I recently had the privilege to be interviewed by Tim Butara on The Agile Digital Transformation Podcast on the changes to work in the age of digital transformation, in particular the work of project managers who need to adapt to the digital and hybrid-first reality.
Click below to listen to our conversation. Also available on all major streaming services (Spotify, Apple, etc).
In this episode, we discuss the significant changes of the transformation age and the need for businesses to adapt to these changes. We focus on the field of project management and how it has been particularly effective due to the challenges of remote work. Paul also shares some examples from his work with clients before finishing with some future predictions and tips for project managers to thrive in the digital-first world.
“Individual project managers will need to continuously improve their skill set so that they can compete for work in the fast-moving environment. We have seen so much change in the tools that we have been using and in the skills people have needed over the past decade or two, and there’s more to come.”
Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation podcast, where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host Tim Butara, content and community manager at Agiledrop.
Tim Butara: Hello everyone, thanks for tuning in. Our guest today is Paul Oppong, project management and business transformation consultant with experience from a wide range of industries such as defence, automotive, financial services, energy etc.
He currently works with Sensei Project Solutions, who partner with clients to help them improve the way they work. They specialize in creating digital solutions for work, project and portfolio management, which are intuitive and easy to use, help people focus on the work that matters and link that work back to achieving their individual and organizational goals.
Paul works in their delivery team where his focus is to engage with clients to understand their project management processes and help them configure, implement and integrate technology solutions into their business environments.
In today’s episode, Paul and I will be discussing the changing trends of the transformation age and how businesses can adapt to them in particular when it comes to their project management. Welcome Paul, it‘s really great to have you on the show today. Anything to add or should we just move straight to the questions?
Paul Oppong: Thanks Tim. It’s great to be here and thanks for the opportunity, I think we can begin.
Tim Butara: Okay then, let’s just start with the basic thing. What would you say are the most important elements or maybe the biggest differentiators of the transformation age, which we’ll be talking about today?
Paul Oppong: Yeah, so thanks once again Tim. This is a great question to start with. You might think that the answer to this question is technology. Obviously, technology is really important, right? But I think one of the biggest differentiators of the transformation age is having the right people to undertake the transformation process. It doesn’t matter how good your technology is; if the people don’t know what to do with it or don’t use it effectively, you are in trouble.
Now, project management is integral to getting the people to do what they need to do to make the transformation therefore successful. Effectively, look at project management as your delivery vehicle for your organizational strategy. So, having the right people in places is really critical. Now, on people, Harvard Business Review recently analyzed this and the authors argue that there’s a need for effectiveness in four main domains and you need talent across all four domains.
So, all of the domains are interrelated, so being good at one will not help you to succeed if you are not any good at one or more of the others. The four domains they discuss were technology, data, process and organizational change capability. These are the four areas that project managers must focus on to make sure everything is in place for success. Let’s look at each of these in turn. So, on technology, clearly having good technology in place is critical to success, but so is the capability to integrate it with existing legacy systems that so many of the clients I talked to rely on. The Harvard Business Review analysts suggest that those leading on the technology side need to be able to balance innovation with dealing with legacy systems that are sometimes so integral to the overall organization.
So, it’s not just about the new shining systems that are coming through. Technology choices need to be strategic and sound, thinking about scalability and the longer-term goals. Because you are going to grow, and there will always be new technology coming along – you will have to be able to accommodate these. Now, turning to data, data is fundamental to success in a digital age. I find that many organizations already have a lot of data, but it may be of dubious quality or not captured via analytics or more often it’s both. Over the years, I have seen complex examples where data is being stored in a Word document or Excel or some other format on some SharePoint site that nobody ever visits. So effectively, even though you have data, this is enslaved data. The data is locked and it is of no benefit. You need to know what data you actually have, what you need, how to analyze this to drive strategic decision making for the business.
So, you almost certainly need data aspects to help with making decisions about what to keep and how it can be presented for optimal decision making. Then from a process perspective, you need to consider the whole gambit of the data transformation and how it means to different areas of the business. Digital transformation will affect how the business interacts with customers, what frontline operational staff do and how they are supported. But for instance, your customer service team or entirely friendly compared to your legal department. So, having processes first to help realign everything with the new digital approaches is crucial to your success. And then finally, it’s true of any change and digital transformation is no different; if the organization doesn’t have capabilities in leading and managing organizational change, it is likely that the digital transformation will go south.
So, this might happen after a lot of investment in technology. It’s definitely best to assess capabilities in this area before you get started. You need great change leaders who can inspire people and lead them forward, helping them to get behind the chain and seize value. And these change leaders need to be outstanding communicators to be able to achieve this. So, I would say the biggest differentiator overall is the right people doing the right things, but technology, data, process and organizational change capabilities are critical as is project management to oversee the transformation process and make sure it all runs smoothly.
Tim Butara: And how are businesses and companies adapting to these? How are they embracing these new trends of the transformation age?
Paul Oppong: Digital is the future. Organizations that do not embrace it are likely to fall behind their competitors that have already innovated and gained advantage. Actually, thinking of it, it’s worse than that. Organizations that fail to embrace digital transformation will simply cease to exist, and this is backed by research from even the world economic forum. When you think about how much things have changed in the past few years, this shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone really. Customers increasingly expect to be able to do what they want, when they want it and how they want to do it. They expect to buy online through whichever type of device they are using at a time. They also expect to contact customer service and get a fairly rapid answer.
So digital transformation helps to deliver this, improving the customer journey. If your competitors are doing this and you are not, you are going to lose business. Despite this, digital transformation brings about many other benefits too. It’s not just about engaging with customers online and selling to them. Digital transformation brings some benefits internally to the organization. Let’s look at processes, processes for instance can be automated to save time. Where processes can be highly automated or where for instance things like artificial intelligence and machine learning can be brought into play, they can be even more efficient. If process automation is done well, this means that the business activities are likely to run smoother with less risk of human error.
After the initial investment in technology to digitally transform, this saves organizations time and money in the longer term for some organizations, cost is a barrier to digitally transform. But if they look at a longer picture, this is very useful. So, people can be put to better use for things that computers may be able to do faster and better and this leads to efficiencies and human resources or people being able to do more rewarding work which is even better. So, these are some of the things that most innovative organizations are already doing.
Tim Butara: Yeah, that’s a good point. But as you pointed out, all organizations should start investing in it and doing it because as you just said, they cannot succeed and they cannot continue to exist and thrive, if they don’t incorporate these things that you initially pointed out.
Paul Oppong: Yeah, absolutely.
Tim Butara: Okay, but so far, we’ve stayed quite big picture but yeah, we mentioned in the intro that we’ll be focusing more on project management. So, how has project management been affected by all this? Especially since the start of Covid and the rise of remote work that we’ve been seeing since early 2020.
Paul Oppong: There’s no doubt that project management has been affected since the start of the pandemic and the rise of remote work. Prior to the start of Covid, it is fair to say that in many organizations, most people work in the office for large parts of the time, but forced lockdowns worldwide have changed all that. For instance, at the time of this recording, my colleagues and clients in Melbourne in Australia are in lockdown. So, organizations and project leaders have to adapt fast to a large portion of the workforce suddenly working from home.
For organizations that don’t yet have the tools to manage and track productivity may be helpful, and that’s a common use case we hear from clients often at Sensei Project Solutions. And where those tools do exist, project stakeholders have found them to be very helpful. To work in the hybrid environment these tools need to be accessible from anywhere. Good project management tools can help facilitate remote working and knowing at a glance who is working on what, visibility.
Tim, I can tell you that almost every project executive or sponsor has visibility as a pain point, they want to know where their dollars are being spent and how they are being spent. Project managers have found that they need to be on top of these systems to ensure that they know what is going on with their projects. In some ways, this makes the job of the project manager easier because everyone is getting used to logging what they are doing and communicating through systems.
There’s a greater chance that most project activities are better tracked, assuming that there are processes in place to ensure people use their systems. There’s also a greater need to make more effort to keep people included and many project managers have experienced the challenges of this first-hand. Business analysts at Gartner have reported that when not in the office, some employees can struggle and may feel isolated. They may not feel like they are being listened to. Finding ways to include everyone and avoiding marginalization is important and project managers need to be able to help facilitate this to help the smooth running of any project.
Another challenge that I can think of is increased conflict in teams that are not in the same place. Research shows that there’s more likely to be conflict in distributed teams, because there are fewer inhibitors to behavior when people are removed from one another rather than face to face. Some project managers have found their jobs a bit harder having to deal with increased conflict. You quickly come to find that resolving conflict through a Zoom or Teams meeting is not a cakewalk.
Another challenge that we have seen is that not everyone working from home has fast internet or good access to systems and this can lead some people feeling a bit behind or invisible. So, project leaders need to be aware that not everyone works well in a remote environment, some people do better with face-to-face working, with the structure that the office brings to their lives. Project leaders can help by making the effort to ensure that people feel supported when they are not in the office. Ask team members if they have everything they need and where they might need greater input or support. So, being proactive about this can help stop a project from derailing when problems are not picked up quickly enough.
Tim Butara: So, would you say that this transition to remote is having a more positive or a more negative impact on project management? Because it seems to me that project management is one of the fields where digital transformation really has to do a lot with the people factor.
Paul Oppong: Absolutely, and when you look at the issue from all angles, I’ll say that hybrid working is neither having a positive or a negative effect on project management. It’s just different. So, there are some definite positives, there are also areas that are harder. So, being aware of the pitfalls can help project leaders to avoid them by making sure everyone has the tools and support they need so that project tasks can be completed on time and to budget.
It’s probably worth mentioning that what works in one organization, may not necessarily work in another. Don’t forget that hybrid working varies from place to place. In some businesses, there will be more working from home, in others more working from the office. Project leaders will need to adapt to whatever the situation is for the client, and find ways to manage the project effectively whatever the hybrid scenario. So again, project leaders can help organizations that haven’t adapted well by suggesting tools they are found to be good either for better communication among the hybrid team or for keeping track of projects, or even both. For instance, at Sensei Project Solutions we have a lot of great tools in this area.
Tim Butara: You mentioned that this may vary significantly across different companies, across different industries. But are there any common ways across different industries that project management, either as an industry or specific project managers, are there any ways in which they will adapt and thrive in the transformation age? Ways which are common to these different industries and different project managers?
Paul Oppong: Project management as an industry needs to evolve with the times as much as organizations need to adapt to digital working. Your traditional order four-star project management is increasingly difficult to align with faster moving digital transformation projects. So, such project management styles are very cumbersome for these project types and it can make it harder for the organization to adapt at the speed of change. So, embracing agile is key and this is not new. Myself and others in the industry who know more than I do, have been saying this for years now; more and more organizations will be coming to the realization that the way forward is the minimum viable product. And I discussed this in my first book, The Future-Proof Business Transformation Playbook.
Now, testing out an innovation in a minimal way before investing massively into it is increasingly being embraced by many organizations and consequently, the flow-on effect in the project management industry too. While not all products and service development is necessarily suited to this, many digital transformation initiatives, software and apps are often better built intuitively. So, the MVP is a great way to get a clear understanding of actual customer needs with rapid feedback cycles along the way. This is supported by an agile way of working where everyone is better equipped to adapt faster to change.
Now, advocates of the MVP and agile working say that these approaches save both time and money and I must say I’m strongly inclined to agree. Focusing on investment, the return on investment is fundamental to success. So, doing a cost benefit analysis on projects is greatly beneficial to ensure that return on investment can be delivered. An MVP helps deliver this because it tests the product with potential customers and it helps investigate what customers will and will not pay for. Taking an agile approach helps to offer short-term benefits while also allowing the organizations to think about what’s ahead in the future. So, things to consider include connectedness, integration potential, scalability, intelligence and other factors.
But it isn’t just organizations that need to change. Individual project managers will need to continuously improve their skill set so that they can compete for work in the fast-moving environment. We have seen so much change in the tools that we have been using and in the skills people have needed over the past decade or two, and there’s more to come. As we start seeing things like artificial intelligence, machine learning in the mainstream, the new tools and skills will continually be introduced. Project managers need to keep up and be ready for change, they need to learn new technologies as well. No one is likely to be exempt, Tim.
Tim Butara: Yeah, those are all excellent points, Paul. So, basically, similar to embracing digital in order to thrive in the transformation age, embracing agile strategies will also become, or is already becoming something that’s inevitable for both businesses and individuals that want to succeed in this new era of humanity basically.
Paul Oppong: Absolutely.
Tim Butara: Maybe now we can still go a little bit more practical and I wanted to ask you if you maybe have any interesting examples from your work with clients of this transformation or this shift being done really successfully and effectively?
Paul Oppong: Yes, I recently worked with an organization that was making the shift to digital transformation during the pandemic. Some were in the office and others were working from home and this varied from day to day. One of the factors that made this project work really well was the level of collaboration involved and the willingness of everyone to play their part in facilitating this. As well as this I observed that the managers were really supportive of their staff, they were remodeling their expected behaviors and they were trusting their employees to get on with it. They were rewarded with work of a high standard in the vast majority of cases.
Also, involvement in the dictator transformation was organization-wide, it wasn’t a silo of people working in their own unit trying to figure out what would work for everyone else across the organization. There was integration across the business with people from each team playing their part. What stood out for me was the way in which leaders really embraced the change in digital, they were all engaged and interested. There was no leader that was trying to resist the change.
Because the leaders were interested and engaged, so too were the employees. The interests had filtered down to them. There was more dynamism with sharing ideas and really outstanding levels of collaboration. The leaders in this organization shared a vision for what they hope the business will look like during the transformation journey, and employees really bought into it hearts and minds. And it was really fabulous to see and great to work in such an environment where almost everyone was highly motivated and excited about the changes that were coming. So, this kind of attitude also translated into a can-do approach and good teamwork to overcome problems that they face. So, it goes to show how important leadership is and the impact this has on the attitude of everyone else in the organization.
Tim Butara: Yeah, this is a really great example of how important a top-down approach is to driving this transformation and enabling this for everyone, because I think that digital transformation and embracing these new ways of working and new technologies and new processes is really hard to do if it has to be done bottom up. So, it’s really positive and really showcases, as you said, how important leadership is and how important this combination of people and technology is, because you can’t really have one without the other, right.
Paul Oppong: Absolutely.
Tim Butara: I think we covered a lot of interesting trends that are already existing and that we’re already seeing emerge but, do you think that there will be any new considerations and trends emerging as we transition more heavily into the transformation age and as more people embrace it? And in the same line, do you have any words of advice for project managers and project management experts for the coming few years to help them thrive and succeed?
Paul Oppong: Alright, people have gotten used to working from home. Organizations have gotten used to them doing so as well. Many organizations are now looking at ways that they can do hybrid working going forward with people in the office on this and other days. Analyst figures from around the world in different countries show that a large percentage of people expect to be working from home a good deal of the time in the future. So, during Covid, we have seen that people can work from home and they can do it very well. I saw one research from McKinsey that shows that companies are expecting to reduce office space by about 30%.
Hybrid working is almost certainly here to stay. Project managers need to find ways to work effectively in this new world that we find ourselves in. As we come out of the pandemic there’ s likely to be even more digital transformation than ever before, you know, the worldwide crisis has clearly demonstrated that organizations need to adapt. The same study that I was talking to you about from McKinsey showed that e-commerce, for instance, soared in 2020 when compared with the average percentage of sales that were e-commerce related between 2015 and 2019. In the US e-commerce sales increased by 3.3 times as a percentage of our sales; in the UK the figure was 4.5 times and in Spain it was about 4.7 times.
So, just as people have got used to working from home, they have also gotten used to buying online. The reality is that organizations that are not digital must adapt or they may not survive, as I’ve already mentioned. Now, one positive is that many organizations have to start adapting fast during the pandemic. So, for instance, if you look at the fitness industry, a lot of companies began launching live stream classes to their customers when their gyms were suddenly shut. The pandemic created an instant requirement for many organizations to have to find immediately ways to go digital that they didn’t necessarily anticipate having to do, and certainly not so quickly or rapidly.
The upside of this is that many companies have now started dipping their toes into the water of digital transformation and can see both the necessity and the benefits of change. Many are much more excited about this or at least much more willing to embrace digital transformation compared with when we were at the start of the pandemic. So, what’s new for project managers in that? Well, one point to ponder is that organizations that have not yet digitally transformed are a bit behind the curve. They may not be naturally the innovators in this area and they may need a bit of hand holding.
On the other hand there are some exciting opportunities ahead for project managers, of the organizations or companies that have not yet embraced that transformation one of their reasons may be too complex legacy line of business systems and how to integrate these with new technology. So, this is likely to lead to some fun challenges and interesting work for those in the project management field to help the organizations that are not necessarily technology adept to navigate these issues. So, helping them to accomplish this is likely to be extremely rewarding work. Ultimately, as we go forward, the same rules as in the past apply to digital transformation. If you don’t plan your digital transformation well, then like any change, it’s likely to fail.
So, getting people on site is critical because, if they resist then the change might not be effective, no matter how good the technology underlying it is. It’s not really a consideration but having the right people put in place is absolutely essential to success. Even more than before you need people you can trust to get on with it, who are actively engaged and excited about a great job, you know, nothing else will do. On words of advice for project managers, I’ll come back to continue to evolve, keep abreast of changes in the field and keep your skills fresh; that should serve you well as we move into the next branch of businesses undergoing digital transformation.
Tim Butara: Those are some excellent points of advice, Paul, thanks. So basically, really embracing change is the way to go, is the inevitable differentiating factor that’s going to drive success in the future both for companies and for individual project managers and for individual customers, developers, whatnot.
Paul Oppong: Absolutely.
Tim Butara: Awesome, I think this has been great Paul. Before we wrap up the call if people want to reach out to you or if they want to learn more about you, what’s the best way for them to reach you?
Paul Oppong: Thanks Tim. So, mostly, I’m very active on LinkedIn. So, if you look up my name, Paul Oppong, or you can go to my website pauloppong.com and people can reach me via Twitter as well if you look up my name. And I’m looking forward to interacting with many of your listeners.
Tim Butara: Awesome, I also encourage everyone listening right now to connect with Paul and to get additional info from him if you need it, additional insights. I’ll make sure to link all the relevant links in the show notes section, Paul. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Paul, it’s been a real pleasure, I enjoyed talking with you today and going through these important changes in our industry and in the world basically. And to our listeners, that’s all for this episode. Have a great day everyone and stay safe.
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