Managing complex projects and programmes

George Tomlin, Principal Consultant

George Tomlin Head Shot

Managing complex projects and programmes

George Tomlin, Principal Consultant

Complexity can be an instant barrier to change. For many organisations, that complexity quickly turns into complicated plans, competing objectives and stakeholder politics – and a set of budgets and timeframes that are so overwhelming the project never gets off the ground.

In this expert series, we look which types of projects are more complex and what that means for your change management approach; from the way you set the programme up, to the way you manage communication in flight.

Common characteristics of complex change projects

Whilst every change programme is different, because every business is different, there are certain types of projects that can be more complex to tackle. They are usually broader in scope and therefore have more interdependencies:

  • Projects that impact very different functions or stakeholders
    The more people impacted – especially where their roles or working environments are very different – the more variations you have to consider. Some organisations are like conglomerations of little business units, all of whom have different flavours or specialisations. Others have very different working environments to consider – think of a retailer who has stores, offices, call–centres, distribution centres, sourcing teams and online trading. The processes in each function can be different for good reason.
  • Projects involving multiple systems or technology platforms
    Technology allows us to scale and is a great enabler. When a change programme involves technology there are additional considerations and, of course, external suppliers to involve. Does your programme try and implement one system that then requires customisation for different teams or departments? Or do you go for a best of breed approach that means different systems need to be integrated and sequenced?
  • Implementing projects in an environment with lots of change
    This is the most challenging type of change programme. The complexity of leading a project in an environment undergoing lots of change is often overlooked. If yours is the only transformation project, then everything else you’re considering outside the programme remains static. If there are multiple transformations in progress, the interdependencies become critical, and you can end up with too many revisions as things outside the project change. There may be a limit to how much change the business can accommodate at once and it’s worth considering when to start yours.

Setup is key: is the business ready?

In all of these cases, a readiness phase is vital – a very clear and detailed agreement of what “ready to start” looks like. Once the starting pistol is fired there will be no time to revisit the setup, so your preparation, planning, resourcing and scoping phase – as well as agreeing that you have both the right approach and people available – is key.

Setting up a change programme is a whole piece of organisational design in its own right. You need to define roles and responsibilities very clearly, be honest about the availability of people and skills and what you have in–house vs. special expertise you will need to source externally.

Phasing helps when you find the right bitesize chunks

Part of that setup is phasing. Complex projects can take longer and people get change fatigue. It’s more motivating if there are key milestones to hit and you deliver visible value back to the organisation in chunks.

Consider the phasing from several angles to make sure that you choose the approach. Are there technical interdependencies? Is there a logical sequence that delivers initial benefits quicker (to unlock funding for later phases)?

There is usually a trade–off between a more gentle pace of change – which can be managed internally – and change that has to happen quickly. If you need to jump on a market opportunity or meet legislative deadlines, you will need more external skills and help to move at pace.

Lines of communication are a critical path to success

Part of your programme setup is to get the governance and clear lines of communication ready. You can’t plan for
everything and things will happen that you weren’t expecting.

What you can plan upfront are the processes to manage the unexpected quickly. You need clear workstreams and ownership. Everyone needs to understand who can take decisions on what, and how to escalate issues for resolution quickly. You don’t want an issue bubbling that never gets aired because people believe it won’t be resolved or it gets ‘passed around’. The lines have to work two–way and feedback on outcomes is just as important.

What skills are required to lead a complex change programme

Your programme leader needs to be able to think in a co–ordinated and structured way, but they also need to be able to cope with change. Leading change is not just about being able to put together a plan and regular updates. The leader needs to keep focused on the goal, not lose sight of it whilst in the detail, and be constantly rethinking and revisiting all the parts to ensure it stays knitted together.

Each workstream of your project will require its own leader and they should all report to the same programme lead. On some longer projects I’ve even been on team–building days with other workstream leads, where we work collectively on something outside of the programme to hone our collaboration and communication skills away from the project detail.

Invest in the right skillset to get traction

At i-Realise we’ve been leading and landing complex change programmes for nearly 30 years. One of the biggest pitfalls I’ve seen is starting the project with critical skillsets missing. Using the available people and letting them develop skills through the project is a great opportunity. For them to succeed and learn most, make sure that the most critical roles are covered by people with experience – internal or external. Your more junior people will learn more if they have someone to coach them and show them how it’s done well.

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