The four biggest people management mistakes on transformation projects

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Alistair Sergeant, chief executive officer of Equantiis (formerly known as Purple Consultancy), is used to delivering transformation projects. One of their successes was a project with Manchester Metropolitan (Met) University, helping them to transform the student experience using the latest technologies.

The Manchester Met project was a shining example of how to effectively manage a transformation project, says Sergeant. Many run into difficulties or fall flat on their faces at some stage during the process – almost all due to people and culture issues.

“It's about aligning people up for a change within the organisation. There is a lot of fear that happens when you do a change project,” he says. “I'm a big believer that people don't hate change, it's just when change is forced upon them and they're not on the journey, is where we end up having problems.”

So, if the challenge with transformation projects is getting the people on board, what are some mistakes that project managers can avoid?

Not allocating the right resource

“Typically with transformations, I see organisations start the journey, but trying to implement it alongside their day jobs,” says Sergeant.

As a result, people are allocated tasks to do as part of the transformation project, but never have enough time to work on it, and it gets pushed down the priority list. The project is killed through a lack of time and interest.

“What Manchester Met were very good at, was working with us on developing a designated team that were back filled from the day job, seconded to work on the project,” Sergeant explains. “And what that does is set a precedent throughout the whole project that ‘we're taking this seriously, this change is happening and we're all part of this moving forwards’.”

Not being clear about why you’re doing it

“I can guarantee you, nine times out of ten when I'm involved in transformation projects, people aren't even clear of why they're doing it in the first place,” says Sergeant. “They will typically be doing it because someone in IT has said they need an upgrade, without any real strategic alignment of what it's going to do.”

Other times, the board aren't really clear on what they're trying to achieve. Without communicating a clear purpose, it’s very difficult to win hearts and minds.

“Why Manchester Met was successful is that the management and project managers were very clear on the purpose and the vision, to the point where it's ingrained into the DNA of the project.

“You'll see posters all around the office. There is a dedicated website, there's videos – it's a continuing engagement of actually bringing people up to speed with what's going on. And a 30 second video on progress that has been made that month, goes a long way; and just making sure that that happens.”

You don’t know who it’s for

If you’re going to be able to react to the various stakeholder responses your transformation project is likely to receive, you need to do some work, right at the beginning, on some simple stakeholder personas, to understand the issues that may come up, and how the transformation project can make their lives easier.

“These shouldn't be made-up personas,” says Sergeant. “You should be actually picking up the phone, speaking to people. When you're in a project board meeting, as the project manager's asking for decisions, we reflect back and say: ‘well how would Mike,’ one of our customers, ‘feel about that, and how would Zoe feel if we changed the service to this?’

“They can make an informed decision based on the personas that they've built. Often, we see these failed projects, because there hasn’t been enough work up front to understand who we're delivering the service for in the first place.”

Focusing on the wrong stakeholders

The best way to win people round when undertaking a transformation project is to take a ‘coaching’ approach, says Sergeant. This allows you to take on board different people’s needs and how best to get them on board with the project and the new ways of working that it will create.

You’ll come across three types of people in the organisation while you’re trying to implement change, says Sergeant. First, you have the really positive, go-getting change champions. Then you have what Sergeant calls ‘safe Daves’, a solid pair of hands who’ll do what you ask and try their best to get on top of the change. Finally, you have the negative people, who dislike and resist change.

“What the project manager should be doing is putting all their focus onto the negatives. The moment a product manager can get a negative person into a positive state the whole program changes and they become your biggest advocate.”

Brought to you by Project journal.

Image: oatawa/

Mark Rowland

Posted by Mark Rowland on 21st Jan 2020

About the Author

Mark Rowland is a senior writer on the Project editorial team. He has worked as a business journalist and editor for 15 years, and has won awards for his writing and editing. He has also worked in project and product management, overseeing the launch and continuous development of new websites and publications. Project is the official journal of the Association for Project Management (APM).

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