Transformation: manage it right

29 Jan 16

Carol Smith, Shirley Dalziel and Judith Strange provide their insight on how to make your transformation project a success

Transformation - image by Natalie Wood


We cannot afford the future unless we do things differently. Finance professionals recognise the imperative for change on efficiency grounds; the march of technology, globalisation, demands from customers and ever-changing legislation intensify the grounds for innovation.

Successful implementation of transformation projects is vital, yet failures continue – not realising anticipated benefits or reputational damage are all too common. Reasons for failure include: a lack of leadership, skills and knowledge; hidden conflicts; implementing the wrong solution; a lack of accountability; and failure to tackle cultural and behavioural issues.

CIPFA’s Transforming Corporate Services Toolkit is aimed at professionals involved in transformation, whether you are outsourcing with external professional support or looking to modernise and improve how you work in-house. It explores the key stages of preparation, design, implementation and sustaining transformation.

Lessons learned from practitioners who have successfully transformed their organisations include:

1) Be curious

Explore different options. Sometimes organisations choose one option and slavishly follow it through to implementation, even though it may not be the right one. Explore options against your own situation, using your own objectives. Don’t adopt a solution just because you have seen it work elsewhere.

Learn from others – what they did that worked and what did not. Look at experiences in your own organisation – just because something didn’t work before doesn’t mean that it won’t work now. Learn from failures and be aware of the risks.

2) Be visionary

Look beyond the next couple of years. Work with others to create a compelling and energetic vision, with a focus on why the change is needed. Get buy-in by presenting this vision in a way that involves others and grabs their attention; question your communication style if this doesn’t happen.

3) Be positive

With more demands and less funding, it can be hard to be positive about the change and the opportunities it affords. Concentrating on change only in order to tackle threats can limit staff buy-in and creativity.

Set the future in the context of current good practice. Build on what works well now and in the past.

4) Be prepared

How ready are you and the organisation for change? Assess this and consider it when planning. It can be tempting to press on without conducting a proper review as it can be time consuming; however, it can give results you didn’t expect.

Set the governance up early to provide a mechanism for rigorous decision-making and effective leadership. Review capability before allocating key roles.

Ensure there is a sufficient focus on the detail in the planning and design phases. Document all sub-tasks and deadlines; communication, logistics and record keeping can get overlooked.

Remember soft skills and change management; many transformation projects involve changes to staff roles and responsibilities.

Sometimes, risk management and contingency planning can be overlooked, or given to one risk management expert. Involving everyone in risk identification and mitigation and discussing this area raises its profile. Thinking risks through can also create opportunities not previously identified.

5) Be inclusive

Involve as many people as possible at all levels early on in the process of the creation of the vision. The transformation project should mean something to everyone.

Seek opinions from multiple sources and involve others. Sustainable transformation programmes are strengthened by opinions from internal and external sources.

6) Be accountable

Ensure leadership is supported by a continued focus on governance. Personalities, resistance and cultural factors can play a big part in whether a design is accepted or challenged. Truly independent project assurance, where all opinions are heard, is essential, particularly so when bringing organisations together.

Staff performance still needs to be managed. The capability and sustainability of an organisation needs to be maintained. Sometimes transformation can be seen as a solution to underperforming services; however, the process of transformational change requires all staff to perform well.

7) Be realistic

Be realistic about what transformation will and won’t do. Don’t exaggerate the positives. Excitement, sponsorship and a sense of optimism can make organisations take on major programmes without thinking them through. Perhaps this is not the right time, perhaps there are higher priorities, or perhaps the organisation is just not ready.

Ensure there are adequate resources for staff, funding and timescales. This will help the project to be delivered on time and within budget.

Remember that resistance is natural and part of the change process. You should expect and welcome it. Finding opportunities to expose and explore it will assist you.

Try to seek objective measures of evaluation, since individuals can be tempted to be overly negative or positive.

Prepare staff for contingencies and adjustments. Having to make adjustments is not proof of failure; they are part of testing and fitting the design to the organisation. Anticipate and manage a performance dip. Focus on the future: “In two months, X will be achieved; in six months, we will be at Y.”

8) Be flexible

Avoid tunnel vision – if one option has gained a strong momentum, it may be difficult to reduce, even if that option may not be cost effective or meet organisational needs. Keep several options open for as long as possible to alleviate this.

Sometimes the perceived benefit of a speedy, big bang approach can overshadow proper consideration of risks. It should be clarified whether rapid transformation is beneficial – for example because there is a risk of major service failure – or whether a more agile, evolving, fluid approach is more appropriate.

9) Be connected

Join your transformation project with the wider organisation and consider resources in the context of dependencies from other transformation projects and programmes.

Consider services or processes the change is linked to; all those on whom the change has a bearing should be consulted.

Build teams and trust for those affected. Creating a teamworking charter can be a useful way of managing expectations, particularly when establishing new teams.

10) Be responsive

Work with people as individuals, rather than groups or job titles – everyone has their own motivations and concerns.

Build contingency and agility into your plans – while you can anticipate many issues, something unexpected will usually arise.

Evaluate progress at various stages such as at the outset, mid-project, before going live, after going live and during consolidation. Monitor specific, major aspects such as joint working, use of suppliers and partnership approaches.

Anticipate the drivers to change evolving, particularly in a multi-year project. Be flexible and adapt the transformation to respond to new circumstances.

Keep change management, communication and coaching as high priorities, beyond the duration of the project.

  • Carol Smith, Shirley Dalziel & Judith Strange

    Carol Smith is accounting manager at Aberdeen City Council. Shirley Dalziel and Judith Strange are founding directors of Develop Global. Shirley, Judith and Carol are co-authors of CIPFA’s Transforming Corporate Services Toolkit