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Five change mistakes a good programme manager won’t make

Programme managers juggle a wide range of challenges and many will get a buzz from bringing order to chaos and under-performance. All will want to avoid the pitfalls of change.

1. Ignoring the 70% failure factor

Since John P Kotter’s landmark Harvard Business Review article on why 70% of transformation delivery programmes fail to deliver their target benefits, the figure of 70% has been quoted widely.

Kotter argued – and over 5,000 scholarly articles have since cited him – that not addressing a series of people-centric factors will probably result in failure. The consequences for programme sponsors, senior responsible officers (SROs) and accountable programme managers can be career-limiting.

To avoid people-centric failure, Kotter says that you think about the associated risk throughout the project lifecycle: in the fabric of Project Initiation Documentation (PIDs) and programme and project plans, key deliverables and target outcomes; and in the cycle of stage gate reviews. You also need to consider it with regard to all stakeholder groups.

While all these best practice principles are part of PRINCE2® standards, programme managers need to actively manage people-focused business change; either by insuring against failure or seeing risk as an opportunity to accelerate delivery or improve returns by tackling the drivers behind the risk.

2. Associating ‘change’ purely with ‘communications’

You might recall programmes that were under way, but where results were not yet coming through and progress appeared slow. You might also remember when the call then went out for a communications manager to explain what needed to happen. If ithis sounds like a familiar set of circumstances, then the response is probably also recognisable - but it’s the wrong choice.

Solid programme managers don’t default to the comms manager to broadcast directions; instead they start a two-way conversation because...

...while a message might need to go out, has it been received? Is it understood? Has it been committed to? Is it being championed? How will you know unless you listen and validate what you think you have conveyed? Change requires engagement, not just communication. The message about what needs to happen (eg, a new way of working) needs to be discussed, so that it is understood, facilitated and actively supported.While having a comms manager is a good start, good programme managers have an engagement and communications lead who helps to raise awareness, get contributions and challenge and promote positive action. A good programme manager will want the engagement: an excellent one will be looking for every opportunity to exploit engagement proactively.

3. Addressing change too late in the programme lifecycle

Good change practice should be at the heart of a transformation programme, so when you check through a programme plan and see change activities mushroom towards the end of a programme, pause.

Can you see a link between business readiness and testing, development of solutions and earlier design, to the overall transformation vision? If not, why are you doing that training or re-shaping departments and individual roles? And against what are you measuring The Great Leap Forward?

Your business readiness and change implementation activities should be rooted in solution impact analysis; and, even earlier, reference to change delivery strategies should be in your project initiation document, if your programme is to deliver the vision.

Addressing change early will reveal resistance or client discontent. A poor programme manager does not exploit the potential for active, through-lifecycle, change delivery as a valuable indicator of stakeholder buy-in; a great one will recognise that stakeholder-centric change activities will unearth the key issues of the programme cycle early.

4. Assuming one size fits all

As PRINCE2 emphasises, projects need to be tailored to their environments. So how is the programme approach to change tailored? Does it consider the track record of the transforming organisation and draw on the lessons learnt from previous change?

As well as reviewing what’s gone before, you also need to consider where that organisation is now. Do they have the capacity to deliver – to provide experienced champions and influential change agents or those ready, willing and able to learn?

An expert programme manager will use a change capability and capacity assessment to refine the cost-effective investment in design, build, test and implementation. They’ll review resources, targeting segmented audiences and identifying opportunities to build high-profile/high value change networks to spread the risk and spread the workload of implementation. The poor programme manager will not even think about customising the programme change delivery approach.

5. Believing we are all change managers now, and that change management is naturally part of what a programme manager does

Not all programme managers have the necessary skills for a change delivery role, so good team structuring should use cognitive styles, team-type, and mode analysis (such as MBTI, Belbin and MiRo) to ensure the right mix of characters and skills to deliver a transformative campaign.

Many programme managers are structured and driven, analytical and direct; some will be inclusive team-creators; but only a few will be truly visionary and inspiring. Most will not be able to work across all the possible delivery styles with the degree of expertise to carry off a transformation programme alone.

Transformation needs a team of peers, rather than reports; colleagues rather than bag-carriers. A good programme manager will understand the need for a strong set of peers to help them deliver and a great programme manager will have the emotional intelligence to respect the differing skills that are required for the transformational challenge. A poor programme manager will simply think it all too 'pink and fluffy.

This article was first published by global best practice specialist AXELOS, Capita’s joint venture with the Cabinet Office.

Photo of John Tibble

John Tibble

Director, Capita Transformation

John P Tibble is a director in Capita Transformation’s secure government market team. Over the last 30 years, he has played front-line roles in delivering change in the public and private sectors, with global businesses like Nestle and Diageo and in UK institutions like the NHS and the Home Office. He believes that the value of sound change management is often recognised too late; and that leading change effectively remains one of the great challenges for us all.

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