Five Common Traps to Achieving Transformation Goals and How to Avoid Them

April 21, 2022


So, your enterprise has embarked on a journey to transform its business. Perhaps it’s a digital transformation, leveraging enhanced technology capabilities to digitize how you deliver your product or services.  Or maybe you are looking to capture synergies through a strategic acquisition, taking the best of both firms to provide amore compelling offering to market.

These enterprise-scale transformations always start with the best intentions. Unfortunately, the odds of success are rather dire.  Whether it’s a digital transformation, merger integration, cost reduction, or similar program the success rates are similarly dismal – typically between 20 – 30%.  

Of course, this is not news.  Everyone knows that transforming an organization is hard – otherwise, management consulting would be a much less lucrative industry.  Even with this understanding, though, we still see many teams fall into some common traps that may seem like good approaches initially, but have shortcomings that hinder their chances of delivering against goals.

In this blog we will look at some of the common traps teams fall into when trying to deliver strategic transformations, and how to avoid them.  Our hope is that this will help you become one of the 20-30% that beats the odds and delivers programs that achieve, or even exceed, their targets.

The challenge

Certainly program management as a discipline has been evolving for a long time, and delivery capabilities are improving.  Despite this steady improvement, though, we frequently hear that teams are struggling to achieve their transformation targets.

Many factors conspire to drive these programs off course, and through our experience we have identified some recurring themes:

  • There is a lack of clarity regarding the relationship between enterprise strategy, program goals, and enabling initiatives (we often refer to this as the “zombie PMO” that continues toexecute against a plan, with no understanding of the context of its actions)
  • Teams struggle to adjust to the realities of their environment as business conditions change
  • Initiatives are disjointed across delivery teams, hindering the identification and proactive management of dependencies
  • Executives are disconnected from program delivery, often not seeing challenges until it’s too late
  • There is unclear accountability, as teams struggle to understand who is on-point to deliver against key benefits and milestones

The Five Traps

In response to these challenges teams often start with what they know.  Whether it is strong traditional program management capabilities, a continuous improvementCOE, or a small team of ex-consultants, teams often rely on known approaches to tackle large-scale programs.  And unfortunately the shortcomings of these approaches are not recognized until it’s too late, and programs have begun to fall short of their aspirations.

We have seen five common “traps” that teams can fall into when trying to deliver transformation programs:

Trap 1. Focus on traditional program management processes

On time, on budget, within scope.  This is the iron triangle of program management.  See what’s missing?  Business value!

Beware of the teams with 100+ page playbooks and 1,000+ line Gantt Charts to drive business transformation.  These are the teams that follow their prescriptive program management rituals but lose sight of exactly why they are executing the program.  There is frequent talk of measuring progress and earned value, but limited understanding of the big picture or strategic intent.

These teams are the most likely to fall into the earlier definition of a “Zombie PMO” – continuing to execute against astatic plan, without an understanding of how it contributes to business value.  Although they seem to be making progress against tasks, nobody is quite sure of the value they have delivered.  Team members are demoralized as they question the meaning of their work, and seem to repeat the same box-checking exercises day-in and day-out.

Trap 2. Create a centralized business transformation team

This approach starts off with good intentions – typically around managing data quality and “not disrupting the business.”  A small, dedicated team of bright people with Excel and PowerPoint get to creating immensely complicated models and reporting progress on a regular cadence via a series of tailored update documents.  All inputs and outputs flow through the team, as initiative leads send their updates and the team creates reports for the executives.

While this approach often starts well, it begins to encounter challenges as the program scales.  Suddenly the team is spending more time chasing updates, managing models, and creating slides than actually managing the program.  There is a lack of enterprise ownership of the program, as the bulk of the organization sees it as “the business transformation team’s program.”.  In the worst cases, this team is exposed to considerable pressure from stakeholders to paint their portion of the program in a favorable light.

Trap 3. Dictate “We will not fail!”

Perhaps the most dangerous approach, it starts off promising as there is a laser focus on business outcomes rather than delivery processes.  Teams build out detailed business cases, and there is rigorous monitoring of benefits realization.

Where this falls apart is when programs inevitably face challenges.  Bad news is not accepted, especially when it potentially impacts value realization.  Teams are forced to find ways to achieve the targets, even if prerequisite tasks are not completed.  Imagine when an IT system that has promised significant efficiency improvements has been delayed – these teams will take actions to reduce headcount despite the underlying systems not being ready.

This approach also leads to a demoralized workforce, as resources struggle to handle expanding workloads. Additionally this often results in a less effective organization, as resources battle to merely operate the business with no time to truly innovate.  This process repeats every 2-3 years as teams burn out, and the transformations are met with the phrase “here we go again.”

Trap 4. See Agile as the solution to all problems

Agile is rightfully becoming a standard approach for software development, and it is beginning to make inroads even beyond technology.  It is a terrific methodology for aligning functionalities with business needs, and accelerating time-to-value with the delivery of Minimum Viable Products.  Teams feel empowered to influence the prioritization and planning of their work, and delivery progress is continuously monitored via burndown and story points.

Although Agile is terrific for software development, teams should be cautious when applying the methodology to other disciplines such as strategic transformation programs.  When teams deploy Agile for their strategic transformations we often hear two main challenges: one is that executives can’t plan around delivery – they don’t know what is being delivered more than three months out, and thus struggle to forecast the financial impact.  Second, there is often a challenge in developing a program-level view and managing dependencies across teams (although this maybe a function of agile management tool capabilities than the methodology itself).

Trap 5. Leverage continuous improvement

A final trap we see is that teams will leverage continuous improvement to try and drive transformational change.  Certainly organizations should continuously strive to improve operations, and many effectively leverage approaches such asLean to drive continuous, incremental enhancements.

The challenge is that continuous improvement approaches struggle to deliver truly transformational change.  They lack the overall coordination to align the organization to a strategic goal, and initiatives are typically constrained to efforts that can be delivered by small teams – thus delivering small(relative) improvements.

How to deliver effective transformation programs

Teams that run successful programs understand that transformation delivery requires a comprehensive, inclusive, goal-driven approach.  There is no prescriptive “one size fits all” methodology that can be successfully deployed across all organizations and program types; however there are some key guiding principles that greatly enhance the odds and magnitude of success.  Below are some common themes that we have identified among our most successful clients:

  • Clearly articulated goals that are communicated throughout the organization by leadership
  • Transformations that are bold and enterprise-scale, with ambitious, yet achievable, targets
  • Broad organizational involvement, from executives through the front-line to drive a shared ownership of the program’s success
  • Visibly engaged executive stakeholders throughout the program to help communicate the importance of the program
  • Culture of accountability, with program, workstream, and initiative owners measured on their contributions to goals
  • Clear roles and responsibilities throughout the program and initiatives
  • Proactive identification, communication and management of risks and dependencies
  • Rapid time for value delivery emphasizing “quick wins” and a sense of urgency to deliver targets
  • Flexibility to adjust to changing business conditions

Of course, the right software platform is a key enabler of the themes above.  Some specific capabilities that should be prioritized are as follows:

  • Capture program goals and highlight connection to benefits and enabling initiatives
  • Collaborative, enterprise-scale software with management of resource roles and access privileges
  • User experience that supports ease-of-use for resources at all levels of the organization
  • Integrated, real-time, single-source-of-truth for program status, progress, costs, benefits, risks and dependencies
  • Custom reporting aligned to executive requirements
  • Continuous measurement of performance against targets and plans
  • Clearly-identified owners for initiatives, tasks, benefits, risks, and dependencies
  • Rapid tool setup and configuration

How can Amplify help?

Amplify is a Strategy Execution Management platform that has been developed to help organizations deliver on the promise of theirmost ambitious and critical transformations. Our solution has been optimized based on the feedback of thousands of users, using Amplify to deliver billions of dollars in program benefits.

Some key capabilities that Amplify brings are as follows:

  • Speed - Real-time tracking of financial and activity deadlines, instantly available via embedded reports
  • Conformance - Governance and stage-gate processes to report on structured workflow management
  • Single-source-of-truth - Avoid multiple data sources when a single source is available real-time and bridges the gap between planning and execution
  • Transparency - Always know how you are doing in achieving your delivery and savings targets
  • Accountability - Quickly identify who is on point for meeting original goals and which are off track and need to be addressed
  • Broad Collaboration - Access across delivery teams to enhance identification of dependencies and proactive management of issues

In conclusion

Delivering enterprise transformations programs is hard, and unfortunately many teams fall short.  However, all is not lost, as effective organizations are able to deliver programs that meet or exceed their strategic goals.  They know to avoid the common traps of program delivery, and set up program structures that facilitate a comprehensive, inclusive, goal-driven approach. Additionally, they leverage purpose-built solutions like Amplify to help them deliver the change.

Interested in learning more?  Reach out to our team and we will be happy to show you how Amplify can equip your team to deliver results.

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