Jason West and Joe Ales at river bank

Joe Ales & Jason West

Season 1: Episode 8 – Business Transformation Methodology and Approach


Jason West: Welcome to underscore transformation podcast this is episode 8 my name is Jason West

Joe Ales: And my name is Joe Ales.

Jason West: And together we’re the founders of Underscore.

Joe Ales: This week, we take a look at methodology and approach, and there’s some important terminology to define: what is a project? What is a programme? And what is portfolio? So let’s break this down; Jason, what is a project?

Jason West: So, I’m actually going to cheat [laughs]. So we’ve looked at what is best practice out there and Axelos who own PRINCE2, MSP, ITIL, P3M3, all that kind of good stuff, have done a really good job of defining this. When we look at a project they say “it’s a temporary organisation that’s created for delivering one or more outputs, according to a specific business case.” So output is a really important thing here; it’s a defined change in a process or system or putting up a building. It’s something really tangible and concrete that you can define right at the start: “we are going to deliver these specific things and you know when we’ve delivered them because they’re there.”

Joe Ales: It doesn’t feel multi-functional; it doesn’t feel like you’re engaging the organisations through some sort of transformation. Programme or project management experts might tell us otherwise, but it doesn’t feel as if it’s particularly transformational.

Jason West: No, absolutely. You need projects, and projects make up the bulk of what you’re doing in transformation, but they’re very discreet and are there to deliver the very specific things. And whilst they might concern themselves a little bit with change e.g. Are systems being adopted? Are new process is being adopted? When we opened up the building were the people in it? Whatever it might be, it’s very much output focused which is kind of different to a programme. So if we look at the definition of a programme “it’s a temporary but flexible organisation that’s created to coordinate and direct and oversee the implementation of a set of projects.” So it’s that overarching piece that sits over the projects, and the key thing here: it’s all about delivering an outcome and a set of benefits that are related to the organisation’s strategic objectives.

This is kind of this overarching piece and when we talk about outcomes, this is more than just very specific things being delivered, change in policy or whatever it might be, we’re really concerned here with the overarching change. So we’re thinking about how those outputs are being adopted by people: are they trained? Are they engaged? Are they willing to move into our bright shiny new building? Have people been, or do they have the right skills and competencies to act in this new operating model than we’ve designed?

It’s much broader and you’re really focusing on the business outcomes that you’re delivering, and does it deliver that overarching business strategy.

Joe Ales: And that’s a really important part of the definition: the strategic objectives. So it’s going to bring the execs’ attention to it. We’ve spoken previously about governance structures and the need to have executive steering committees established in large transformation programmes. Yeah this feels much broader much bigger much more impactful across the business.  And this is a really important point here: because the way you resource a programme versus the way you resource at project is very, very different, and many organisations place a project manager into a role of a programme manager. So you’ve got a really be careful when you’re creating your programme team or your project team, that you put the right individuals, with the right capabilities, in charge of these.

Jason West: Because a programme is not just a very big project; it’s a set of projects organised over a number of discrete phases. And typically that could be over a number of years and the you might deliver a set of outcomes and benefits in one year, and then there’s a second phase to the programme that builds on what you’ve delivered in the first phase. So really looking at that very broad view over quite an extended period of time all kind of heading towards the same strategic objective, but actually it moves and it changes and naturally over time you need to adjust the programme. You go live with your first phase and then there’s a period, potentially of just reflection: “how has this actually landed? Are people using in this bright shiny new thing in the way we thought they would?” And invariably, new information comes to light and you need to kind of course adjust as you go.

But then we look at portfolio so this is sitting above the programme level so the definition from Axelos says “a portfolio is the totality of change initiatives required to achieve an organisation’s strategic objectives.”

It’s going to comprise of a number of programmes, maybe standalone projects, and other initiatives that are going on in the business to deliver the change. So you might have a portfolio at a functional level, maybe a business unit level, maybe the entire organisation will have that overarching transformation portfolio. And I think this is kind of the key point here: transformation is either a programme or it’s a portfolio. But it’s never a project.

And we have definitely seen challenges when organisations have tried to approach transformation as if it was a single project. And that tends to really bear itself out when you’ve got a project manager sat at the centre of this mass of changes trying to manage 1000 or 2000 line project plan in Microsoft Project or Primavera, whatever it is you’re using. This is too big, it’s too complex for any one person to kind of keep all those plates spinning, and not end up with a set of unintended consequences and unmitigated risks coming out in the organisation.

Joe Ales: Going back to your portfolio point, for organisations that have got a large number of programmes, in these scenarios they have really got to start to think about establishing a PMO, programme management office infrastructure and capability. Just to make sure that we don’t have conflict between the various programmes across the organisation. They ultimately are trying to achieve the right things, but if everything is being done all at the same time it is just changed fatigue across the business, for instance. So you have to have the right sequence. Managing programmes at portfolio level is really important because it allows you to drive the right change, and implement the right changes across the business in a structured way. In a way that actually makes sense to the organisation, to the recipient of that change. No programme or project should ever, ever work in isolation.

Jason West: I think the other thing that really helps at the portfolio level, is it helps you tell the story – that overarching story – to the organisation of “we’re going over here and it’s going to happen in a well-structured, organised way. But this is going to happen first and then you’ll see this change. Finance is going to do this, and then a HR is going to do that, and we’re going to have these new procurement ways of working, and they’re all kind of stitched together into a whole which makes us this new innovative digital organisation that’s able to respond to the market.”

But there’s just picking up on your point on change fatigue; they’re just calling on the same people over and over again at different programmes, wanting the same resources to sit in requirements gathering workshops, to attend design meetings, to test stuff. And you can have the best possible change management teams working in individual programmes but if they’re not joining together and you don’t have that kind of really clear set of communications; those clear engagement plans, that kind of makes sense to the exec, management teams, to people out in the business, it can very quickly looked disjointed and people lose faith in the overall change you’re trying to see.

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Joe Ales: That’s right. If you’re not joining the dots with other activity across the organisation, you ultimately create the risk of your change being implemented at the wrong time, with the wrong emphasis and actually not prioritised in the right way.

Setting the context of the overall change agenda across the business, that your programme is part of, is key. It’s vital. It just helps people understand the journey that not just your programme is going on, but the business is going on. It just helps set the context and it makes your life considerably easier if you’re able to articulate that actually “we are doing this in this phase, but remember business, stakeholders etc. that the next phase this is what’s going to come up. And actually we are doing this on the back of what we’ve done in phase X, now in phase Y and we’re going to go into phase Z that is going to deliver these outcomes.”

It just helps to sort of describe that journey and just remove anxiousness among individuals about what’s likely to come around the corner. This is really, really important.

Jason West: So I think that kind of project management approach, it’s really well suited where you’ve got a simple set of changes to make, you have got a really clearly defined endpoint, and there’s a kind of a straight path from where we are today, to where we need to be. And you just kind of deliver that outcome, those outputs.

Joe Ales: Yeah, it’s a simple change, a simple process, or the implementation of a policy. It doesn’t affect other parts of the business, or it might affect other parts of the organisation but there is not a huge amount at stake.

Jason West: I’d slightly disagree with you there: you can have really big projects, that have massive impacts, that are complex, that are difficult. Maybe might my own word of “simple” might be a bit disingenuous here, but you know there’s clearly articulated endpoint to them, that’s obvious, that you know it’s about delivering on time, on budget, to the right specification.

Whereas transformation is, by its nature, a lot more nebulous. You can’t, in most cases, say “this is the outcome, this is the endpoint, this is exactly what it’s going to look like.” We can we specify all the detail of exactly what it is we’re going to deliver right at the start; you know that I think in a project you have a really clear set of requirements, you then deliver against those requirements, you test them, did we meet the requirements yes no? We then push it into production, and we go “yes, happy days we’re up and running, we’re all live, off we go.”

In transformation it’s far more iterative.

Joe Ales: There are more ambiguities and elements of it absolutely are unknown.

Jason West: And there are different skill sets, and will come on to this next week when we look at project and programme management capability, but there’s a different set of skills and competencies and mindset that you need if you’re managing at a project level, or a programme or even a portfolio level.

So, I think it’s important to be clear about what the differences are, and when you’re resourcing your various project, programme, and portfolio teams that you hire the right people. It’s not just about experiences, it’s that kind of mindset piece as well. Whilst it’s important to have a methodology, and use the right sort of methodology, at the right level, again you don’t need to get hung up on exactly following PRINCE2 to the letter of what it says, or whatever methodology you’re using. And actually, if your organisation has a set methodology, just adopt it. Use it.

Joe Ales: Use the language the business is used to.

Jason West: Yeah, absolutely. If you’ve got pre-existing review templates that people are used to seeing as they go into various project meetings or programme meetings, it’s always better to adopt and adapt wherever you can.

In terms of kind of key takeaways from today; there’s a difference between projects, programmes, and portfolios. Use them at the right level. And transformation is never a project, but it’s often it’s a programme and in the big transformations they are definitely a portfolio of programmes and projects.

Ensure that you resource your projects, programmes, and portfolios with the right people, with the right capabilities. The final thing, I think we’re going to come on and talk about it more next week, is to really think about what is the enduring capability that we’re going to have, as an organisation, to manage complex change. Because this is something that doesn’t necessarily go away.

So next week, episode nine I believe it is, we’re going to look at programme management capability and just how this is actually an enduring capability that most HR, finance, and procurement functions are going to need to develop to really continue to be successful in the future.

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