If you work in business, especially in a corporate environment, it is likely you have heard the hackneyed adage referencing the challenges of change management: “70% of transformation programs fail”. Search engines will produce millions of results if you search for the phrase, pointing to its ubiquity. Many sources can be identified as the origin of the concept, from Hammer and Champy (1993), to the Harvard Business Review (2000), to the inimitable John Kotter (2008), among others.

While the statistic itself may be questionable from a scientific standpoint, the sentiment rings true: transformation programs are difficult and present companies with innumerable challenges. Despite the prevalence of thoughtful change management practices as the panacea for this epidemic, it’s actually rigorous project management, especially when well executed in concert with change management, that should be considered the key safeguard against program-wide failure.

While the statistic itself may be questionable from a scientific standpoint, the sentiment rings true: transformation programs are difficult and present companies with innumerable challenges.

In this vein, drawing from program management experience, theory, and research alike – we explore the five essential skills required for a project manager in charge of an organizational transformation program,. The five essential skills for any program or project manager who wishes to avoid the purported failure rate include communication, planning, risk management, budgeting, and problem solving.

  1. Communication – Project management cannot be conducted successfully in isolation. The role, by definition, involves managing teams, garnering organizational support and alignment, and ensuring acceptance from affected stakeholders. Without clear and compelling communications, the modern project manager is lost. For example, as agile project management methodologies have become more pervasive, the “daily standup” has become the go-to meeting style and cadence for regular communication within a project team. Additionally, clear and concise project management dashboards circulated among relevant project stakeholders can be an excellent tool for communications.
  2. Planning – The ability to break down a project into discrete activities and tasks, understand dependencies, estimate time and resource requirements, and formulate a plan that is communicable to stakeholders is no easy task. The ability to deal with ambiguity and re-plan when, inevitably, the project plan changes, are requisite capabilities for any successful project manager.
  3. Risk management – Differentiating between risks and issues, prioritizing them, and escalating them suitably is a fine art; successful project managers are able to focus on managing risk and mitigating it appropriately, while avoiding getting bogged down in undue attention paid to minor obstacles that can be otherwise overcome.
  4. Budgeting – Time, cost, and resources are the holy trinity of project management. The ability to budget all three according to project and organizational demands while maintaining the tenuous balance required to execute properly is imperative to program success. Accurate forecasting and tracking are indispensable. This also includes monitoring of benefits realized by the functionality delivered by the project. An initial business case should be used to define expected benefits from the program.  Clear and measurable outcomes tracked against well-defined key performance indicators (KPIs) should constitute the measure of benefits, or value realization. An additional advantage of this type of project governance is scope management; if a scope change request does not link directly to a KPI by which benefits realization is measured, that additional scope should not be considered.
  5. Problem solving – While less readily apparent than its counterparts, problem solving is perhaps the most important skill for any project manager. Analytical thinking is required to face the constant problems that arise in managing a transformation program. The ability to decompose these problems into manageable pieces, then define and implement innovative and tactical solutions to overcome them is a prime signal of success.

Just like any skill, these five can be learned, although some level of predisposition to demonstrating them must be innate in the successful project manager. Perhaps most importantly, collaboration with team members to execute on these capabilities is key to success, as any project manager who undertakes the task alone will certainly be destined for failure.    

In our experience, project management and sponsorship should be treated as distinct roles within a transformation program. It can be dangerous to delegate sponsorship for something that could make or break your business to an outsider…internal senior operating committees should always be accountable for the outcomes of a transformation program.

That said, there is often reason to leverage the expertise of experienced outsiders, especially when the organization lacks the aforementioned skillset or maturity internally. Third-party project managers must blend well with established organizational cultures while also constructively challenging the status quo. The amount of responsibility entrusted to them should be a function of their performance and how they grow with the transformation; do not just hand everything over on day one. Rather, ensure that client stakeholders are embedded in the project team and continue to feel responsible for the transformation journey, as opposed to merely functioning as cogs in the organizational machine.

All in all, a good project manager can make all the difference to the successful delivery of a project, while poor project management will quickly result in another failed transformation program to add to the statistic. As with any hired role, you often get what you pay for. Cutting corners and hoping to save on project management either by delegating the responsibility to someone who already has a ‘day job’, or instead going cheap, is a recipe for disaster. Hiring the best project manager you can afford, whether internally or externally, and giving them plenty of authority to execute in their role will truly make all the difference.

Poor project management will quickly result in another failed transformation program to add to the statistic.