Juggling Corporate Curveballs

While we think about our articles in advance, usually with a lot of discussion and coffee, our plans for April changed sharply with the onset of Covid-19…

What once seemed important quickly faded away against the backdrop of so much fear and panic, but as change management professionals, we are passionate about catching these curveballs whenever they strike and trying to find the positives in even the gravest of challenges. So, inspired by the speed of the shift in society, we put our prior plans on the backburner and have instead chosen to explore the dynamic between PMOs and one of the most demanding, valuable and misunderstood roles in business change management, that of programme sponsors, or – to give them their full title – ‘sponsors of change.’

Traditionally, the more rare something is, the greater its value and in the corporate world, they don’t come more valuable than programme sponsors. Usually found close to, or within, C-Suite, they are typically a trusted all-rounder and recognised leader with the appropriate authority – and flexibility – to carry out this multitudinous role, which turns traditional notions of sponsorship on their head – putting your name down for a fiver for a child’s run this most certainly isn’t. In fact, it’s a benign term for a highly charged and hugely complicated undertaking that requires a phenomenal skill-set to match. Best considered as corporate jugglers, programme sponsors are tasked with implementing, leading and managing successful change, remaining involved and accountable at every stage, and catching any curveballs that come their way. Clearly, they are exceptional individuals tasked to do incredible things, so they must tick a lot of boxes in order to lead with the confidence, credibility and compassion that big change needs, and it’s no surprise that their role has been proven critical to the success of projects, and programmes of projects, as PMI’s Pulse of the Profession 2018 shows;

Organisations that place a high priority on creating…engaged sponsorship report 71% of projects meeting original goals and business intent (1) ,’ they concluded, with global change management specialists, Prosci, saying that participants in their Best Practices in Change Management study cited ‘active and visible sponsorship’ at the top of the list of key contributors to change success .’(2)

But, despite being so precious, programme sponsors are tasked with so much responsibility that it’s easy to forget that they not only have to juggle, but navigate too; it’s a role that is dynamic in nature, requiring real-time responsiveness as well as long-term vision, and it’s understandable to see how they can fall foul to traditional pitfalls, such as losing their visibility and being swamped by a ‘business as usual’ mentality, or struggling to lead teams through ambiguous times. And with so many metrics to measure, it’s easy to forget that it’s the successful management of relationships that can really underpin success or failure in business change, so for the programme sponsor, creating cohesion and cooperation between big and small teams can be an area of real challenge. Whether those teams are pre-existing and potentially slow-moving structures, such as an HR department, a small delivery team whose passion for peerless agility might leave them under-resourced for other ambitions, or maybe an external partner of any possible size and style, working with such differences can be hard. Imagine your nightmare family Christmas; everyone is coming, they all like different food, and they all want a seat at the table. But, if handled correctly, it could also be the perfect party if everyone’s on board, motivated and inspired to undertake the change. So, what unique challenges might come the way of the programme sponsor as they work with these disparate parties? And how best can they be supported by an external PMO?

PMO Pick-Ups
If a programme of change management is big enough to need a sponsor, then it’s big enough to turn to an effective and experienced external PMO who specialises in working with large organisations. Programme sponsors are already asked to do so much, so having another pair of hands to help can add genuine value and flexibility. And how? Well, the reasons are clear;

Marrying Up Big and Small
The likelihood of a small external team being part of the change is almost inevitable. Statistics show that of the 99% of businesses who make up Britain’s SME backbone (3) , a staggering 96% of them can be considered to be ‘micro-businesses ,’ (4)– that is nine employees or fewer – so the need to successfully marry big and small is a given. And a specialist external PMO can be of critical assistance when it comes to aiding the programme sponsor to do this because…that’s what they do all the time! While programme sponsors will already be well-connected within the business, an external PMO can use their experience at tying together the potentialities of all parties involved, no matter their size, so while there could be some jarring between big and small along the way, with the assistance of an external PMO this dynamic can become a skilfully handled point of leverage.

Keeping Everyone Happy
A pioneering study from 2018 (5)  showed that success in project management change was directly related to the level of collaboration and trust between all parties involved, and that both of those were improved, in turn, by certain other factors, such as defining clear expectations of one another, the strength of relationships between team members, and even physical proximity. And when it comes to disputes, Elizabeth Harrin, founder of the Girls Guide to PM suggests that up to 17% of conflicts are caused by a lack of direction (6) . So, although a programme sponsor must be able to cultivate the right environment and set its course, maintaining it across a period of change might be harder, particularly with short-notice needs arising all the time. Therefore, consider recruiting an external partner who, with a blank slate and an impartial attitude, can work effectively to assist with communication, particularly when it comes to diffusing any tensions, helping with difficult conversations, and maintaining trust and transparency between different stakeholders.

Agility and Insight Make It Right
Business historian Alfred Chandler famously observed that ‘structure follows strategy,’ but with quick-thinking – and quick-moving – small companies speeding up the pace and style of business change, big companies don’t always have an infrastructure for agile thinking, nor the confidence to give their smaller teams autonomy to act alone. So, however much trust a programme sponsor may have in their colleagues, if they’re caught mid-juggle with an unexpected request or issue, an external PMO can act as an intermediary who can address these potential difficulties, responding in real-time to both create and maintain solutions.

An external PMO can also bring the benefit of big-picture thinking, as their relative distance can help provide insight, particularly during times of crisis or upheaval when a programme sponsor may be precluded from taking those few vital steps back.

Keep The Balls In The Air
All of these qualities, both of the programme sponsor and an external PMO find themselves centred upon one reality; that successful business change management requires you to catch corporate curveballs. Whatever the issue is, it’s the job of the phenomenal programme sponsor to quickly adjust, incorporate and keep everything moving, so having an experienced, external PMO on board, who can provide flexibility, speed and insight, can really be an invaluable resource.

Our planet might be in a parlous state right now, but the unity and collaborative working shown during events such as this current Covid-19 crisis, really do demonstrate that it’s only by working together and supporting each other that we will find a way through the darkness. And while corporate change will never be as painful as what the world is currently forced to endure, taking inspiration from those whose job it is to daily manage shifting priorities, care for others, and keep focused on the final result show that finding your flexible partner can really make a difference to the end result.

(1) https://www.pmi.org/learning/thought-leadership/pulse/pulse-of-the-profession-2018
(2) https://www.prosci.com/resources/articles/importance-and-role-of-executive-sponsor
(3) https://www.fsb.org.uk/uk-small-business-statistics.html
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4) https://smallbusiness.co.uk/2019-predictions-small-businesses-sme-2546241/
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5) https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/IJMPB-06-2017-0068/full/html#sec006
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6) https://www.strategyex.co.uk/blog/pmoperspectives/5-skills-project-sponsors/