It makes perfect sense. A small group of individuals holds a brilliant idea that just needs to be rewarded with a proper budget to set up a full-blown program. As soon as the approval board says ‘go’, the ‘believers’ start to appoint people to initiate the change initiative. All too often, they seek support of externals to move quickly. This all might seem obvious and logical, but there is an eminent threat…serious failure later in the program.

Too often transformation programs are well underway when the program starts losing pace or comes to a sudden standstill. Research and experience show that there is ample reason for that:

Starting too quickly

Typically change and transformation initiatives start among a small group of leaders. Convinced of the importance of their transformation idea(s), they go and establish a “coalition of the willing”. Once enough sponsorship is obtained along with the appropriate funding, they appoint a (small) team of trail blazers or quarter makers to mould the initiative into a program. And that is where the problem starts…

A frequently seen (re)action to the task of ‘initiating a change or transformation program’ is to quickly recruit project managers to develop plans and execute the change.  There is no time to waste! Project managers will do what project managers are supposed to do: get clarity on objectives, budget and timelines. When things are unclear, project managers will work hard to get commitment so the project can move forward. But let us be fair, in case of complex transformations, the bigger picture is not perfectly clear from the beginning.

And then there is reality

All too often the program set up is handed off too quickly to project managers. In that case the following is likely to happen.

  • Project managers will define their own “truth” for their piece of the program – with all good intentions – and define achievable goals and deliverables. The scope of each project will be set by the project managers, and it will be difficult to keep control on the entire program for the initiators. Worst case scenario could be that the project managers are weeks underway before they organize their first steering committees, and only then the initiators find out that project managers followed the wrong path. As a result, re-work needs to be done, which requires more time and budget (and leads to frustration).
  • Another reality is that project managers will focus on their own specific goals and may not be equipped to oversee impact on other projects, programs or organizational activities. Dividing up into projects too quickly will not stimulate to uncover dependencies that the overall program has. This may lead to situations where dependencies are not on the radar until rather late in the program, causing a lot of delay and frustration (and yes, we have seen this happening!).
  • With the program well on its way, you may conclude at a later stage that instead of hiring a project manager, it would have been better to outsource a certain program component, and to hire someone that is excellent in managing external contracts. Or you have hired a project manager where you discover that the existing line organization is well capable to absorb certain activities.

For all the high-level agreements that were not clear, or not explicitly shared, the program members will have long, tedious, and timely discussions during the lifetime of a program, which may even cause friction between the team members.

The small group defines

Our belief is that it is the small group of original initiators that is the right group of people to think the program through and decide what the exact scope, end state, and activities will be within the program, and as a consequence what kind of resources are required. This should be defined before the rest of the program team is established, as these decisions guide the architecture of the program. This should be done by the small group of original originators of the program, before other team members have created their own interest and complicate decisions.

Thinking the program through means thinking about, for example, these components of our methodology “Transformation Bridge”:

  1. Roadmap: what deliverables do we plan by when, and how does that impact the business case?
  2. Way of Working: what should be outsourced? What should be run as a project? What is typically something that needs to be anchored in the line organization? How do we work together?
  3. Resourcing: if we want to outsource elements, do we have good managers for this? Do we need to hire project managers, or should we discuss within the line organization to free up people? What kind of profiles do we need?

In conclusion

The initiators of the program are not wasting their valuable time in the beginning if they take a few weeks/months to think the set-up of the program through. According to our experience, the time you spend in the beginning of a program to define (in detail) what and how you want to achieve, in a holistic way, is always paying out. This is about winning time by setting out the guidelines for the program, that will facilitate the right people working in the program to do their own job efficiently. Starting too fast, means failing later.

If you want to set your program up for success, then our advice is to spend time in the beginning, with your small group of initiators to think the program though before you hire the people that start executing. You will save time and money and will be more likely to achieve your goal.


David Bergsma

Annelieke Hoenderkamp
Senior Manager