Leading Transformational Projects

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Marjorie Abdelkrime


Jun 28, 2021


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Being at the helm of a successful transformational project is a career-changer. Internally, it makes a big impact on your organization and is highly visible. It can fast-track you on an upward career trajectory and lead to your advancement into high levels of management, where you gain more responsibility and access to exciting opportunities.

Externally (in a sales engineering role, for example), it can lead to winning large, enterprise/strategic deals, earning bigger commissions, and receiving promotions. People who are able to drive this type of project aren’t afraid to take on a leadership role that comes with big challenges – and big rewards.

What is a Transformational Project?

When we talk about a transformational project, what do we mean by that? In simple terms, a transformational project is broader in significance, scale, and scope when compared to change management or project management.

A transformational project is substantive in its impact. You might even say it’s radical in its impact. Why? The impact is felt across an entire organization.

A transformational project takes an organization through a journey or metamorphosis that fundamentally changes the way it functions on a day-to-day basis.

In tackling a transformational project, an organization is typically reinventing functions such as its operations, programs, processes, infrastructure, and technology. In the end, a transformational project has the potential to bring about seismic changes and improvements in an organization’s business model, products, services, customer experience, productivity, and profitability.

Traditionally, a transformational project tends to be driven by an executive sponsor – from the top down – but there are times when a transformational project is a bottom-up initiative.

A Transformational Project in Action

Recently, I ran into one of my former direct reports at VMware. During our conversation, he shared his gratitude for an initiative that I led involving the transformation of how SEs learn within the organization.

At the beginning of my career at VMware, I decided to examine the SE learning journey. We have a fairly large product portfolio, so we decided that it wasn’t feasible to deliver the same training to everyone. So, we abandoned the former “one size fits all” approach in the SE training program and replaced it with an approach that would drive strategic product knowledge for the SEs based on their individual journeys and knowledge levels – and meet them where they were at.

As we began the project, we developed a methodology to help define what training would now mean for our SEs. We established tools and resources that helped track where folks were in their learning journey, and we set up a point system to make sure that learning was relevant and that it was rewarded.

One of the things we wanted to do was to make sure training would “stick” with our SEs. So, following a large-scale training event, we assigned a point value to every learning activity. Activities varied from running a mock demo mid-training to leading post-training lunch-and-learns.

Points-based rewards included incentives and swag to accelerate emerging solution knowledge and to encourage knowledge-sharing among SEs.

The result of this transformational project was that VMware’s SEs had a clear path to learning that hadn’t existed before.

The lasting outcome is that SEs now feel like they have control over their learning journey, and they understand the business impact of why they’re receiving specific training.

This project stands out for me because transforming how we learn is extremely important for SEs. Ongoing learning is compulsory for SEs in order to keep current. We can’t keep doing the same things over and over again. I’m happy to say that through this transformational project, VMware’s training program is now relevant, rewarding, and robust!

Best Practices for Transformational Project Management

What’s the best way to go about handling a transformational project? While there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach, below are some best practices to help ensure that your transformational project is a success.

Secure Executive Sponsorship

Getting top-down agreement from executives is critical when you’re managing a transformational project. You need an executive sponsor who will serve as a champion – especially considering a transformational project is likely going to require massive changes in how people do their jobs on a day-to-day basis.

Keep in mind: You’ll spend a great deal of time and energy to make such a large-scale project happen, so be sure you’ve got the backing of an executive – otherwise, your hard work will be in vain.

If you don’t secure executive buy-in, it will be difficult for the project to pick up momentum, let alone reach its full potential. You’ll rely on the executive sponsor to make sure individuals are complying with the new processes and procedures you’re rolling out.

Establish a Responsibility Assignment Matrix

One of the first things I do when I’m beginning to plan a transformational project is establish a “RACI” responsibility assignment matrix. RACI stands for:

  • Responsible
  • Accountable
  • Consulted
  • Informed

A RACI assignment matrix helps define who should be involved in the initiative, along with key stakeholders, the people who will be executing against the project, and the roles that contributors will play.

Having a clearly defined RACI early on ensures you’re on the right track, and it also helps eliminate some of the challenges you can encounter at larger organizations, where it takes time to uncover the appropriate stakeholders, or you might discover that several different teams are working on the same project. The last thing you want to do is step all over each other. RACI enables you to streamline how you’re all going to work together – or better yet, synergize – as you create that essential project roadmap.

Seek Collaboration, Not Consensus

Fostering collaboration is the name of the game with transformational projects. I’m not one to drive for consensus, but one thing I need to know for sure is that I’ve got folks on board and that they are vested.

Why don’t I strive for a consensus? The fact of the matter is that if I were to mandate a consensus before proceeding to each phase of the project, we would never finish it.

So, at each transformational project kickoff meeting, I start the conversation by asking for everyone’s commitment. Commitment means we may disagree, but we will always move forward as a team.

Set the stage for a collaborative approach early on. Be crystal clear about your expectations about how you’re planning on driving success for an initiative. Once you receive that commitment from your team, you’ll be able to count on them to help you drive the initiative forward.

Communicate Effectively

I think we can all agree we’re in an era of communication overload; however, it’s important to communicate frequently with team members at each phase of a transformational project.

In order to be effective in our communication, you need to be consistent and clear about the purposes surrounding why the project is taking place and why you’re communicating each message.

Walk people through the timeline. Include a brief outline of the immediate next steps – as well as anticipated future phases – and inform them about actions they may need to take and when they can expect to see deliverables.

Define What it Means to be Done

Define the desired outcome for your transformational project early on: know what you’re trying to accomplish to reach your final objective, and what it will take to get there. This boils down to defining what “done” means.

We’ve all been involved in a project that never ends. Let’s say you finished the project that you signed up for, but someone came along and increased the scope. Take a look at your initial objectives. Say to yourself, “I’ve successfully completed this project, but I’m carrying on because now the project is evolving and we’re adding something new.”

At the outset of each project, be sure to conceptualize what a first, second, or third iteration could look like. And, remember that “done” doesn’t mean that you disconnect and run away. It means that you’ve accomplished the initial goal, and there will almost always be an evolution.

Be Willing to Pivot

Don’t be afraid to pivot and make adjustments when things aren’t working. For example, I’ve been involved in initiatives where we discovered two teams were working on solving the same issues. At that point, it became a matter of inventorying and negotiating between the teams:

  • What are you doing?
  • Here’s what I’m doing.
  • What can I hand over to you?
  • What can I take off your plate?

Sometimes y ou lose complete control over the project in situations like this, and that’s OK. You will need to relinquish control from time to time. It’s normal to become territorial about projects, but it’s important to recognize that everyone is working toward the same goal.

At the end of the day, there will be other projects that you can tie your name to. There is never a shortage of problems that we need to solve.

Measure Your Success

Very early on, you need to define your KPIs. Having your KPIs in place, and checking in on your progress, will help you establish whether you’re moving in the right direction in your transformational project.

It goes without saying that from the very beginning, and throughout the duration of the project, your focus needs to be on the people who are the end recipients of the transformational project. Therefore, one measure of your success is the lasting impact you’re making on that end customer. Maintain a close dialogue with these folks.

Ask relevant follow-up questions when the project is done, including:

  • How did this project impact you?
  • What could we have done differently?
  • What could we have done faster?

Mistakes Happen

Things don’t always go according to plan when it comes to transformational projects. If anyone who’s led a transformational project tells you they haven’t failed a few times, they’re lying. Remember what I said earlier about defining done? I learned that lesson late in life!

As I look back on my career, I can think of several instances where I was managing a transformational project that just wasn’t moving at the pace it needed to be, and I asked myself, “Why are we not getting this off the ground?”

It was because we hadn’t defined our milestone closure points. What it came down to was that we didn’t start off by saying, “Here’s what it means for this project to be complete.”

Another cause of failure is a lack of buy-in from stakeholders. As I mentioned earlier, establishing a RACI is one of the first things I do at the beginning of every initiative. Not only does this help define each stakeholder’s role, but it also helps to secure their buy-in so we can carry the initiative forward together.

Are You Ready to Lead a Transformational Project?

Steering a transformational project and keeping it on course requires an agile leader who pays equal attention to the big picture (strategy) and the small details (tactics). It also requires a leader who is not only a strong project manager but also a strong people manager – after all, it takes a village to get a transformational project off the ground and successfully implemented.

If you’re thinking about leading a transformational project and you’re not sure where to start, here are a few extra tips to tack onto the best practices that I shared earlier:

  • Start small. A project is a project is a project. Internal, external – even at home! Is your family on board with your home improvement initiative? If you’re going to rip out the bathroom, what are the contingencies around that? Who needs to be involved, and what will their unique roles be?
  • Seek out opportunities at your organization. Have you identified a new process that would benefit the SE org? Find a group of like-minded colleagues and sketch out a plan. Be prepared to demonstrate to your leadership team that there is a need (and willingness among staff) to implement some transformational changes to the SE function.
  • Do your research. Read up on leadership techniques and strategies, transformational project management, and best practices for how to launch projects.

Marjorie Abdelkrime is a Business Technology Leader with 15 years of experience in managing and growing software sales, consulting businesses, service solution design, and customer service. Her specialty is leveraging technology solutions to resolve business problems. As Head of Multi-Cloud at VMware, she leads Strategy and Planning for the Solution Engineering team. Connect with Marjorie on LinkedIn!

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