I recently managed to score a meeting with the Dean of Business at one of the GR8 Universities in Australia. Given the pandemonium in the University sector (think: no international students, the move to online education, the Government rework of University Course charges and lecturers can’t take their overseas junkets), I was grateful to get the time. Our conversation covered many topics to do with the future of work, but it was an off-hand comment that peaked my interest.
The Dean mentioned the remarkable job done by the University to pivot to on-line learning as large gatherings were prevented by the Covid-19 pandemic. The speed of transformation was breathtaking (a matter of weeks) and it was well supported by all academic and administrative staff. He commented that if the change had been driven as a regular University project it would have cost millions of dollars and taken 3 to 5 years.
I asked him what the key driver of this successful change was. Evidently the remote learning technology is reasonably mature and most staff had some familiarity with the on-line experience. This was not the main thing. “The one thing that made this happen was that everyone absolutely understood the need for change” the Dean stated.
This set me thinking, what can this teach us about business change in general? In this case many hundreds of man-hours of project manager, business analyst, change manager and tester’s time was not needed. Are we fundamentally flawed in our project approach? Is the money spent on these roles wasted, based on a mistaken belief that the only way to implement technology driven business change is through a well-resourced project team?
For me, the answer is yes and yes. Organisations can effect rapid business change effectively if stakeholders fully believe in the change rationale. In circumstances where the driver is less dramatic than a pandemic, we should be investing more effort in the “why” of change. In practice this means more upfront investment in clarifying strategic drivers and building excellent, believable business cases.
The second “yes” is that the project environment is not well suited to technology driven business change. The move to agile over recent years has certainly been an improvement, but ultimately the change capability must be built into the operating departments of every organisation. For technology driven change we need to move away from project managers to product owners and re-empower the people managers who have responsibility for business success.
It’s a hackneyed term “never let a good crisis go to waste”, but in this case we need some introspection and to ask the question – Are we really doing a good job with business change, or is it just fattening our wallets and keeping us employed?