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Understanding leadership in the context of transformation projects

About the research

This research aims to advance understandings of individual, team and organisation-wide leadership capabilities for successfully delivering transformation projects, and ways in which they can be fostered. The research intends to provide advanced understandings of: approaches to leading transformation; challenges/opportunities for leadership and ways to effectively respond to them; and ways to examine and strengthen individual, team and organisational leadership capabilities. This study is linked to the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) Project X research initiative – theme E on capability, leadership and knowledge management.

Why is the research important?

Despite presenting varying views on the failure rates of organisational change projects, most research agrees that a significant portion of transformation projects fail to meet their business objectives. As transformation projects increase in the public and private sectors, and the challenges facing them are growing in scale, scope and complexity, there is a pressing need to focus on improving the delivery of transformation projects.

Understanding how to develop effective leadership capabilities can be a powerful response to resolving delivery issues of transformation projects, since:

  • Various studies and critical success factors identified by APM suggest that effective leadership is a key contributor to successful project delivery;
  • Various findings demonstrate that leadership challenges (e.g. high turnover of leaders, complexities of leadership decisions) can be important barriers to improving transformation project delivery capabilities;

Leadership is recognised as a key skill for project management professionals (e.g. in APM Body of Knowledge, APM Competence Framework). However, evidence suggests that the existing project management body of knowledge and training programs typically provide limited perspectives on leadership that are often inadequate for meeting demands of complexity and uncertainty.

Intended audience

This study should be of interest to experienced leaders of change or transformational projects in both the public and private sectors, Senior Responsible Owners (SRO’s) and anyone with an interest in transformation or project leadership.

What did we discover

Research findings:

The framework developed as a result of the analysis constitutes four complexity response systems that consist of multiple leaders and structural elements that span across multiple levels and are able to dynamically adapt to emergence:

■ Bridging:  Responding to complexities associated with integrating knowledge across different functions or organisations by developing trading zones.

■ Positioning: Structuring leadership roles and relationships for responding to the threats and opportunities associated with the specific authority positions that portfolio, programme or project managers take in their relationships with others.

 Legitimising: Responding to the different evaluations of desirability, properness and appropriateness of the intended change and how it is delivered by developing opinion formation systems.

■ Adapting: Responding to the shifts in context that impacts formal agreements produced at the front-end phase of projects or programmes through anticipation and shared leadership strategies. Also responding to organisational changes to ways of working in portfolios, programmes and projects through translation strategies.


APM and the author would like to acknowledge the support of IPA, along with colleagues within the Project X research initiative and the important contributions of the participating organisations and access to data to enable this research to take place. For more information on Project X please visit:


In addition to the main report we also have other formats which may be of interest to you and your organisation including:

Download the report