The Magical Three Year Strategy

Most people overestimate what they can do in one year, and underestimate what they can do in ten years
— Bill Gates
  • How long does it take to replace an antiquated system that has been around for decades? 3 Years
  • How long does it take to build a strategic system that could leap frog the competition? 3 Years
  • How long does it to take to transform your organization to Agile? 3 years
  • How long does it take to do anything that requires large strategic investment? You guessed it, 3 years.

What gets presented is a Gantt chart that looks something like this:

Phase 1: Will be delivered 9 months after the money is secured and will deliver something called the "framework"

Phase 2: Will be delivered 6 months after Phase and will delivery the first valuable delivery

Phase 3 (where the magic happens): Will get delivered at the end of the three years and will deliver all the value

What actually happens:

Phase 1 gets continuously delayed until a senior manager threatens that heads will roll.  In order to meet said manager’s expectations, Phase 1 gets rebranded to Phase 1a and the scope is cut by 30 percent.

After 2 years, Phase 1a eventually gets delivered and drinks are had.

Discussions about how this is not working and about how to wrap it up nicely begin to replace other discussions.

One or two PM casualties later the project is shelved and another system remains to be decommissioned by another 3 year strategy.

I understand now why the answer is always three years. It looks great on a deck, and is neat and tidy. That's not what interests me. What I find fascinating is how intelligent, well-paid managers can sign-on to something they know is not possible over and over again.

Do people really believe it? Does it take three years to forget? I know the people presenting the three year strategy don't really believe it. So what is their motivation? Simple: They want the money. They are not going to get millions in investment if they tell the simple truth: it will probably take about a decade to do what we promise on page one of the deck. So they promise the impossible.

My assertion is that major banks are part of a system that is beholden to share price and providing shareholder value. CxO’s don’t have a long shelf life, 3-5 years. Their attention span is, understandably, 3 years. They are not going to sign-off on a very expensive program that will last longer than their perceived tenure.

Don't get me wrong, you can build lots of stuff in three years. It just takes far longer to realize the benefit, which is often the reason you start the project to begin with.

If your plan is to replace many systems with one system, or build a platform that will leap frog your competitors, chances are it will take at least twice as long as you have quoted on paper.

The tyranny of the waterfall; The illusion command and control; The belief in magic; and The era of opacity.
— Ken Schawaber discussing the four obstacles

If any of the above rings true to you, your project is doomed to fail before you begin, and your time is better spent tidying up your existing infrastructure.

Make it last...Toilet paper financing

Money is like toilet paper, if you have too much you will waste your resources and run out very quickly. Give a person an allowance of one roll of toilet paper and they will make sure they use their limited resources appropriately. Give them too much (e.g. 30 million in the first year) and they will waste it on cleaning up spills in the kitchen.

Give the team as much toilet paper as they need and no more. Down the line, they may have Mexican and need twice as much toilet paper. That’s fine. But the key is to make it last the 5-10 years that will be required to actually execute on the strategy.

You can also avoid the above by going "tactical"...

Why do tactical projects live forever and strategic projects die young?

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.
— Gall's Law


  • They start with a well understood business problem. We need a system that allows us to enter market X or that can allocate via fix/swift or we need a way to see all our clients positions across many disparate systems.

  • Sense of urgency

  • They use existing infrastructure or buy something out of the box.

  • Because it’s tactical, you don’t spend a year building a future proof architecture or gathering requirements. These things are done on a JBGE (Just barely good enough) basis

  • They fly under the radar

All of the above means that the system is up and running very quickly and the feedback cycle is short.

So this solution, let’s call it, Back Office Reporting aGregator, or BORG for short is now in production and is used for equity client reporting.

What happens next is how BORG grows. Manager A is talking to Manager B about wanting to do a transaction store. Manager A says you should “check-out” BORG, it’s tactical, but it has aggregated client positions. All you have to do is extent the feed to include transactions and voila you have a transaction store. It’s tactical, but you can use it until that strategic solution is complete.

BORG now has aggregated client positions and allocations.

Next an operations manager says if we can get fails data and so on and so forth…

Before you know it BORG is being fed by every major system in the bank all while waiting to be replaced by the strategic system, which gets attempted many times but never ever succeeds.

Strategic Programs 

Now, let’s look at projects that fail. You can usually spot some of these doomed programs through the name alone. They usually begin with:  Cross asset class, Global or Strategic

Let’s make up a fictional project to highlight what usually happens. We’ll call this project EnterPrIse Cross Functional Asset Integration Layer (EPICFAIL).

EPICFAIL has many of the characteristics of large programs in investment banks that get started and stopped every day.

  • A weighty deck prepared by a reputable consultancy. Usually bound in one of those thick white binders

  • Lots of senior oversight and governance

  • Long requirements gathering process with lots and lots of sign-off in blood which of course leads to even longer sign-off processes because people know they only get one chance

  • Strong change control process

  • Big expectations and promises

  • Distributed and silo'd teams with some matrix management thrown in for good measure

  • Politics between technology and change management

  • Architecture oversight

  • Really good project manager/program manager to hold it all together

  • A three year deadline

I leave you to draw your own conclusions :)