10 actions for programme management offices to navigate a successful transformation programme


It’s common for organisations to launch complex and large-scale change transformation programmes yet, nearly 75 percent of these programmes fail to improve business performance within the short or long-term. At the start of these transformation programmes, there is almost always tremendous pressure to get going as quickly as possible and this is where some of the first mistakes are made. Executive Sponsors are eager to get going to build trust that the investment is in good hands, whilst programme practitioners want to ensure that there is a solid foundation in place to execute the programme.

I recently had the privilege of working with Pioneer Foods, one of the largest FMCG companies in South Africa, on a strategic transformation programme. One of the key activities that I was tasked to take care of at the start of the programme was the establishment of the temporary Programme Management Office (PMO). It didn’t take much convincing to get the programme leaders to understand that the PMO would need to do things differently from what they were used to in order to make the programme a success.

The journey was both challenging and insightful and if you are tasked to set-up a PMO for a large transformation programme, below are my top ten actions to ensure you will be successful. You can also watch the video Setting up a Transformation Programme Office  that was presented at the recent online PMO Trends Conference.

1. Establish the PMO early so that it is ready to run when the programme kicks off

Many PMOs find themselves on the back foot with the start-up of transformation programmes. More often than not, the internal or enterprise PMO does not have the capability or capacity to support the programme, and there is no real understanding of the role that this PMO will need to play. This then results in little (if any) support or commitment (money and time) to get it set up with the required skills and resources, as soon as possible.

Start by identifying key roles that you require to help you design the PMO (get external expertise if you need to) whilst providing administration support and oversight of the initiation activities. The sooner you start the important discussions with the programme leaders on expectations, required role and services, the sooner you can start looking for appropriately skilled people as ideally you would want the PMO up and running before the rest of the team arrives. Transformation programmes usually involve extended procurement and recruitment processes, so you are likely to find that you have time for this.

2. Understand the programme and organisational context

No programme is the same and it is thus critical that you get a good understanding of the programme context as well as the environment within which it will be running. A lot of what the PMO will put in place, will be influenced by the following:

  • Methodology or Approach. It is highly likely that the implementation partner or external supplier will bring their own methodology that is best suited for the programme. This will be new to the organisation and will require the PMO to provide (or source) the required training and coaching to familiarise the team and stakeholders with the new ways of working;
  • Source Lessons Learned. It is always a good idea to engage with other organisations as well as independent advisors that have either undertaken or been involved with similar transformations to understand the lessons they have learned and how you can bring that into your programme’s ways of working.
  • Culture within the environment. Make an effort to understand the culture within the environment, specifically the way in which decisions are made as this will most definitely influence decision making on the programme. You may need to plan some interventions to ensure the approach to decisions and levels of authority that will work for the programme;
  • Organisational Policies. Source any organisational policies that may influence the processes that the PMO will be implementing, for example Enterprise Risk Management or Procurement Policies. This can save you (and the programme) a lot of heartache later when the PMO receives information requests for broader organisational reporting purposes or gets audited.

3. Secure programme leadership support for the PMO

The PMO typically fulfils the role of assurance, oversight, governance and control, and reporting. In order to be effective at this, the PMO will need the active and visible support of the senior leadership team. They should see the PMO as the single source of truth, telling it like it is, giving them assurance that things are on track and pro-actively highlighting quality concerns, issues and risks with scenarios to enable the right decisions.  Without this support, your PMO is likely to be seen as an overhead, blocker or administrative burden so ensure you have the right discussions early on to get their buy-in and support.

4. Source the right mix of people with the right capabilities for the programme

Key things to focus on when designing the programme organisation structure and mobilising the programme team:

  • Despite the involvement of an expert implementation partner, the organisation remains overall accountable for its success and therefore needs to retain ownership and accountability for the programme. Key roles on the programme must be organisation-led and the right people must be assigned with sufficient capacity to execute on it. Ideally, they should be dedicated.
  • Ensure sufficient internal people are assigned to the programme. The programme will need readily access to business and IT expertise. Clearly define the business and IT roles required, considering what the implementation partner as well as other suppliers would bring, bearing in mind that you need to ensure and enable knowledge transfer to the internal people.
  • Suppliers, as any other organisation, have weaknesses. Make an effort to understand their strengths but also weaknesses so that the programme can augment it with third parties or contractors that have the necessary skills and expertise. A key area I particularly focus on here is Change Management.

5. Focus on building an alliance

The programme team will include people from within the organisation from various divisions, business units and functions as well as external people. The team could be spread across various locations and even countries, all from different backgrounds and cultures. Many programmes struggle and even fail as result of an “us and them” mentality. Make sure you create an environment (physically and ways of working) where everyone feels part of the same team. Your Change Management team can definitely help you here as this is their area of expertise.

6. Provide clarity and structure on decision making

The future state design will require a host of business and technical designs decisions. If you don’t provide clarity and agreement upfront on the appropriate level and mandate of decision making, it will result in wheel spinning, decisions made at the wrong level and ultimately rework and/or delays.

Get the right people together and apply your minds early on as to the types of key decisions that would be required. Define and agree the decision making authorities for individual roles as well as governing bodies and document and communicate it via a detailed Decision Rights Matrix. Of course, this could evolve as the programme moves forward so keep a close eye on this throughout the life of the programme.

7. Ensure the programme team is well equipped to “get on with things”

There are many functions, services and tools that the PMO has to provide to the programme. Take a holistic view of all these functions and select the most suitable tools. Remember, tools can have a multitude of features and functions which can lead to significant duplication.  Always use the tool for what it is intended and make sure it matches the maturity of the programme organisation. There is nothing worse than having the most sophisticated tools that nobody can or wants to use. For this specific programme, we used PPO as it covered the majority of requirements and integrated well with existing tools.

8. Establish a pro-active attitude towards risk management

Programmes are complex and have high levels of risk. Design and implement a risk management approach that promotes a pro-active attitude towards risk management. The last thing you can afford on a large programme is to deal with things as it when it happens. The key goal is to encourage open, honest and robust discussions about sensitive risks (lessons learned is a great source of information here), likely outcomes or scenarios as well as response plans. It is critical for the team to already have agreed plans of actions should a risk realise in order to avoid blaming games and huge delays.

9. Secure active engagement of the business

Transformation programmes impact people personally. The programme needs to have sufficient support from business from the very beginning. Make an effort to understand the informal networks within the organisation, who the influencers and resistors are and assign people in the team to engage them regularly. Work with the change team to create platforms and areas where the business can regularly get information about the programme and ensure you give the right information at the right time. At the end of the day, it is people that make the change happen, and the success of the transformation will be heavy reliant on the people adopting and moving to the new ways of working.

10. Implement a solid Assurance Framework

Last but not least, ensure that you have an agreed approach to Assurance. Ideally, your Assurance Framework should not only focus on programme delivery (how well you are executing), but also solution quality (will the delivered outputs ultimately achieve the desired new ways of working) and business readiness (does the business have the capacity and capability to embrace the change).  By focusing on all three these areas, you will pro-actively identify and address issues that can kill the programme.

I hope you can make use of these ten actions. I’d love to hear your Programme Management Office set-up successes and failures. For a deeper dive into my latest programme where we followed these actions, you can watch the video Setting up a Transformation Programme Office that was presented at the recent online PMO Trends Conference.


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Author: Daléne Grobler

Daléne is the PPM Executive Consultant at PPO. She is passionate about project, programme and portfolio management and her mission is to assist PMOs unlock their strategic value. In her free time she can be found taking long walks, reading murder mysteries and running with fellow Helderberg Harriers running club members, for which she is the Member Secretary.

2 thoughts on “10 actions for programme management offices to navigate a successful transformation programme”

  1. Hi Dalene, that’s really helpful. My recent experience suggests a further point, maybe under number 2…? would be to include that the change/transformations that will result from the programme is identified – this maybe sound like an obvious point but can easily be overlooked when clarification in a sentence or two is requested. Also means early changes can then be anticipated to aid comms, celebrating success to build momentum.

  2. Very valid point Jo, thanks for sharing! And I guess another point I’d want to add to that then is understanding (or facilitating an understanding) of just how much process change the business is willing to take to avoid unnecessary surprises later.

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