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Let Experience Drive Successful Transformation

Business organisations expect their transformation programmes to generate multi-million worth of value. But the efforts often fall short of the goal, as not enough investment is made in individuals with the experience to deliver on them.

Now imagine yourself boarding a plane (airport and airline of your choice). You sit down, buckle up. Then comes an announcement: “Dear passengers, regretfully today both our pilots are unwell and unable to fly. However, this is an excellent opportunity for our cabin crew to step up and take command of the plane. Having taken flying lessons in their spare time, they will deliver you safely to your destination”……. not so cool!!

Strangely, something similar happens in business when “development opportunities” come along. This means putting good people in charge of complex programmes, with less than significant experience in how to do it. This typically happens either because “project management is common sense”, supported by some qualification (e.g. PRINCE-2, 6-Sigma), or because project management is regarded as “admin overhead to be minimised”.

As a result, programmes expected to generate multi-million worth of savings or growth fall short of the goal. This chronic underestimation of what it takes to succeed shows up in various ways:

  • Lack of ownership: it starts with asking “who is in charge”. It is normal for senior management to express commitment for any programme, and these assurances are usually in place. But it’s not enough. Governance and decision making must be set up deeply within the layers of an organisation, holding people accountable for their commitment over the duration of the programme. Everyone needs to know who is responsible for what, over the daily and weekly grind of the programme. Any lack of clarity will eventually compromise the integrity of any programme.

  • Insufficient system thinking: a complex programme will straddle across the functional internal boundaries of an organisation. This will create confusion and delay unless a real end-to-end understanding of the programme is put in place, and its cross-teams / cross-functional implications clearly analysed. Without this, dependencies will suddenly come up “unexpectedly” and block the programme or cause budget escalation – or both.

  • Rigid and prescriptive approach: transformation takes time to happen, but the environment surrounding any business is not static. This will require a programme to adapt to new circumstances and information in order to achieve its end-game objectives. Unless the programme leadership is able to recognise these factors, and has designed for the programme to adapt accordingly, then failure is highly likely.

  • Confusion on what are we solving for: often an organisation jumps into solution mode before a real understanding of the problem root cause is developed. This also leads to overoptimistic, incredibly detailed, benefit cases, based on wrong assumptions and targets that cannot be measured in actuality. As a result, a programme will often be stopped after significant investment has been made.

  • Mistaking “Change” for “Business As Usual”: change requires conscious effort for individuals, never mind organisations that are an aggregation of people’s behaviours, customs and rules. It is unfair to expect significant, disruptive change take place if the approach to facilitating it does not depart from a “business as usual” mindset. Unless the organisation is explicit about this, change will not take place.

The list goes on. It sure can be daunting to handle these issues even for an experienced programme manager. Odds of success decrease if this person is starved for time because of his or her day-job, and lacks the tools and experience to deal with the whole thing.

Interestingly, much of the fix is relatively easy once the proper level of investment is in place. Some fundamentals for success include the following:

  1. Clearly mark the true North Star: there must be clarity on what the programme is solving for. Creating awareness means ensuring everyone involved understands what the ultimate goal is. But it also means being able to adapt the course as circumstances on the ground change during the execution of the programme. This requires an agile mindset to be embedded from the onset in the programme design and staffing. It is based on being able to scale an agile approach from smaller projects to larger programmes, and ultimately to how the enterprise operates. It also demands exceptional quality of communication across the organisation.

  2. Think about design and capabilities: the design phase of a programme is that bit between the diagnosis of the problem and the switching into action mode. Oftentimes, this does not get enough attention and as a result the programme lacks the necessary attributes to deliver on its goals. It includes designing the path to success, preparing the organisation for the challenges involved, aligning stakeholders to ensure they understand their role and responsibilities. This is the time to understand interdependencies and budget for them accordingly. It helps here to have someone who has sufficient experience from past programmes to provide input and perspective, even if this person may not be involved in the future implementation of the programme.

  3. Put the most experience where it matters the most: Experience is not simply being able to “run the programme”. It means also spotting the trouble in advance, and act as an advisor to the business and its managers. This means sometime pushing back, having the strength of disagreeing for the sake of protecting the business and organisation. This is tough, and stressful, and it takes courage as well as experience. Most people expect a programme manager to “just run the programme” like a traffic cop, just managing the flow to and from. While this is definitely an important part of the job, the other bit of being able to stand up and actually manage the stakeholders is what makes the difference between an average and a great Programme Manager.

  4. Governance matters – do it right: governance defines how decisions are taken, risk is managed, activities are communicated and coordinated. Yet it is often underinvested in, treated as glorified admin, booking people’s diaries for meetings. Strong governance is particularly important within an agile environment, as review cycles are shorter and more intense by design, and allows for further scaling transformation beyond an individual project. This approach leads to healthy decision making, significantly increasing the odds of positive outcomes.

Communication seems to be a running theme here, and this is no surprise. As change occurs, people need to know what is happening and why, in order to not only cope with change but eventually embrace it.

It is your choice whether to use internal or external resources. There are perfectly good reasons to go either way. As these roles are temporary, yet often full time, they can easily be run by an external specialist. An external manager will be less married to any one part of the organisation, and more able to “lean in” as an advisor when times are tough. If you have the right resources internally, consider yourself lucky. Make the most of their expertise, and ensure they have the bandwidth and time to dedicate to the programme, ideally with no distractions from their “day job”.

Ultimately, do not skimp on the investment! Let experience drive successful transformation and deliver the change your organisation needs and deserves.

This article is the first on a series dedicated to delivering successful transformation. Its content is based on our real-life experience as advisors to clients on transformation programmes, and it does represent our opinion. You can feel free to disagree and/or challenge our thinking – as long as it is done in a constructive way. At nest consulting, we assist companies develop a robust and agile approach to deliver lasting and successful transformation. Get in touch at to find out how we can help overcome any business transformation challenges.


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