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Cover Your Back 2.0

Updated: Jul 9, 2022

When I was in my mid-twenties, I ran my first large programme. With a budget in the tens of millions, company seniors felt I should be given some training, so one of them was assigned the task. He called me into his office, and told me all I needed to know.

"Cover your back," he said. "Always."

"That's it?" I asked.

"That's it," he said.

Newbie managers wading through the PMBOK might find this refreshing. I found it disconcerting, but have to admit that it was good advice. My first programme came in ahead of time and under budget, and I went on to run more.

Now, three decades later, I'm being asked to play a similar role, and tell younger people all they need to know for successful programme management. What should I say? What is Cover Your Back 2.0?

I wish I could be as impressively concise as my own mentor. But rather than 3 words, I'll need 3 topics. The first two, I've written books about and will briefly summarise here. The last is more challenging.

The first topic is my theory of collaborative work that crosses boundaries, Human Interaction Management (2005). The 5 principles, also known as the 5 Cs, are:

  1. Commit. All stakeholders must understand their responsibilities, accept them, and fulfil them.

  2. Communicate. It's not enough to be transparent. Messaging must also be effective, which means communicating in a way that leads to the desired actions (rather than to wasting other people's time).

  3. Contribute. Different people contribute different things. Whether it's concrete or intangible, recognise inputs and thank people for them.

  4. Calculate. There's not enough time in the day to do everything. Constantly refine and adjust your task list to deliver maximum benefits.

  5. Change. Be aware when things change around you, and respond by changing your plans accordingly. More on this in the second topic, which expands this principle into a theory of its own.

It's vital that everyone in and around your programme adheres to these principles. Be aware (and beware) of individuals who don't, and intervene one-to-one to coach them with patience and empathy. If people cannot, or choose not to, respond to such interventions, there's nothing for it but to replace them - your resources are limited and poor behaviours may be adopted by others. To prepare for this possibility, document your interventions as you go along, in a thoughtful and fair way that others will understand if they need to.

The second topic is based on awareness of how everything changes, constantly, in unpredictable ways. Your funding can be taken away at any time or you might find find you need more than you were given. And you don't deliver into a vacuum - your real job is not to produce outputs but to deliver positive outcomes that lead to new behaviours that result in net benefits.

In other words, your job is to reshape the wider system around your programme into an antifragile community, in which change is an opportunity for improvement. This is the subject of my second theory Supercommunities (2021). Using an Agile, iterative approach, constantly ask yourself the questions below, shaping and reshaping the answers to

thrive on change:

  1. Understand Who We Are. What brings the community together? What does it mean to identify as a member?

  2. Seek Challenges. What issues can the community address?

  3. Sustain Capitals. What natural, industrial, and human resources can the community draw on? How are capitals sustained?

  4. Develop Assets. How can the community use its capitals to build assets? Who owns the assets? How is data on capitals and assets kept up to date? How are assets created, sustained, and improved?

  5. Engage Stakeholders. How can stakeholders help the community address challenges?

  6. Help Each Other. How can community members help others? How are such contributions recognised?

  7. Collaborate Effectively. See first topic above.

  8. Find Funds. To whom do assets deliver benefits? Could other benefits be realised? How are benefits valued?

  9. Own Our Data. How does the community manage data, learn from it, and share it to build trust?

The key enablers for a Supercommunity are transparency, momentum, and empathy. Share information frequently, clearly, and sensitively, and reward truth-telling by others. Impress everyone by moving faster than they expect. Then there is empathy ...

Soft skills help enormously in enabling a Supercommunity. To get stakeholders on side and keep them there, you must be aware (and beware) of their feelings. Talk to your team as an equal. Be sensitive to their personal situations and needs. Strive for a fair gender balance. Socialise with your team as much as possible and encourage them to do so with each other. Make them laugh. You may find some of this challenging, but it is vital to success. As John Seely Brown said, "Processes don't do work, people do."

The third and final topic is to always think at least two steps ahead. What will hit you tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year, you must identify and start dealing with today. Emerging changes are opportunities for your antifragile community, and the earlier you see them, the more advantage you can wrest from them.

Recognising emergent change early is both a skill and a habit, so practice it and stick to it. Like any skill, mastery will take ten thousand hours.

That's Cover Your Back 2.0. I hope you find it as helpful as I found the advice I was given, all those years ago.

Oh, and cover your back. Always.

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