A recent analysis of two major transformations showed just how critical it is to have the right enablers in play for a successful outcome. 

If you’ve been in the digital transformation game long enough, you’ll come across enough successful and less-than-successful projects that reveal the complexities and critical success factors that impact major IT projects.  

Whether you’re talking about a large company or small; a core platform project or any other major change; we’ve come across enough commonalities over the years to be able to say with confidence that some key ingredients tend to earmark a project as “likely to be successful” (or the less desirable alternative). 

Tony Boyd’s article in the AFR about two such projects illustrates just how critical leadership, planning, and the right level of engagement with third parties is for the outcome of transformation initiatives. We’d also add to that list the importance of an outcomes-based culture (rather than a good news culture, or even a performance culture).  

The AFR article tells the contrasting tales of Metcash and Seek’s IT transformation projects. It’s a compelling narrative that reveals the complexities and critical success factors inherent in major IT initiatives – as well as the best and worst of the governance of risks associated with adopting and implementing new technologies.  

A tale of woe vs success: 4 takeaways 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, leadership emerges as the key differentiator between the outcomes of these two projects. 

In the first, a disconnect between the executive team and the project was apparent, which showed up as a lack of empowerment and poor oversight. The second highlights what happens when the executive team stays fully engaged and is willing to be accountable throughout the delivery.  After all, projects are not delivered in a vacuum, nor can they simply be “done” to an organsation. Leadership is required to drive projects and embrace changes by weaving them into the operating fabric of the organisation. 

The most critical takeaway for leaders involved in major projects is simple: leadership is not something you can step aside from. Whether you engage someone from outside your organisation or lead from within, Boyd reminds us of an inescapable truth that as the leaders you can hold other people responsible, but you cannot hold them accountable.   

Here are the four takeaways we see as critical enablers:

1. Project management and leadership: One of the more striking things we see in project delivery is how much influence leadership can have on whether a transformation initiative succeeds … or doesn’t; if the project finds itself in the less than desirable position of having a sponsor in name only (find out how to avoid that trap by being a better project sponsor).

Inevitably, it is the organisation’s leadership team who own the transformation. Therefore, it is their role to actively drive change from within – as Seek’s leadership team did on their transformation. This is especially true in high-risk and complex projects (including core platform projects). 

Overall, when there’s strong governance and experienced technology sponsors on board, there is a higher likelihood of success.  

2. Role of third parties: By contrast, organisations that rely too heavily on external consultants to deliver change or lead the project commonly come unstuck. The most appropriate role for external consultants to play is facilitating project delivery.

When you bring a consultant – or any third party – into transformation projects, their responsibility is to help facilitate the project’s delivery by bringing in the requisite expertise, capability and insights. They can also play a critical role by providing insight and direction that comes with expertise and experience externally, they can augment internal team with capability to close gaps and provide tools and accelerators to help create traction in ambiguity.   

If you allow an external party to become overly influential or give them accountability for driving the transformation, you risk creating a disconnect between the executive team’s vision and the project, as well as a lack of empowerment and oversight across the project. 

While you can delegate tasks and hold consultants responsible, the ultimate accountability lies with the executive leaders who are driving the transformation. 

3. Engagement of business leaders: There’s an old saying about learning the easy way or the hard way – the hard way is a lot harder to recover from. The executive team needs to be deeply engaged with significant transformation projects, because it is a critical factor in the successful delivery of transformational initiatives.

Underneath the executive level, there’s also a lot to be said for keeping your project leaders engaged. This is especially true when you’re between active project delivery phases – the work you do to engage senior project staff then will pay dividends when it’s time to deliver your next big transformation.  

4. Governance and planning: Well-structured governance and planning in IT projects is a significant part of successful projects. While project governance is not a one-size-fits-all situation, there are significant downsides to being both over-governed and under-governed.

Where there is a lack of clear vision and understanding of the project’s complexities compared to the more disciplined approach taken by Seek, the consequences are pretty clear.  

It’s very likely that without robust governance and planning, there’s a high likelihood of a project going off the rails. 

The delicate balance between vision, execution, and accountability 

The experience of these two major IT transformation projects – as well as others – demonstrate the delicate balance between vision, execution, and accountability we must maintain on major projects – transformation or otherwise. 

The value third-party consultants can provide is clear: they can help facilitate delivery, bolster internal skillsets and bring an external perspective to optimise the performance of your project. However, even the best and most skilled of consultants is not a substitute for good leadership.   When leaders stay engaged for the duration of a major initiative, like a core platform project, you’ll go a long way to ensuring the project’s chances of success.  

Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team or reach out to have a discussion today.  

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Quay Consulting
Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...