Jason West and Joe Ales at river bank

Joe Ales & Jason West

Season 1: Episode 9 – Building Capability for Successful Business Transformation

Joe Ales: Welcome to the Underscore Transformation Podcast. This is episode nine; my name’s Joe Ales.

Jason West: I’m Jason West

Joe Ales: And together we’re the founders of Underscore.

Last week we talked about the importance of having defined project, programme, and portfolio methodologies to control transformation. This week we’re unpacking the programme management capabilities that are needed within your team to deliver successful a transformation programme.

So, Jason what are the programme management capabilities that are needed within the team?

Jason West: Well, I think the first thing to say is there is a difference between project and programme management capabilities, and it’s important to make that distinction. And I think it’s easier to talk about project management first: it’s kind of more straightforward; what they’re there to do is kind of a bit easier to understand. The purpose of a project manager is to ensure that a defined set of outputs, whether they are products or services, or services, it’s a new system or whatever that that thing is, but it’s really defined. They are there to make sure that gets delivered on time, to the agreed specification, and on budget. And what that requires is somebody who can really drive a schedule. They’re great at planning, they can anticipate problems, they can manage risks, they problem solve on their way to delivering those really defined outputs, and you need somebody who’s really well organised and has a real drive and a passion about them. These aren’t passive roles: they’re people who are very delivery focused, they’re very outcome focused. Then they need to have a good degree of interpersonal skills because a lot of the time your team isn’t there; they don’t have direct reporting line to you. And you don’t necessarily have full time resources dedicated to your project, so you need to be able to engage people and it’s possible to give discretionary effort required. But their role is quite tightly bounded. Then there’s often a misunderstanding and misconception around these terms: project manager and programme manager, and it’s important to understand which roles you’re talking about in the overall kind of hierarchy of the change that you’re trying to deliver. So project managers tend to be quite technical, if we can call it technical, they’ll probably be kind of PRINCE2 trained or some equivalent project management approach, but it’s definitely somebody that knows their way around MS Project or they know what a gantt chart is, and you know they’re very much managing things to time, to budget, to specification.

The key difference with the programme manager is a programme manager is really concerned about delivering the business outcome: the benefits that are required within the business case. So a project manager might put up a building, the programme manager is there to ensure that that building is going to be habitable, that people are kind of keen to live or work in that building, they’re managing the anxiety of the residents of that building about “we’re going to move you from your old place to your new place.” They’ve actually got that really on their radar.

Joe Ales: So, it brings into account the whole change and impact of what you’re doing on people, and a much broader perspective I guess, and then the project manager that’s focusing particularly on that specific outcome.

Jason West: Yes. Stakeholder management becomes a much bigger issue you’ve got competing priorities and a programme is going to be made up of numerous projects. So a programme manager will typically have a number of project managers reporting into them. For some of the smaller transformations then they may not be full time dedicated project managers, they might be functional leads, subject matter experts within finance, HR, or procurement function. And that can be a real challenge in that as a programme manager you are having to control complex change, without necessarily having people with the requisite skills and experience. Or even just an understanding the sort of updates that you need to provide into a programme from a project level.

Joe Ales: Taking us to little steps were back on the difference between sort of programme management and project management, occasionally we see individuals in organisations labelled as project managers when in fact actually they’re performing the role of the programme manager. So it’s really important that sponsors understand the difference between the two and ultimately what is it that you are trying to achieve? And if your programme’s trying to do something that’s so significant and impactful for the organisation, you really need to think carefully about do you need a programme manager? They are going to absolutely worry about all of those things that you talked about versus a project manager, that will be there specifically to deliver that task against the outcome, and organisations get a bit hung up at times about “we can’t call or we can’t have programme managers, because we only employ project managers.” Call them whatever you what you wish to call them, but ultimately you need to understand that you require to bring in an individual that has a different level of capability to that project manager.

So, we’ve seen that a few times across some organisation, and organisations, getting a little bit confused and hung up about that job titles. And ultimately make the wrong decisions,

Jason West: So the same is true in the opposite direction so where you get project managers put into programme management roles. That can be far more problematic, there’s far more uncertainty at programme level; you can’t specify everything to the nth degree and control it all in a single schedule, and a single set of plans and deliverables. The role of the programme manager, or more accurately, the capability that a programme manager needs is far more creative problem solving, it’s often far more experience of dealing with emerging risks that are complex, that need to be tackled from a number of different angles, the kind of the stakeholder management, the change management, and really kind of getting to grips with ensuring that whenever you’re building is going to be desired by the people that need to adopt this new way of working. Whether that’s systems, processes or whatever, it does actually require quite a lot of emotional intelligence and the ability to engage and influence people at all levels at the organisation. But yeah we’ve definitely seen some challenges around programmes that have been treated like just really big projects and that brings with it a set of behaviours that tend to be around driving down costs, and reaching to deadline and losing sight of the big picture. And it’s especially true in functional transformation, and with the move to new cloud technology, the whole drive for digital transformation, we’ve seen quite a lot of programme managers that have come up through the IT project management delivery route and they’ve kind of got the badge as a finance programme manager, or an HR program manager because they’ve delivered a technology product.

Joe Ales: But the reality is they don’t have a lot of functional knowledge, they don’t have the depth of expertise in the function in which they are trying to execute the changes and so yeah, it does become a little bit problematic.

Jason West: Yes; especially if you combine that with a set of behaviours that’s often about driving to a particular deadline and budget. They can force through a set of design decisions that are actually really detrimental to the business and the ultimate outcome; whether it will be adopted, whether it would deliver the benefits, and we talked about that whole piece around kind of taking scope out near a deadline. It tends to be driven from a very kind of project management, timed deadline approach, so yeah something to really watch out for. So from a functional transformation perspective I think it is important that the person that you’ve got leading that transformation really understands the function that you’re transforming so if they’re delivering a finance transformation, it’s really important the programme manager has kind of functional experience in finance: they understand the operational impact on some of the decisions that potentially forcing process owners to kind of push through.

Joe Ales: What capabilities do you think do you think a programme manager has that typical a project manager wouldn’t necessarily? Even in terms of qualifications, are there qualifications that a programme manager would have but not a project manager?

Jason West: I think there are definitely qualifications out there that are very specific to programme management. For example, Managing Successful Programmes, more I think around the approach and the level of complexity that somebody’s dealing with. There’s far more big picture thinking, creative innovation, problem solving that is required from a programme management perspective whereas project management is really more in the space of delivering to a really predefined set of parameters. And the challenge comes where if you put a programme manager into very much project management role you’ve kind of over dimensioned than that role and sometimes they are not effective because they’re perhaps worried too much about the big picture, too worried about stakeholder management, and change and things like that, and actually just need the building built. They can become destructive if you just need stuff done on time and the rest of it. But vice versa: you put a project manager into a programme management role and they just drive rather than really kind of thinking through the bigger picture and being able to see how the linkages are made across different projects, and different competing priorities.

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Jason West: So the other thing that programme managers really have to deal with is the inherent level of uncertainty that you have on a transformation. You can’t possibly know all of the things that you need to address at the beginning, so being able to understand the strategic direction, vision, and where you’re heading and then being comfortable with the fact that things will happen and change, and you need to adapt and solve problems along the way. It requires quite a lot of mental toughness; this stuff isn’t easy.

Joe Ales: Dealing with ambiguity is not easy.

Jason West: you’re dealing with people that don’t want to change, any change is generally viewed as a risk or a threat even to a lot of people that are working within a function, and there can be some really tough messages that have to get delivered: maybe you have to say “we’re not competitive in this area, we’ve got too many people delivering our finance processes, it’s costing a lot more in procurement than our competitors.”

Well pretty quickly people are going to equate that to “well what does that mean for me? What does that mean for my role?” So there’s a lot of nuance to this, and people need a lot of that emotional intelligence to be able to cope with it, but the mental toughness to deal with those difficult decisions.

The other area that’s really important to focus on here, from project or a programme management capability, is it’s a real risk to just place all of your skills, your competence in external consultants or contractors who are going to come in, deliver a project or programme for you and will leave.

Joe Ales: One of the things we’ve also witness, in some of the clients we’ve worked with, organisations decision to appoint internal resources into programme management or project management roles. And this has some absolute value in it, but what are the key watch outsJason for organisations they decide to do that?

Yeah; I think there’s definitely a toolkit that comes along with being a project or programme manager. There’s methodologies, there’s templates, there’s a mindset that comes with it. And an operational, functional person won’t necessarily have that, so then you’re putting people into a position where they don’t know what they don’t know. And as with anything if they’re good people they will figure it out as they go along, but that’s kind of high risk and actually not giving people the tools they need to be effective in those roles. And it’s not uncommon for operational people to be seconded onto these programmes and then immediately thrown in the deep end: “right, okay you need to attend these design workshops. Okay you need to provide a weekly update on this report, scheduling issues.” Without anybody actually explaining what’s the difference between a risk and issue. Somebody that’s never had to put a plan together before, beyond maybe just some basic Excel planning, and if you haven’t paired those individuals up with professional project managers or programme managers it can be a real risk to the programme.

So it’s stressful for the individuals, you know you’re putting them in a position where they’re not exactly set up to be successful. And on top of that, they are having to make a huge amount of design decisions that are going to affect the future effectiveness and efficiency of your function in the next kind of five to ten years, and then making decisions that are impacting their role, the roles of people in their team, their friends, their colleagues, people they’ve worked with for years. You know, this is a difficult role, so you really do need to kind of give them as much support as you possibly can. We always advocate bringing in experienced and qualified project and programme managers but pairing them up with subject matter experts that you second onto the programme and actually going through a level of training and development with the project team that you’ve seconded in. Because frankly, just project and programme management skills are just good ways of making change happen in an organisation, they’re just a structured sensible common sense approach to managing things. These skills aren’t wasted, you’re going to go through your transformation and they’re going to add value when you live your introduction

Joe Ales: And ultimately everyone is involved in the project, needs to have an element of the project mindset anyway. Bringing expertise in that can enrich their knowledge and capability of those involved in the programme is always a good thing.

Jason West: The reality is that is you’ve got the capability in your team to identify a problem, quantify it, analyse it, put a plan together to address it, secure investment from somebody to fix that problem, and then go and deliver it on time, on budget with a great outcome and delivered the benefit: that’s an enduring capability that any high performing team needs. Really transformation programme as an opportunity to upskill key members of your team and really build that enduring capability, so you have it as part of your business as usual.

So to recap: there is a difference between project managers and programme managers. Make sure that you’re using the right person to do the right role. And there is a difference in skill-set and mindset between the two roles; be clear about that what’s required in this place

Joe Ales: And the sponsor needs to understand “is this a programme that I’m launching? A project I’m launching?” And then make the distinction at the very beginning of the programme or your initiative to determine what type of character you want leading the activity and the key drivers.

Jason West: The key drivers are: how complex is this? What’s the level of change? And how many moving parts to it? And can it all be held in a single plan and managed until delivery? Or actually, you know we’re making changes to people, processes, and technology – in which case they require separate but joined up management in which is a programme manager that you really need.

But don’t ignore the capability that your team actually needs; it’s great to second people onto a project or a programme, but actually support them. Give them training, some development before they get thrown in the deep end and they have to make a huge amount of decisions about the future of your organisation.

Join us next week for episode 10 when we’re going to be talking about solution design capability.

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