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Three important considerations for organisations when delivering complex transformations

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With the increase of change, it is a core competence for leaders across all organisations to manage change. Indeed, transformations require the vision and ownership of senior business leaders to maintain clear direction and balance value, risk appetite and impact trade-offs. So, what can leaders learn from project, programme and portfolio management (P3M) to succeed?

Around 70% of transformations fail to deliver their intended benefits, though this statement masks the significant value that may still be achieved. The IPA’s Annual Report on Major Projects 2020-21 shares delivery confidence across 62 Government Transformation and Service Delivery programmes showing 27% as red/red amber (outcomes in doubt), and 48% as amber (feasible but issues requiring attention), illustrating the challenge of managing and delivering complex transformations.

Leaders must consider three characteristics of transformation programmes to improve the benefits realised, and these can be found by applying P3M best practice, where required:

1. The size, shape and intent of each transformation programme is unique

With each transformation programme being unique, typically multi-year and with uncertainty in how it will be achieved at the outset, such complexity creates challenges for governance, business case development, solution design and engagement.

Additionally, in the implementation phase, transformation goals are often merged across organisational departments requiring ownership and effort in providing centralised oversight, dependency management, and facilitated outcomes that are more than the sum of the parts.

However, the difficulty in clearly defining the requirement means resources with suitable experience and time are sometimes not available, leaving these most challenging of undertakings a secondary part of people’s busy day jobs.

It is because of uncertainty and complexity that adopting P3M approaches will provide a framework to support business leaders in defining value, validate options, consider changes, sequence initiatives, release funding and horizon scan for risk and opportunity.

2. Transformation programmes require a different (but familiar!) approach to transition

Right-sizing governance, developing the most appropriate staged funding approach and maximising the use of transition states to optimise value delivery, celebrate successes and lock in elements of new capability or operational stability, are good characteristics of transformation programmes. At the outset, follow-on phases may not be well defined and the route to value needs to be continually assessed and refined to maintain business buy-in and take stock at these transition states.

Key questions can be asked at these times, similar to those asked at typical programme stage gates in a life cycle. However, projects or programmes which tend to be finite with well-defined time, cost and quality expectations, are different to the uncertain parameters of transformational initiatives thus the nature of questions asked will be different:

Table 1. Questions asked at a P3M stage gate versus a transformation transition state

These transformation transition questions provide valuable contribution of enhanced P3M best practice that maintains good controls and business confidence that typically characterise uncertain and ambiguous transformation programmes.

3. Transformation programmes are enhanced by strong P3M capability and behavioural disciplines

Typically, project professionals operate in complicated environments, but focus on staying within time, cost and quality parameters. Contrarily, those engaged in transformation need to be comfortable with complexity and ambiguity, not always knowing how the end vision will be achieved, recognising that all parameters may need to flex (often significantly) over time as more information becomes available, and lessons are learned.

Within the bounds of a messy transformation environment, strong P3M capabilities become even more important to control and reduce uncertainty. Good transformation programme and project managers need to shift between a laser focus on delivering controllable activity and being comfortable with certain elements that may remain ill-defined and uncertain.  

Providing a framework to remove uncertainty and ambiguity

P3M disciplines are highly valuable when applied in delivering transformation by helping to set appropriate structures, definition and accountabilities in rightsizing and aligning governance. Project management provides a framework to deliver high-level benefit realisation plans, sequencing, brokering and engaging people to improve change readiness and provide performance oversight to decision makers. Good transformation programme and project managers thrive in the tension between good P3M practice of seeking certainty versus the uncertainty of living with complex transformation.

With thanks for contribution from Stuart Collins, Sean McDaniel and Emma Burrows.

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