Effective Leadership on Complex Digital & Technology Projects

The year is about to start with a complex multi-party Digital project including software delivery, systems integration, new architecture scaling & UX/UI design along with some user journey mapping and business service analysis and design. On top of that, a new TOM (Target Operating Model) is being baked in over the top and we’ve not yet even begun to think about Service Continuity post go live. Eek!

I thought I’d write down a few reminders as I have been here many many times, and I’ll refer to this post in a couple of years and play ‘did we do it Bingo’. More things on what cause delays here

Getting people working together

The toughest and almost near-impossible one to achieve. With every person you add to the team, the problems of miscommunication, ego, conflict, politics, personal agenda and lack of focus grows exponentially. Not to mention commercial targets often encourage the wrong behaviours. Whilst I’m not saying you don’t need people, what you do need is small focused teams working together to a well-defined and well communicated vision. That takes collective discipline with the right leadership. I found one of the big things never given credence is team orchestration and the time needed to bring people along on the journey. I like to start projects off with a one or two week ‘summit’ which outlines everything from ways of working, the mission, the why and time to ensure everyone knows what is happening. You’ll never get this time again so better to do it at the start of the project.

In summary;

Jira & Confluence

These are key tools for me for any digital shaped project and used correctly they can be super powerful. Sure there’s a myriad of other tools but I always find myself going back to these pair. The problem however is most people don’t use them correctly and then takes the ‘communicate & share’ element from the last section and spits at it. You know, Atlassian’s very own site has great foundational content on best practice but no matter what teams I’ve been involved in, there’s always issues with the quality of content in Jira. Hands up if you regulary see empty tickets, Yoda conditions, Pokemon Exception Handling or shrug reports.

I have simple rules;

Keep the tickets clean following user-story format (as a, I want, so that) for outcome related broad spectrum deliverables. Organise these into high level epics, and house your PBI’s (Product Backlog Items) within the construct of the Epic spine. This spine should match the over-arching thing you’re trying to achieve. Stick to one backlog if you can, and if it’s a technical ticket, don’t use the story format because it rarely works and you’re in effect, trying to bend something which doesn’t ever feel right. Instead make sure your technical tickets are relevant, concise and link to dedicated Confluence pages which there, contain all the detailed technical items, reference material and documentation. Speak to the people consuming & acting on these technical tickets and check with them what they want to see – then implement that.

Please craft tickets with testing in mind, meaning solid Acceptance Criteria, Definition of Done and don’t forget both Functional & Non-Functional requirements which should all be listed in the ticket.

In summary;

  • Apply discipline to your use of these tools
  • Be consistent in language, layout & presentation
  • Have a good Project or Delivery Manager to orchestrate updates of the platforms & help curate content
  • Don’t let the tools become a free for all dumping ground. You do this by setting up foundation behaviours at the start of the project (see summit in the last section)

Solid Project Management

One close to my heart, it took me a few years to actually be a good project manager as opposed to thinking I was one and that journey was pretty painful to say the least. For projects spanning multiple areas of the business or multiple initiatives, you’ll need effective project, programme and portfolio level management. Information needs to be given to the right people, at the right time and the project manager should be seasoned in the areas around behaviour, Digital & Technology along with the general ability to get along with people. The project manager here is a pretty important ingredient in the project cake and if they go all Gestapo two weeks in, no one is going to have a good time. Remember, a good project manager will help stop people’s bodies being buried under the patio and not just point them out later.

In summary

  • Manage and orchestrate not just at Project level, but at portfolio & programme level too
  • Be super effective at relevant communication to peers, stakeholders & be consistent
  • Understand the difference between highlighting risk & creating unnecessary panic through lack of understanding
  • Implement automated tools for reporting, and avoid the dreaded Gantt where possible

Respecting the Agile ceremonies (more on Agile here)

People en-masse (myself included) all if left to our own devices will do their own thing. Agile ceremonies if implemented properly can help encourage structure, best practice, good communication & get you into that ‘normin’ phase of your delivery as a team. So please do your stand-ups, retro’s, reviews, sprint grooming and make them super consistent. This will pay dividends later down the line. For all that is holy ensure you have the appropriately experienced people conducting roles such as Scrum master, Product Owner and such like because this is often neglected with Sharon in accounts having the position of Scrum Master thrust upon her and this rarely is a good thing.

In summary

  • Ensure stand ups don’t go on and turn into talking shops
  • Don’t invite senior stakeholders to retrospectives
  • Respect the role of the PO
  • Ensure you have the right people doing the right roles
  • Avoid Agile waffle, keep it meaningful to the project
  • Don’t forget to do those estimation sessions properly

According to McKinsey and Forbes respectively, between 70% and 84% of digital transformation programmes don’t achieve their intended goals. Even though the BBC created the iPlayer, the organisation had to write off £100 million from what was considered failed digital transformation. These are statistics to strike fear into the heart of all in senior management, whether CEO, CTO or CFO. So why is the failure rate so high? Here’s a quick round-up of some of the key reasons here.


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