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The shift required to lead transformational projects

In a connected world, optimal outcomes are hinged on leadership mindset and behaviours
Executing innovation is complex and leaders need to reflect on industry trends, business strategy, the products and services before defining and launching a transformational project.

Understanding innovation is easy, however designing and transforming an organisation into an innovative enterprise is challenging. It is not just a straight forward change management exercise, it requires leaders to step back and reflect on industry trends, their business strategy, the products and services, and collate all these factors to design and undertake a transformational project. Leaders taking charge of these programs of work need to be open to new approaches, have an appetite to be closer to their customers’ needs, be technologically astute and be outcome focused to help their teams achieve their goals.

The challenge of leading transformational projects is compounded in an age of tech-savvy potential customers expecting holistic ‘experiences’ prior to them becoming customers, rather than just one-off services. The impact of these challenges is felt through the organisation’s leadership and governance, and in turn, on its strategy, operations and human capital.

Plenty of literature exists on innovation and technology-led strategy models for an organisation, however in our connected world, the optimal outcome comes down to the leadership mindset and behaviours, the individuals, their hands-on approach, the culture these leaders foster, the people they develop, the strategy-risk frameworks that are rewarded, and the social & ethical aspects they consider. We are all aware of ‘command and control’ leadership behaviours. This form of leadership has its place during steady-state operations, largely associated with a factory or process-environment churning out goods and products.

During a transformational project, a command and control style leadership will not work, as transformational projects require the leader to understand that people are also being transformed. People will buy-in and contribute to that project if their behavioural shifts are also acknowledged and included by the leader in decision-making. A transformational shift requires a cultural change, not just an adjustment towards a new way of working. It’s the ability to figure out when to apply transformational or transactional leadership to various stages of the project.

Transformational project leadership is best-suited during the initial design phase, ensuring the right project is selected and appropriate governance structure established for project success, and alignment to organisational objectives. Transactional project leadership ensures the project is executed correctly by following a process. Once project execution has commenced, project leaders should blend transformation and transactional styles. This requires an agile way of working, to be able to change project direction during the execution phase, if required.

Up until mid-2000s, research often blamed failures of project on a project capability leading to a number of factors such as cost, time, schedule, supply chain and others. It’s only in the last 15-years that the spotlight of failures has shone on leadership, governance & sponsorship, front-end design, and stakeholder journey during the transformation. However, this focus on leadership isn’t balancing the need for commercial decisions (short-term thinking for profit) with great upfront design thinking (requiring thought and patience to position the right factors in place, to create the right eco-system, and the right capability). Fundamental human nature is to act quickly and decisively as gains can be realised faster. And this need to act quickly is rewarded with the appropriate KPIs, rather than creation of long-term social, ethical, and sustainable corporate value. Technology companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Tesla and Amazon are driven by one common principle – the innate and uncompromising desire to offer great customer experiences, grow market share, and eventually make money. None of these companies declared profits in the first few years or even decades, however analysts and investors still continue to back them. They know the service and product of these companies will not only change society for good, but also change other industries around them.

Everyone is aware of the concept of an ‘agile’ workplace, which contrasts from bringing people together from various silos to work on a project and report into a hierarchy structure. Successful organisations practice agility via adaptive and entrepreneurial leadership, and project-based teams as the norm. They have the ability to form, scale up, and decommission rapidly from project-to-project or platform-to-platform.

While organisations are striving to become truly innovative, the vast majority are not considering how good project governance and project leadership models can make a positive impact as they embark on their transformational project journey. This requires an understanding of the behaviours and mindsets of disruptors across global digital and transformational projects, and an understanding of dynamics across industries where innovation in one sector is creating new opportunities in others. And it requires a leader at the helm who has the mindset to take on these new age challenges and the tenacity to work with the teams who will embed these practices for real outcomes.

This article was written by Amar Flora, Chief Operating Officer of the John Grill Centre for Project Leadership at the University of Sydney.

The centre has recently launched its Leading Transformational Projects program based in Silicon Valley in June 2018, a one-of-a-kind opportunity to prepare executives for the disruption facing their industries, and in turn their operating models.

This immersive high-impact 5-day program takes you to Silicon Valley, where you will learn about technology trends and disruptors of industry, and develop a transformation blueprint to ready your organisation to deliver your digital transformation. Read more on this program.