Digital Transformation - it’s not about the Technology.  By Ian Clarkson.

Transformational change.  It’s like the Voldermort of the project world - or Macbeth depending on your literary reference. Simply mentioning the word brings bad luck, people get scared and bad things seem to happen. Not surprising when you consider (according to McKinsey) that 70% of all transformations fail.

It was early on in my career and I was doing a bid presentation to a company in Coventry for some project management consultancy and training. I spent six years at Coventry University, and I was excited to be back ‘home’. I was with my colleagues Steve (another subject matter expert) and Paul (client sales manager) and once the formal presentation part was over the client asked a question “What do you understand by transformational change”.   Well, I had no idea. I had never heard of it before.  So, I did what I did in those days when faced with a question I didn’t know the answer to – I just started talking in the hope that one of the words I said answered the question.  I didn’t.  Paul had no idea either but had the sense to admit that and so left it to me and Steve to answer.  Steve, cool as you like, said “a step change”.  Nailed it! That was a great lesson to me – don’t try to bluff through something you know little or nothing about.  Paul also gave me a great lesson on the way home in the car – “Ian, sometimes you just need to shut up”.  I miss Paul and his advice!

Fast forward 10 years or so and I’m working with a public sector organisation in Doncaster. I’m doing a series of workshops to help them implement programme management as they were going through digital transformation. I had never heard of digital transformation, yet programme management seemed to be what they needed to make it work. I didn’t realise it at the time but this organisation was way ahead of its time in what they were doing – realising that they needed a programme rather than simply a series of projects to make it work was, quite frankly, visionary. I loved it! I even remember doing a session for their Senior Leadership Team on programme management – it was Christmas jumper day and I wasn’t quite bold enough to do this session in a Rudolph sweater. Whereas now… . I still hold this organisation up as a beacon of great practice.

Fast forward to now, and it seems like digital transformation has entered everyday language. It’s omnipresent. I was reading the 2021 PMI Pulse of the Profession report[1] recently and I came across the below:

'The pandemic has accelerated new ways of working and delivering value that had been gathering steam for some time'.


The catalyst for change comes from many sources – and so it seems digital transformation is a major driver. The 2021 PMI Pulse of the Profession report[1] sums it up nicely:

“The world has no doubt seen extraordinary change in the last few years. But it turns out that was a mere ripple compared to the tsunami of disruption we saw in 2020.  As the pandemic upended the world, it accelerated new ways of working and delivering value that had been gathering steam for some time. It accelerated the pace and scale of digitalization exponentially, with a big impact on talent and the need to upskill and reskill. And it has forced organizations to rethink the future—fast”

The company in Coventry understood that transformational change is a project. The public sector organisation in Doncaster completely understood that digital transformation is a programme. Why is it (in my experience) that so many organisations do not understand this? Digital transformation is not about the technology – it’s first and foremost a project/programme – it just so happens the output(s) are technology-related. Moving to the cloud – project/programme. Implementing automation or AI - project/programme. Rolling out MS Teams - project/programme.

Given the prevailing view that digital transformation is a tech initiative the 70% failure statistic doesn’t surprise me. I think we can all agree that technological advances will be a major catalyst for future changes – and unless organisations ‘be more Doncaster’ I fear that statistic will be much higher.

About the author

Ian Clarkson 21 Aug 2017 (3)Dr Ian Clarkson is the Project and Programme Management (PPM) Practice Director at QA Ltd providing strategy, leadership and direction for QA’s PPM portfolio.   He is a highly experienced consultant, author, trainer, and speaker with over 20 years’ experience in project management, organisational change, and learning – working with some of the world’s largest organisations in all sectors. He has contributed to many books on the subject and also written articles for leading magazines.   Ian is passionate about helping organisations improve project delivery and encouraging the next generation of project management professionals. If you would like to learn more please visit his blog page or connect with him on LinkedIn.


[1] Project Management Institute (2021). Beyond Agility: Flex to the Future. Pulse of the Profession®


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