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How to be a leader of change in turbulent times

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Personal discipline and organisation are needed when managing your programme through difficult and changing times. Leading when things are not going quite as expected, requires evermore personal clarity of thought on your personal role and contribution to getting the programme through. This means being clear about the ongoing mission and being honest with yourself and your team if this activity has to change, or even cease. Some of these changes may be so fundamental, that they actually end up significantly changing the culture and values of your organisation, and even changing how you work with your user/customer to deliver the change.

It's a really good time to focus again on the ‘minimum viable product’ delivery approach for your programme; stripping delivery back to the bare basics. Perhaps think about becoming more agile to respond effectively to the risks and opportunities that big environmental events like Brexit or COVID-19 present to your organisation, and the ability of your programme to actually deliver as well.

The importance of communication

Programme leaders need clarity of understanding on how the organisation is collectively responding and reorganising to the changing delivery context. Pay attention to what other corporate leaders are doing and saying in response to what is happening in the marketplace - it's a really important time to network and talk through organisational changes as a means of identifying how the programme should respond. In fact, it's vital to consult widely at a time like this - it may be surprising to hear and see a range of views beyond those you personally have. An understanding that others share the same challenges and some insight into how they are dealing with them, could prove crucial to maintaining momentum.

This is scary stuff and a level of personal resilience and honesty is required with programme staff, whilst steadying the programme ship on the ‘rough seas of change’. It's extremely important not to send mixed messages to team members or stakeholders, even if it really isn’t clear whether your programme still has a future. Showing a certain amount of humanity and even some of the impact of any uncertainty on you as a person, is okay. It’s good to be human and open at times like these – let’s face it, everyone knows your taste in home décor and pets now anyway…and you’ll be just as affected by the outcomes. Timing is everything - people mustn't be left to figure out for themselves how to respond to what they see, but making long term promises could be problematic if made too soon. So better to focus immediate communications on some near-term objectives for your team and projects that are unlikely to change or be de-prioritised. It’s also important to communicate reassurance and support - particularly when the organisation is doing something so radically different to the way in which it normally operates.   

Make sure you have the right people around you, doing the right things

One of the key ways to speed up delivery, and to ensure that it stays relevant in a rapidly changing delivery context, is to consider whether the way you govern and control your programme, and measure its rate of progress, is still fit for purpose.

In most cases a changing context will mean a renewed focus on the user and user requirements and how these are met – perhaps needing revised delivery options, technology or even requiring the timeline of the programme to significantly alter. Driving this means making sure you still have the right people with the right skills available to support the mission as it changes. This involves 'lifting up' the application of very specific process driven activities, and building in more discussions, meetings, presentations and agreements which enable progression to be made more quickly. Now everyone is contactable on ‘Teams’, do you need the same committee scope and membership?

In many ways this reflects the approach to the contemporary design, development and build of digital technologies, where regular ‘retrospectives’ and 'service assessments' seek to replace a multitude of planning, prioritisation, risk management and reporting endeavours in a more holistic manner. The purpose of this is to draw more people into review and continuous improvement, to find new ways of speeding up delivery – perhaps changing roles and responsibilities, and passing more of this over to the user in required business change and continuous improvement. That’s what you need to lead across every aspect of programme delivery in the new normal.

Dependency management and the use of operational mitigation through continuous improvement, and commercial mitigation through release management strategies, may be needed to avoid unnecessary re-baselining and an impact on dependencies across the portfolio.

Greater emphasis on culture, behaviours and values

Contemporary project management involves closer work with finance and commercial colleagues, and bidders and eventual suppliers, than has traditionally been the case. More work is required to ensure that the required culture, behaviours and values are established early, and maintained in the actions of all, throughout the subsequent project delivery. And above all, that the programme is best able to respond financially and commercially to changing user expectations ‘in flight’. Some of this is also about ensuring better inclusion, and more equitable decision making, right up front.

Culture is often intrinsically liked with the organisation’s values - which are usually referenced in the vision. There is a need to maintain and develop those values whilst ensuring that the latest policy requirements are being addressed by ensuring the right behaviours in the supply chain, in the wider portfolio and in the staff that are supporting the project.

Training and development continues to be important, but will be delivered increasingly in modular and remote ways. The emphasis is on you as a leader to ensure that your team continue to prioritise this development for themselves – when remote working means there is potentially less ‘peer pressure’ for so doing.

Behaviours around such issues as risk tolerance become important to regulate. As the delivery context and technology change, it is increasingly important for organisations to communicate what is and isn’t acceptable around a whole range of delivery, programme management and operational risks. What is now acceptable or tolerable may be very different to even just a few years ago, but it would be easy for folks to be left behind, or not consider all the available delivery options, if how they are expected to behave now, isn’t clearly communicated.

Similarly, new staff need to understand what is ‘acceptable here’. That may be very different to what was acceptable in their last employer for how things were reported, or the discretion that exists at the individual’s level without seeking approval. In fact, are you clear with your team and staff when they need approval from you to take a decision without consultation?

As project professionals, we need better situational awareness that goes beyond traditional PMO led governance, and we must be able to negotiate for resource that benefits multiple dependant projects across a portfolio. Not only must we ensure the delivery of our own change initiatives, but in doing so, be responsible for facilitating wider technical and organisational change, as well as ensuring that this is delivered in a manner that enables future upgrades. And ensuring that new ways of working like ‘adaptive workplaces’ continue to deliver the expected levels of productivity right across the team wherever they are located.

These approaches prevent the need for future changes of a similarly fundamental nature, switching more of the emphasis onto operational continuous improvement.


No-one said sustaining these ‘once in a generation’ changes was going to be easy. But all the evidence suggests that the ‘new normal’ can really mean a more productive workplace, with a happier team and a better service for the end user. It’s time to be bold…

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