The Transformation Journey


Advances in Project Management Series


By Jonathan Whelan

United Kingdom



There seems to be no shortage of transformation programmes these days. They come in various shapes and sizes – usually big, often very big – and they are known by various names, most commonly business transformation or digital transformation.  Their intention is typically the same: to bring about a fundamental change for the betterment of the organisation, which usually translates to improving efficiency and agility, and ultimately positioning the organisation to being in a better place to deal with an ever-changing operating landscape. There are other common factors too: they take a long time, they cost a lot of money, and the extent to which they are successful is debatable – few people seem keen to look back to assess expectation vs benefit.

The problem with large-scale transformations is getting everyone on the same page. They invariably involve a significant number of people, each with their own view of what the current problems are, what the transformation will do, and what the landscape will look like after the transformation. And, importantly, what it means to them. Take digital transformation for example, what does that actually mean to most people? The wall-to-wall adoption of cloud technologies perhaps, or greater use of the web for customer interactions, cultural change to adapt people’s mindsets to exploiting technology, or even, more fundamentally, changing the business model to deliver new and innovative products and services.

What the ‘new world’ will look like may be intangible – it may not be known at the outset, but evolve and become more apparent as the transformation progresses – but people like to have a view (in their mind at least) of why change is necessary, and ideally what the result should look like. Large transformation programmes also tend to be set of linear activities (as in a waterfall approach); contrast that to a small agile project where teams are much smaller, and they are closer to the customer. They have more of a shared understanding of what is to be achieved and why, and so they are already galvanised.

The changing world of change

As the corporate world changes, so too does the world of ‘change’ itself. In the past, any significant change would generally involve a large-scale, top-down transformation programme. These large-scale programmes are now increasingly seen as single points of failure. Waterfall is out, agile is in. ‘Design’ is no longer just a downstream activity driven by strategy – strategy itself is increasingly led by design thinking. Leaders, feeling that they are falling behind the pace of change, are attracted to Scrum practitioners who promise ‘twice as much in half the time’. What all these practices have in common is that they put the organisation’s users and customers at the heart of the change, designing products, services, processes and ultimately strategy with users and customers rather than in isolation from them.

The reason these agile approaches have become popular is that they work! The reason they are controversial is that they only seem to work consistently on a relatively small scale. There are plenty of consultancies, frameworks, white papers and blogs proposing the means to scale the ‘agile mindset’ from teams of a few people to organisations of tens of thousands of people, but the results are too often inconclusive.

Why is this? Why is it that the larger organisations become, the less agile they tend to be? Why do older organisations find it harder to change? There are lots of valid answers involving culture, leadership, clarity of purpose, organisational design, environmental couplings, legacy IT systems and so on. But change is fundamentally about people talking to one another, telling one another stories, making sense of what’s going on. But fundamental change involves people not just using words differently, but also using different words. The twentieth-century philosopher Richard Rorty argued that one of the distinguishing characteristics of all truly transformational episodes in human history has been the creation of new vocabularies, not just people arguing better using the old ones.


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Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Routledge worldwide. Their contributions to the PMWJ are coordinated by Prof Darren Dalcher, Lancaster University Management School, UK.

How to cite this paper: Whelan, S. (2020). The Transformation Journey, PM World Journal, Vol. X, Issue I, January. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/pmwj101-Jan2021-Whelan-the-transformation-journey.pdf



About the Author

Jonathan Whelan

United Kingdom


Jonathan Whelan is an established business transformation specialist who has 35 years’ experience in change-related roles. His common-sense approach to addressing complex business problems and shaping practical, sustainable solutions has been fundamental to the success of many transformation programmes.

In his spare time, Jonathan writes about business transformation, especially in relation to the issues and opportunities associated with information technology. His latest book, co-authored with Stephen Whitla and published by Routledge, is titled Visualising Business Transformation – Pictures, Diagrams and the Pursuit of Shared Meaning.