Charting True North for a large scale transformation

Large-scale transformations are one of the most significant undertakings many organisations will embark on. By nature of their scale, length and scope, they will test your strategic vision, cross-divisional boundaries, execution capability and stamina.

Charting True North for a large scale transformation

Large-scale transformations are one of the most significant undertakings many organisations will embark on. By nature of their scale, length and scope, they will test your strategic vision, cross-divisional boundaries, execution capability and stamina.

You need a vision that keeps everyone across your organisation motivated, a detailed and dynamic definition of the target state that gives you and your stakeholders clarity about what you will and won’t do, and an operating model that helps your team achieved sustained, high-quality outcomes, recognising that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

In this article, the first of a 2 part series, I’m going to talk about how you can prepare your team for a large scale project, and lay some foundations for staying aligned once things get moving and the ship cannot turn quickly.

In Part 2, we’ll look at some operating principles that can help you stay sane and stay focused through the long-distance marathon that is a transformation programme.

For now though, let’s talk about setting your bearings and orienting yourself to True North.

Lesson 1. Invest in establishing a shared vision of True North

Spend as much time designing, agreeing and prioritising a clear vision as you possibly can. Get your product leaders really clear on the overall objectives and aligned on how their pieces contribute to the whole. They will need to lead at pace once things get moving, so invest in creating a shared vision early whilst it’s cheap. Once your burn rate spikes, it’s going to be expensive to fix misalignments and you may have to live with a drag on efficiency for a long time.

Design your future vision in as much detail as you are able, but prioritise clarity and memorability over detail. Your vision or Future State is intended to create broad brush strokes that are simple for everyone to understand and inspiring to aim for.

Lesson 2. Design in modules to leave yourself options

Embed modularity in your design to allow yourself to adapt as you learn more. Many things will change over the course of a long programme, so design from the start to allow elements to be precisely added, cut, or accomplished differently without compromising your objectives.

I’ve posted it before, but one of the best resources I’ve seen for describing the value in this approach is this architecture video from the team at Monzo in the UK. Planning ahead to define clear boundaries and minimise dependencies will make it much simpler to divide work across teams so they can work autonomously at pace, whilst building towards a coherent whole.

Lesson 3. Agree on a sub-set of your vision as a defined Target State

With your Future State as a master catalogue of potential change, define a time horizon, and aggressively de-scope everything you aren’t likely to achieve by that horizon. Collaborate across the business to agree that target, which should have a defined timeframe, clear, modular objectives and a budget. This is what you’re actually promising to do, so make sure this is what is needed and achievable.

Different organisations, teams or operating models will use different timeframes or levels of detail for this but if your Target State is more than a few years out, it’s too fuzzy to target and fails the specificity test. You have your Future State as an ambitious vision, so don’t be afraid to use Target States as milestones and build confidence by hitting them.

Lesson 4. Make sure you can see the wood and the trees

Make continuity a religion for everyone from day one, and ensure your design frameworks support accountability for the parts and the whole. You may choose to use journeys, value chains or something else entirely. What you use matters less than having something in place that everyone knows is important, and that you stress test regularly against it. Make sure someone in your team is accountable to the wood. Teams find it very hard to pay attention to the wood when they have a lot of trees to look after.

Maintain a healthy balance and don’t overcomplicate things with too many variations of whatever lens you use to track the whole. Continuity tools are meant to help see the wood for the trees. If you’ve got good tooling to help you manage more complexity, you can get more granular, but if you’re working from spreadsheets or slides, keep it simple. Over complicate and you will lose the benefit.

Whatever framework you use, take your time setting it up. Listen to all your teams. Make sure there’s alignment between your team structure and the scope they’re accountable for. Conway’s Law tells us that you will create the experience you set your teams up to create. In a transformation, you have an opportunity at the start to change that, but the burn rate is going to make it very hard to change as you go, so invest as much as you can early.

Lesson 5. Catalogue and escalate design constraints so they don’t get embedded in your design

Do as much as you can to understand and document major design constraints before you make promises you can’t keep. Once things kick off in anger, platform constraints are going to create some very difficult trade-offs. You want everyone to go into those decisions with their eyes open and to avoid wasting time with finger pointing.

Encourage honesty and clarity from everyone. Push your platform partners to share limitations and constraints. Get your architecture, development and operations teams to test your design vision and document already understood constraints. Create an inventory of everything you find and put your best team on assessing each item and recommending whether to avoid, address or accept the constraint. Add any emergent constraints to the inventory as they come up and treat them just as seriously.

Escalate and address design constraints early, seriously and centrally and you’ll create time to potentially overcome them. And you’ll avoid creating a culture of embedding decisions that cause roadblocks later because nobody knew how important they’d become. Trade-offs and compromises are a critical part of delivering outcomes, but they need to be informed, conscious decisions that can be reversed if at all possible.

Lesson 6. Align your project management tools with your True North

Thanks to all this effort to set yourself up right, you now have a solid map of True North, a core team that understands the overall objective and the first milestone, and knows the part they play. You also have some idea of the challenges you’ll encounter.

Now you need to translate your map into the tool the programme is going to use for scope and project management. This is very likely to mean Jira in the enterprise or one of a myriad of similar tools. No matter how great your designs are, this is how most of your colleagues will engage with the objectives they’ve been assigned.

Do a good job on your Target State and it will decompose directly into components or nested objectives that can be assigned directly to teams and you will be able to maintain synchronisation across teams as the transformation progresses. Fail and your design will be re-interpreted and the re-interpretation will be the new True North-ish. One day, enterprise tools will not force us to choose between source of truth and project management competence, but that day is not yet here.

As a point of clarification, I’m not describing detailed prescriptive design that removes all autonomy from teams. This is more like designing a portfolio of objectives that act as placeholders for solutions. Without some level of choreography, there’s no way that setting multiple teams off autonomously to self-discover objectives is a good idea. Tactics don’t work on their own and neither does strategy. Like most things in tension, the key is constant feedback and calibration.


If this has all gone well, you now have teams setup and ready to deliver across multiple objectives. You have a way to orchestrate individual outcomes to achieve a harmonious whole. And you have a single source of truth to prevent crossed-wires.

It’s time to embrace Moltke’s famous aphorism:

No plan of operations reaches with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main force.

Helmuth von Moltke

What comes next is the detail of production, and with that detail comes cost. There will be more people, more specialisms, more variations, more edge cases. And many, many more constraints. Everything from here on comes with a high burn rate and extreme pressure to maintain momentum.

In Part 1, we’ve discussed lessons to set a transformation up for success. In Part 2, we’ll look at ways to help your people stay the course as you attempt to run a marathon at pace and under pressure.

How do you play the long game?

We've found 4 common modes of strategic change, each with their strengths and weaknesses.

Our simple tool helps you discover your default mode, and how to pick the mode you need right now.

Long Game Modes
The 4 Modes of Strategic Change

+61 (0) 422 634 520

hello [at]

81-83 Campbell St, Surry Hills, NSW 2010

ABN 64 653 180 824

Acknowledgment of Country

We acknowledge the Gamaragal and Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional owners of the land on which we live and work, and pay our respects to the Elders both past, present and emerging.

Acknowledgment of Crisis

We acknowledge the context of crisis in our time. Recognising that our actions today have consequences beyond our species and generation, we acknowledge our responsibility to include these considerations in our lives and work.