Suresh Cuganesan explores ways project sponsors and executive teams can review their practices to be ready for technology transformations.
Around many board and executive committee tables a hot topic of discussion continues to be advances in technology and how organisations must transform themselves to avoid being disrupted. Many commence digital transformation projects but history tells us that the majority of these will fail to deliver the desired business outcomes. Technology risk is not to blame here. Instead factors such as poor strategic alignment, unclear and complex project requirements and inadequate support for the project are often highlighted as the main reasons for project underperformance. Project sponsors play a critical role in these areas. Consequently, organisations must ask whether they are doing enough to get executives ready for their sponsor role in business defining transformation projects.
In our experience, many organisations concerned with failure will strengthen their project management disciplines and methodology to implement a series of decision-making gates, consistent reporting across projects and ensuring the project remains on track once approved. While this is important, achieving the value and benefits of transformation projects is not about delivering a project scope but leading change – this is where business executives as project sponsors must step up.
There are three ways they can do this.
An important question for project sponsors is whether they are able to clearly explain why the project is important and why it must be done now given the organisation’s position and strategy. In my experience helping boards and executives define success criteria for their strategy execution efforts and project portfolios, ensuring there is enough understanding and clarity about how strategic goals might be achieved and those environmental uncertainties that require investment responses is a major challenge. Without this clarity achieving successful transformation through technology projects is difficult.
Another challenge for sponsors is ensuring effective cooperation for projects that cut across departmental boundaries. Too often silo thinking can get in the way of what is good for the organisation. Business defining transformation by their very nature involves end to end change to organisational processes and/or the customer experience. Internal resistance or disinterest in the project is likely to occur and this is where project sponsors need to personally invest the time to authentically communicate the message and build support for the project from the outset. This also requires two-way dialogue with those that might be at risk from the project so that both the actual and perceived effects of transformation can be thought through and responded to. This is where steering committees can play a key role, ensuring not only good governance but also that the broader organisation is ready to accept and leverage the project once it is completed.
A final point to emphasise is that, for a period of time at least, the project sponsor has responsibilities for the project team. Too often the project sponsor prioritises their line management responsibilities over the project and for transformation projects this can be a disaster. Project sponsors should not differentiate between project and operating business teams and need to consider how they are building trust and openness with their project manager and team members– only then will the project team be open and willing to share bad news early. Project sponsors often complain about not being told bad news or being misled by ‘green-washed’ project reports. Flipping this question to ask why the bad news is being withheld and what they can do personally do about it can be insightful for project sponsors. Obtaining regular bottom-up feedback about effectiveness as a sponsor from the project team can be confronting but can really help in ensuring projects are successful.
In the work we do at the John Grill Centre it is pleasing to see more and more organisations from all sectors of the economy invest in project sponsor development through our highly interactive and customised workshops. For these organisations at least project sponsorship is seen as a critical capability if they are to transform effectively.
This article was written by Suresh Cuganesan, Deputy Chief Executive of the John Grill Centre for Project Leadership at the University of Sydney. Suresh specialises in the areas of strategy execution, organisational design and performance measurement. His area of focus is on how public and private-sector enterprises can improve their achievement of policy and strategic goals through being better aligned, collaborative and innovative.