Selecting a good senior responsible owner

Selecting a good senior responsible owner

Let’s begin by defining the senior responsible owner`(SRO) role. The publication Managing Successful Programmes ® (2011 edition) describes the SRO as the individual responsible for ensuring that a project or programme of change meets its objectives and delivers the projected benefits. They should be the owner of the overall business change that is being supported by the programme/project.

The SRO should have clear authority, ensuring that the change maintains its business focus, and that the wider context, including risks and change control is actively managed. This individual must be at a senior level within the organization and must take personal accountability for the successful delivery of the project (outputs and capabilities) and/or programme (outcomes and benefits). The SRO should be recognized as the business owner throughout the organization.

What are the warning signs?

Before we look at the characteristics of a good SRO, let’s initially look at the warning signs that not all is well.

Where a high turnover of SROs exists it represents a serious threat to the success of programmes and projects, particularly given that continuity of leadership has been shown to correlate with higher delivery confidence. Some of the reasons why  performance-related issues might arise may be because:

  • the SRO role is not fully understood; and their accountabilities potentially are not defined or agreed to in a robust programme or project board terms of reference. As such, given the high level of personal responsibility that the SRO takes for the programme/project, this person will want to ensure that those selected to be on the programme/project board are able to contribute and support the investment with comparable levels of authority, commitment and ability.
  • the wrong people being selected to act as SRO. The most appropriate candidate would be a senior leader within the business, i.e. the business owner, not someone from the broader programme/project area. It should be the person who will own the resultant change once the programme or project has closed and has a vested interest to ensure the financial and quantifiable benefits continue to be monitored, measured and reported.
  • SROs not having real accountability or the business authority to resolve issues. This is a situation whereby a person does not have the required level of authority or is chosen, perhaps, for their domain knowledge and expertise rather than based on the hierarchical leadership structure of the organization. For any investment or business change to succeed, the SRO must have strong leadership skills and decision-making authority to effectively direct the programme/project otherwise the resultant change will fail to be embedded into the organization and the business will likely revert to its original way of working.
  • SROs having insufficient and/or relevant delivery skills and experience.  If the SROs does not have the formal training and accreditation required for their role, the focus then becomes on having effective onboarding processes in place but, more importantly, having access to the right level of information, when required to make an informed judgement. Regardless, for an SRO to be effective, the person must be able to ask the right questions either on their own or supported by an effective portfolio, programme or project office.
  • Lack of tools, guidance and development opportunities for SROs. For inexperienced SROs who have domain knowledge and expertise but insufficient relevant delivery management and direction skills or experience, then organizations should look to offer targeted training courses as part of the onboarding process to ensure SROs are fully equipped to undertake and understand the importance of the SRO role not only for the programme/project but also to the broader portfolio, programme and project offices responsible for changing the business. Another important consideration is to incorporate regular performance reviews of the SRO role to ensure not only individual performance targets are met but also those at the project/programme and portfolio levels. This will both legitimize the performance review activity and provide an opportunity for good performance to be recognized. 
  • SROs not dedicating enough time to the role. Given that most SROs have a substantive position within the organization, being selected as an SRO adds another layer of accountability and time pressures. Therefore it is important that the management by exception technique is applied, particularly when establishing programme/project board meetings, given that these forums should be focused on decision-making, not discussion. The intent of each meeting should be about the decisions that need to be made in terms of effective change control. Hence why the setting of P3O tolerances is so important, particularly if the SRO wants to avail themselves from the daily oversight. Dedicating enough time is not only about being visible to the programme/project team but being comfortable with the level of delegation of responsibility in the management of the investment made and holding people to account.
  • The lack of continuity and longevity of the person in the SRO role through the programme/project lifecycle. While it is important, almost critical, to have the right people with the right skill sets at the right time on a programme/project. The expectation that resources will change based on programme/project needs does not apply to the SRO role, particularly if the business owner is selected from the onset as the SRO to lead and direct the programme/project. Where SRO changes occur, then there is potential risk or threat of loss of momentum in delivering a coherent capability and unnecessary rework, particularly where handover is minimal in order to achieve strategic outcomes and realize benefits. When appointing an SRO a defined minimum period should be agreed using an appointment letter during which the candidate does not consider moving. If circumstance dictates otherwise, then the timing of subsequent changes in SRO should be linked to the achievement of an appropriate programme tranche or project milestone and particular care should be taken to ensure continuity of SRO during periods of organizational re-structuring.

What are characteristics of a good SRO?

An SRO must be someone who can:

  • broker and build strong relationships with stakeholders within and outside the programme/project environment and network effectively within the broader organization and beyond.
  • deploy delegated authority to ensure that the programme/project achieves its agreed objectives with appropriate oversight, dependent on the size, risk, complexity of the programme/project environment and capability.
  • provide ad hoc direction and guidance to the programme/project manager and team as required.
  • acknowledge their own skill/knowledge gaps, seek appropriate guidance from a P3O and structure the programme/project board and programme/project management teams accordingly; ensuring the right people, with the right skills, with the right capabilities and personalities appropriate for the organizational culture are available when required.
  • give the time required to perform the role effectively but also the support and guidance to build the right capability in the programme/project team to enable an effective P3O organizational structure.
  • negotiate well and influence people, particularly important skills that enable SROs to lead with authority. The success of an SRO’s behaviour and skills can be measured in how they deal with colleagues within the organization and also with external partners to ensure timely and fit for purpose deliverables. There will be many occasions where SROs will need to influence colleagues or partners to adopt a specific course of action or persuade stakeholders to work towards a particular goal or negotiate to secure programme/projects funds.
  • be aware of the organizational strategies and direction and how it affects the programme/project and if necessary make informed decisions in terms of readiness for the next phase/stage. Noting success is not only defined as the delivery of a customer desired tangible product or service within time, cost and quality parameters but also prematurely closing a programme/project that is no longer aligned to strategic intent or likely to deliver the financial and quantifiable benefits to the user knowing that the investment saved can be better spent elsewhere to deliver strategic intent.
  • be honest and transparent about a programme/project progress. This is someone who not only scrutinizes progress report information but also holds the programme/project manager to account. The SRO role exists not only to receive information but to enable checks and balances to occur by being proactive and to probe evidence by asking questions. This is important irrespective of the value of the programme/project. SROs need to continually understand why resources (people, funds, assets, materials and services) are being invested and what the desired outcomes are. Hence why understanding of P3O governance as a whole, from identifying the initial need and strategic alignment, through defining the business case, all the way to ensuring the programme/project is delivered and achieves the required benefits, is so important.

Given that the SRO role is an essential one that contributes to establishing clear objectives and better decision-making. The SRO should be prepared to make judgement where required, and should be proactive in providing strong leadership and direction throughout the life of the project or programme. They should be responsible for ensuring the organization can fully exploit the outcome of the business change so that the financial and quantifiable benefits are delivered as a result of that outcome. The person then who is best placed to ensure this happens is the business owner and as such, should always be the person selected as the SRO.

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