your project are self aware is to assign the key players in the project the task of “keeping their ear to the ground” on specific areas. 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!
Proactive change research
Its 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 your project effects. I doubt very much that many UK based high-street banks were allowing any changes during the major banking outage we saw last year.
By making sure you have a coherent plan at all times, can clearly articulate your proposed changes and are able to react proactively to new risks then you will give the business and change administrators confidence that your project is not a risk to any rise in the level of change control.
Well documented plans and stakeholder buy-in
Normal project documentation is sufficient to ensure that your project is managed well but a proactive risk register and up-to-date proposal documents are the key to ensuring that your key change stakeholders are on board. 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 your change requests are complete, correct and confidence inspiring are great at making your 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 othersectors 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 not 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!