As published in Forge magazine in early 2019

Kiah MD John Glenn spoke to Forge Magazine in early 2019 about how Kiah is bridging the gap between the public and private sector.

John Glenn knows the value of managed risks better than most. In his 23-year career with the Australian Army, he jumped out of planes, had a stint in the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) and served with the United Nations in the 1990s to disarm the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

‘I’ve learned over the years that being too safe can be unsafe,’ says Glenn. ‘Major projects can often come unstuck because organisations won’t change or be flexible. They lack the confidence to innovate or adapt for fear of increasing risk.’

After leaving the army, Glenn’s work ranged from multibillion-dollar conglomerates to a telco start-up. He discovered a talent for strategy, project recovery and negotiation, but he missed the sense of purpose that he had enjoyed in the military, and established Kiah Consulting with the singular focus of assisting in the better delivery of public services. Kiah now has 35 staff members that assist some of the largest government organisations and companies to take calculated risks to achieve better outcomes or get troubled projects back on track.

‘We spent a decade building small teams to address individual projects and have ended with a consulting model different to most,’ says Glenn. ‘We focus on critical thinking and developing executable strategies, then creating teams with the know-how to implement these strategies. Our consultants are practitioners rather than advisers, with eclectic backgrounds from IT and communications, through to chemical engineering and environmental science; leaders who are impatient to deliver.’

Kiah has an enviable reputation. Over 90 per cent of its engagements are repeat work and, unusually, it holds multiple commendations from the Department of Defence – an honour usually reserved for employees. The Canberra-based firm recently opened a larger office with purpose-built training and negotiation facilities, and has teams operating from Adelaide to Brisbane.

Bridging the public and private sectors

Kiah specialises in initiatives across the public–private sector boundary, advising from ‘concept to contract’.

Its work is often complex and large, with its value measured in hundreds of millions of dollars. In one project, Kiah assisted a government client to resolve a three-year dispute that had put a $1-billion contract on the brink of failure. In another, it remediated a $100-million annual offshore logistics contract, reinvigorating the relationship and reducing costs by 30 per cent. Elsewhere, Kiah advised on whole-of-government international telecommunications contracts across 120 countries.

The firm also assists private companies to engage more effectively with the public sector.

Kiah’s strength is in providing clarity around strategic options, the development of executable plans and their execution. Critical thinking, persuasion, negotiation and influence are core capabilities needed to deliver operational excellence, project remediation and procurement.

Shared language

In some ways, Kiah is as much a ‘translator’ as it is a consultant. Glenn says public–private projects are challenging because the public and private sectors speak different languages – they approach their relationships from different perspectives.

‘A simple example typifies the challenge,’ says Glenn. ‘The government client stipulated a 24-hour turnaround for delivery. The provider’s business was built around a 4 pm cut-off for next-day delivery. Neither was right or wrong – aligning perspectives avoided additional processes and saved millions of dollars annually.’

Glenn says that the government buyer is often rigid, formulaic and righteous. ‘Equally, private firms often lack knowledge about their public-sector clients. Business-to-business is simple because it’s value to the bottom line. Business-to-government needs to marry the value of political and social good with cost, which is a far more difficult concept. We turn battlefields into bridges, align perspectives and move from adversaries to collaborators.

‘Project planning tends to be overly linear at the strategic level, preventing value from being realised,’ says Glenn. ‘Detailed project plans define one step leading to the next, providing great detail on what will be done rather than what is to be achieved. It constrains adaptability – an essential element when dealing with people and their perspectives.

‘We take a multidimensional approach to strategy, starting with “who, what, when, where and how”. Then we focus on the alignment of the party’s interests, and then develop the engagement plan. As circumstances unfold, so, too, does the strategy and engagement.’

Glenn describes this process as a ‘coherent strategy’. It recognises that in a complex, fast-moving world, you can’t take a rigid approach to strategy and expect it to be implemented in a sequential fashion. Manoeuvrability, not rigidity, is the key to success.

Strategic deal-making

Kiah specialises in developing strategies and executing them. Kiah is often used in designing and implementing challenging programs, complex procurements and remediation of poorly performing projects. Understanding the perspectives, objectives and interests of all the participants is critical, and addressing them in an executable strategy is the key to success. It’s essential to adapt to changing circumstances throughout the delivery of the strategy. It’s not about being right, it’s about getting the outcome that you want. These attributes do not sit easily with traditional project teams.

Kiah is often used on troubled projects, in urgent situations. It uses a two-week ‘rapid assessment’ to identify the issues, interest and options to get a project moving again. ‘We’re a circuit breaker that can look at a problem differently and get project stakeholders back on the same page,’ says Glenn. ‘Those who dig the holes are going to defend them, not fill them in.’

Kiah also provides training in developing complex options and executable strategies, a service it wants to further develop in its two-and-halfday Insights into Industry program. This program is unique – designed specifically for public-service middle managers who seek to understand the private sector’s approach to projects. Attendees are immersed in a fictitious company and asked to respond to, and price, a government tender.

‘Our underlying premise is “If I understand your perspective, my perspective changes”,’ says Glenn.

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