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Safe sailing on board the good ship Change

In my opinion, the most important aspect in determining the fate of any change initiative is the relationship between the three key roles that form the spine of the change organisation. These are the Sponsor, the Programme / Project Manager (applicable depending on the scale of change) and the P3O (Portfolio, Programme and Project Management Offices) Manager / Lead Analyst.

The analogy I would use when describing the importance of this relationship, is that of the Captain, the Bridge and the Engine Room on a ship. The Captain needs to be sure that the Bridge will anticipate and immediately implement any instruction they give to change course. In turn, the Bridge has to instinctively trust that any new instruction from the Captain is the right decision. Finally, they both have to be sure that the Engine Room will be able to support a revised change of course.

Given that, the three key foundations for a successful change outcome are a) a clear vision of the future, b) a business case defining the benefits to be realised, and c) the support of impacted stakeholders. It is imperative that the relationship between the Sponsor, the Programme / Project Manager (PM) and the P3O lead is based on trust, and most importantly, is open and honest.

Let’s look at why these relationships are so important and what each role should expect from the others.

The PM role is the hub of any change initiative, and has to develop and maintain relationships with stakeholders at all levels, but the relationship that they should invest the most amount of time in is their relationship with the sponsor of the change initiative.

The PM needs to know what is really important to the Sponsor; I’m not talking about the obvious things here, such as the deliverables and benefits associated with the change initiative, but the ‘softer’ criteria such as the political and commercial landscape that the programme or project has to be delivered in. Equally, the PM has to be able to confidently bring to the attention of the Sponsor, the challenges and obstacles (both internal and third party) they will face in delivering the change initiative.

The other side of this relationship is that the Sponsor needs to know that as well as being a competent leader of change, the PM ‘has their back’ when navigating an often complex political landscape, particularly when dealing with the key stakeholders. Both parties have to be consistent with their messaging, publically supporting each other as well as the objectives and anticipated benefits of the change initiative.

This is often made even more difficult, when the Sponsor may be the only one of the roles we are discussing that is a permanent member of the organisation impacted by the change. It is likely that either or both the PM and P3O roles could be third parties, bought in specifically to help deliver the programme or project.

So, how can you approach building a trusted and open relationship if you haven’t worked together before and time is pressing? Firstly, I would recommend that at the very start of the programme or project, both parties schedule a weekly 1:1 ‘off the record’ briefing session. Attendance should be limited to the sponsor and the PM and the meeting held in addition to other wider formal governance forums such as steering groups.

This meeting shouldn’t just be an update of the headline issues and risks already captured in the status report. The maximum value comes from also addressing the root cause of those issues and risks - namely the emotions, fears, aspirations, politics and unpredictability that human beings bring to any situation involving change, especially where there may be losers as well as winners at the completion of the programme or project. The informal agenda should be intentionally bold and honest as its purpose is to facilitate the discussion of the things that nobody dares include in a status report, even though they do actually form and drive the positive and negative energy of any programme or project.

At the first meeting the PM shouldn’t be afraid to take the lead and outline what they need and expect from the sponsor. As long as the requirements from both parties are reasonable, even if not well received, at least they have been aired. It is certainly far better (and healthier) to establish these requirements at the very beginning of the change initiative, rather than halfway through.

Both the sponsor and the PM are about to embark on a journey together that is likely to involve persuading other people, some undoubtedly neutral at best and negative / hostile at worst, to make that journey with them. If it is apparent that the sponsor and the PM are not fully aligned and supportive of each other then the confidence and buy-in of others will quite naturally be further reduced.

It is also essential that the PM has a good honest relationship based on trust with the senior person in their P3O function. Why is this important? Because the P3O function is the information engine room of any change initiative. So, it is imperative that the timeliness and accuracy of the information provided by P3O enables the Sponsor and the PM to take, with as a high degree of confidence as possible, the key decisions about the programme’s direction and pace.

In order to meet those requirements, the PM has to invest time with the P3O Manager / Lead Analyst to define their information requirements, including availability, confidentiality (if not public domain), reporting frequency and formatting. Equally they need to ensure that the PMO Manager / Lead Analyst feels that they are a stakeholder in the decision making process by communicating the importance of the information and detailing how, when and for who it will be used.

If the information provided is accurate and timely, changes in the direction and / or pace of the programme or project should consist of gradual incremental adjustments that enable it to maintain a steady predictable course. However, if the underlying information is inaccurate and out of date, it will likely result in more extreme zig zags, which will burn time, money, and energy, as well as reducing credibility and eroding confidence… at which point the good ship Change is heading toward the rocks.


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