Saturday, December 29, 2007


is the eponymous title of the work that describes a method refined by the author, Robert Brinkerhoff, for quickly finding out what’s working and what’s not.

I was attracted to it while reviewing the different methods for conducting case studies. Case studies attained respectability as a tool for understanding, diagnosing, and solving (or attempting to) real world situations. Harvard University’s graduate-level programs (its MBA, for instance) legitimized its use as a management tool.
"The Case Program at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, is the world’s largest producer and repository of case studies designed for teaching about how government works, how public policy is made, and how nonprofit organizations operate."
Case studies are widely used by management and boutique (niche players) consulting firms. McKinsey & Company, one of the most prestigious ones, employs it not only for client work but also during their hiring process.
"We use case studies to assess your problem-solving skills. They can also give you insight to what we do."
The Success Case Study Method (SCM) is a straightforward method for evaluating a change. The term, “change management,” is a discipline that grew from the need to understand and manage changes. I’m not trying to make you dizzy with circular reasoning here but as management tools go, it couldn’t have been named any better.
Change management is about managing change! One practicing change consultant, Fred Nickols defines “change management” as:
  1. The task of managing change.
  2. An area of professional practice.
  3. A body of knowledge.
  4. A control mechanism.
SCM focuses on the first definition, the task of managing change. Mr. Nickols expounds on this in a very precise way:
One meaning of “managing change” refers to the making of changes in a planned and managed or systematic fashion. The aim is to more effectively implement new methods and systems in an ongoing organization. The changes to be managed lie within and are controlled by the organization. (Perhaps the most familiar instance of this kind of change is the “change control” aspect of information systems development projects.) However, these internal changes might have been triggered by events originating outside the organization, in what is usually termed “the environment.” Hence, the second meaning of managing change, namely, the response to changes over which the organization exercises little or no control (e.g., legislation, social and political upheaval, the actions of competitors, shifting economic tides and currents, and so on). Researchers and practitioners alike typically distinguish between a knee-jerk or reactive response and an anticipative or proactive response.
Typically, when a change is introduced, some aspects of the change’s consequences will work. Others will fail. Management-speak for introducing a change is a “change initiative.”
Management-speak, by the way, is our generation’s way of getting even with the younger generation’s use of text message phonetics.
@mosFER = atmosphere or l8r = Later
SCM seeks to understand why some aspects worked while others failed. Would that information be useful? It definitely would especially to the decision makers as well as to everyone who has a stake in the success of the change initiative.
Incidentally, the latter are referred to as “stakeholders” in management-speak.
SCM’s usefulness is particularly effective when you apply it to partially successful initiatives or to initiatives that cost a lot of money and time to plan and implement. Why? It’s because SCM, when properly used, can ferret out the facts and present its findings about the initiative’s results. Other case study methods may do so as well but SCM is a structured and proven method of accomplishing this. This is SCM’s niche.

SCM and other case study methods lay in the middle of the fact-finding spectrum. To the left are hunches, guesses, and tidbits from the grapevine.
I trust everyone 12 years and older knows what “grapevine” means.
To the right are formal reviews, audits, and studies. The methods on the left are too casual and leave too much room for error based on incorrect information. The methods on the right are expensive and time-consuming. They also tend to provide too much information and take so long that their results may come too late.

How does the Success Case Method (SCM) work?

First, it uses inquiries (e.g., surveys and interviews) to answer four basic questions:
  1. What’s really happening?
  2. What results, if any, is the change program producing (in other words, what consequences are occurring)?
  3. Are the results of value?
  4. Could the change initiative be improved and, if so, how?
Second, it documents the results and presents it.

That’s it!

Why is it called the Success Case Method (SCM)?

It’s called that because it studies the successes (i.e., the success cases). These are the groups or individuals that appear to have reaped the most benefits of the change.

SCM’s first task is to identify the success cases. Its second task is to learn how and why these parties succeeded relative to the rest of the population. Part of the second task is also confirming that the parties initially identified as success cases are indeed successes.

Success, in this context, refers to achieving the results that the parties who planned and introduced the change intended.

How do you conduct the SCM?

Five major steps are involved:
  1. Plan the study. Define the purpose and scope of the question that needs to be answered.
  2. Create a model of the “ideal,” in other words, what success should look like.
  3. Design and conduct the fact-finding process (typically a survey) to search for the best and the worst cases.
  4. Learn their reasons for being the best and worst cases. Document your findings.
  5. Communicate your findings, conclusions, and recommendations.
You will have to read the book to delve into more detail. The author wrote clearly. He presented it in a way that was interesting enough. That's praise considering that case study methodology is a rather dry and topical subject.

Under what circumstances is SCM best used?
  1. When the findings must be discovered quickly, relatively inexpensively, and be supported with verifiable evidence. In short, to dig up enough information to make a decision about the change initiative.
  2. To highlight results and accomplishments
  3. To provide models and examples that can motivate and guide others.
  4. To identify best practices and add to the organization’s knowledge base.
Under what circumstances is SCM not a suitable tool?
  1. When the findings rely heavily on quantitative measures. There are many quantitative survey methods that are more effective. SCM, however, can be used to supplement (not supplant) the quantitative results.
  2. When all of the participants or subjects must be surveyed. In fact, step 3 of the five major steps, requires you to limit the study to a particular subset of the participants.
  3. When the timing for doing the SCM is inappropriate. In many instances, the appropriate timing will depend upon the nature of the change initiative and the manner in which it was deployed. Obviously, some time must pass after an innovation has been introduced before you can expect it to have an impact. On the other hand, it makes no sense to conduct your SCM years after a semi-annual bonus program, for example, was implemented.
What are the cost components of SCM?
  1. The interviews. This is typically the most expensive and time-consuming component. It also requires the most skill and professionalism.
  2. The actual survey. This is second to the interviews in terms of expense and, frequently, time consumption.
  3. The scope of the study.
  4. The identification of the subset.
  5. The documentation.
My personal experience

I used SCM to evaluate the feasibility, for a struggling residential homebuilder, of using auctions to liquidate his growing, finished inventory. At the time of this writing, the construction industry (residential homebuilders in particular), has been contracting for the past 18 months. At this time, conventional wisdom portends another 12 to 18 months of drought before demand catches up with supply.

My client, the homebuilder, was roughly in the $10-million dollar revenue range. As of September 2007, he had 20 unsold finished homes at an average price of $250-thousand each. These homes started accumulating nearly 12 months before I conducted my SCM. When you do the math, it’s plain to see that he was in dire straits. Fifty percent of his previous year’s revenue was stuck in unsold inventory! (20 homes at $250-thousand each equal $5-million!)

It took only three weeks to complete my SCM. The findings pointed to an unambiguous recommendation of yes! Auction the homes. And do it before Thanksgiving!

Unfortunately (for him), he chose not to. As far as I know, he’s holding on to those empty homes and meeting his obligations through a short-term line of credit. Maybe he knows something I don’t. Maybe he withheld some information. Maybe he doesn't realize how risky it is to use short-term capital to fund long-term debt. Oh well...

Regardless, SCM proved itself to me.

Read the book!

In no way am I being compensated by the author, publisher, or any other party. As a matter of fact, neither the author or publisher know that I'm posting this entry. They will, after it's posted.

Speaking as a consultant and change agent of many years, I believe that SCM is a versatile tool that belongs in the toolbox of any management consultant or business analyst.

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