Archives for posts with tag: project management

In recent blogs I have been banging on about change management, as I recently took a project management course in order to polish up my skills and knowledge and that.

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I was struck, as I was when I did my first PM course (many years ago) that there is a lot on tools, techniques and skills around planning, organisation, managing issues and risks and all that, the people side of things seemed a bit glossed over. Well, there was plenty about managing key stakeholders – even admitting that if two stakeholders have conflicting requirements then things can get tricky.

There was also, to be fair, stuff about estimating resource  and a whole chapter in the handbook about Project Human Resource Management. My interest was piqued at this, and I read on, and there was plenty of stuff about recruiting and managing your project team, none of which was objectionable in any way. I especially enjoyed the lengthy section on the kinds of organisational charts you could use, and the two sentences indicating that Organizational Theory (forgive the Z) could come in handy.

There was a section on team-building and the importance of reward (and another learning unit on not taking bribes) and, again, nothing actually wrong with it. There was a sentence saying that leadership was “an important skill”, and that decision makign should be effective.

The next chapter was on communication, with much on managing stakeholder expectations and reporting progress, issues and risks in a timely fashion. Again, all good stuff and rightly good practice for any project management professional.

What was missing, however, was a sense that when the changes are implemented into the organisation then people are going to be impacted by that change, and for any change to be effective, the people impacted need to be ready, willing and able to make that change actually happen in the real world.

I have worked with change managers for many, many years and they are, like most groups, a pleasingly diverse lot, with a range of personalities and approaches to their given field. Most of them were very good with their Gantt charts, flow diagrams and structure charts, their issue logs and risk management matrices. Very few of them were good with the concept of change happening through people.

Why this is has occupied my thoughts often, and I found myself musing on it again as I printed off my Certificate of Mastery and before logging onto my Six Sigma course (expect a very similar blog about process improvement in the coming weeks, people).

My thoughts are this: charts, diagrams, logs and matrices are easy. They sit there, they are logical and ordered, they do what they are meant to do, they have clear terms of reference and clear roles within the project, they are fit for purpose. Process, too, is easy. You know what’s what, it happens in order and processes can be managed.

People, on the other hand, are rarely any of these things. They are difficult, they are illogical, they have emotions and they are fickle and unpredictable. A project plan moves neatly as a task is completed and a green on target square on the plan changes to a nice, neat black completed one. People can, and usually do, resist change. They have their own agendas, they want things to happen to make their life easier and if your project plan isn’t going to deliver that, then it’s not likely to deliver what you want it to, either.

What Project Management courses don’t teach you, in my experience, is this wider, all-encompassing sense of the term “stakeholder management”. Stakeholders are usually seen as the important people you need to get onside in order for things to happen, or at least know how to outflank the other important people who don’t want it to happen.

Stakeholders should include the less important people; the people on the shop floor who have to make whatever change you are managing into an experience in their daily lives – and even an experience for their customers.

I think I have mentioned before a piece of systems change I heard about which won awards for the success of its implementation at a posh black-tie IT bunfight, but resulted in poorer customer service and lower employee engagement. When that’s award winning performance, you have to question the criteria for which those awards were awarded, do you not?

Thinking about the impact on people of change is a simple thing to do, it just requires an understanding of where the people are at currently, what the likely impact of the changes are going to be be, and how they will react. Local leadership should be able to fill in those blanks pretty easily, shouldn’t they? (If the answer to that is “no”, then you have bigger issues than the colour-coding on your issue logs to worry about, believe me).

So, have a think: how does change happen in your organisation? Is it by the book? And does that deliver what you need? Could engaging with the people you are expecting to make this change happen more meaningfully at the outset help things go more smoothly? (Hint, yes it almost certainly could). Do your project people think about the process or what the outcome needs to be? And do they realise that for any outcomes to be delivered requires the people implementing it, not the most immaculate project plan ever drafted? Have a think.

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I’ve spent most of the last decade and a bit doing change stuff, whether it be communicating about change, enabling change through insight and leading projects, and I’m pretty comfortable with the whole process by now.

That said, I’ve had a bit of time recently and thought I would use it to revisit my project management methodology and brush up my theory. And, as I sat down at my screen and went through my course, I thought it might also be fun to reflect on some of my experiences of change in real life, and consider how well the theory turns out in practice.

So, to start at the very beginning, let’s begin with the paperwork you need up front. This is the Project Initiation Document, the Project Charter, the Requirements Summary – a tome of variable length and detail which should give everyone involved in the project  and idea of the what, when, why and how, to wit:

  • What you are trying to achieve with the project – a new product, a different process, a new structure for your organisation, a new organisation altogether
  • When you need to do it by
  • Why you are doing it, and…
  • A general idea of how you are going to go about it

This all begins, in turn, with an idea; somebody has to come up with something new. I find this often originates with a senior group of people at or around the top of the organisation; they come up with some requirements – the what and why from where the when and how inevitably flow.

This is where things can start to go wrong at the start – and where communication and stakeholder management are absolutely key. As we all should know, the risk of failure of a project is highest at this stage, and it is easy to see why.

I recall a project I worked on a few years ago, intended to deliver a new operating model for a sales force. There was a room full of consultants with very expensive suits and holiday homes in California who worked very closely with the director in charge of the sales division – but not many other people. They had the what and the why, but it wasn’t that clearly shared with the rest of the organisation, or the programme that this project was but a part.

As a result, there were key messages about why and how we were changing going to the wider organisation that did not necessarily align with the messages that were going through a variety of channels (not all “official” ones) to the sales force.

Stakeholder management was carried out through off-site meetings in hotels and bars, over plates of sandwiches and chips, between managers and their allies, with other colleagues being left out of the loop or playing catch-up with the official comms when they managed to get through the labyrinthine sign-off process. Nudges and winks to those in the know often accompanied said formal comms as well. 

As a result, the “what we are doing” became a different message depending who was hearing, as did “why we are doing it” – which generally ended up as “so we can keep you guys and get rid of them” rather than the more widely accepted “so we can have a sales force that provides us a sustainable and profitable route to market”.

Much money was spent, many nice new suits bought (though few by me or any of my in-house colleagues), and the sales force limped on for a couple more years before inevitably closing a little way down the line.

The documentation was all in order, the PID was completed, the budget agreed by the steering group, and then the project went off into the long grass and went its own merry little way.

I can’t say it achieved what it set out to achieve, but at now point did anyone say it had failed; however, that lack of clear and common understanding among all stakeholders as to what, why, when and how just wasn’t there despite the right boxes having been ticked off on the project management form.

The lesson for me was the need for simplicity and clarity in communicating the what and why; “this is what we are changing, and this is why” in a way that everyone gets on board and has a shared and unambiguous understanding up front.

This then, is my first lesson of project management: the initial engagement of stakeholders needs to be rigorous, thorough and involve a lot of very good quality conversations, with every single stakeholder, after which requirements are recorded and then some more very good quality conversations to make sure those requirements are sufficiently simple and clear.

 

The pre-requisite for this is twofold: make sure you have identified all your stakeholders up front and make sure you engage them in the right way – prepare your ground, know your audience and have a really good sense of the political environment in which you are about to work.

Then, after you have engaged them and achieved this level of buy in and common understanding, do you start worrying about the how and the when – which we will come to in due course in another blog when we think about planning and execution.

In previous blogs I have threatened to metaphoricalise the Ashes and the lessons that this most arcane and wonderful sporting occasion brings to the world of work; this is that blog.

First up, just in case we have any readers from countries where cricket is not played, you have my undying sympathy and a quick explanation: the Ashes is a series of cricket matches between England and Australia; each match lasts up to five days and there are five matches – known as test matches – in the series. England recently won the last series 3-0, and if you want to know more, look no further than here

Any road up, there are many, many things that can be learned from embracing the wonder that is test cricket in the world of work. There is the lesson of finding and working to your strengths – for example, it is important to keep a cricket ball dry so that a bowler can make it move in the air when he bowls; to this end, England captain Alastair Cook is in charge of polishing the ball because he doesn’t sweat as much as other players.

There are different players – batsmen, bowlers, and different types within each type – there are opening batsmen and middle-order batsmen; there are fast bowlers and spinners – and even leg and off spinners.

Cricket, in short, is the perfect example of the notion of diversity being strength – everyone has their own skills and needs to perform to their best to deliver this strength in order for the team to succeed. But as well as individual strengths you need team-work; for a bowler to be successful you need the fielders to be in the right place at the right time and do their part; a batsman can only build an innings if he builds partnerships with other batsmen.

Cricket also tells us that you need the right people at the right time – you need to have have the right team to make the most of conditions; if the sky is overcast and cloudy, you need your swing bowlers; sunny on a dry pitch and your spinners are the best option.

Thus it is in work; if you have a change project you need people to kick it off, get it started and underway; these are the opening batsmen, making a start and laying a foundation for others to build upon. Their success is key to enable later success and you need the right kind of people to do this – doers, planners, people who can manage stakeholder and establish a vision and path to the future.

Once the foundations have been laid, then it is up to the middle order to really get things done and deliver the project; these are a different kind of person than the openers; they build on previous success, use the relationships the openers have built already to ensure success, they consolidate and they take things on.

A rich vein indeed, for the sport-minded business person to mine; in this blog, however, I want to focus on two things that happened in this most recent Ashes series, and specifically in the final test at the Oval.

First was the decision by Australian captain Michael Clarke to declare at tea on the last day and set his team the challenge of bowling England out before they could reach the winning total. The decision was sporting; it was in the spirit of the game, and set up for the spectators a spectacle, a thrilling denouement to a great game and a great series. For me it showed courage and a sense of fair play, and so two great aspects that leaders need: the courage of their convictions and to take risks, and a sense of fairness and reason to temper that courage so that it doesn’t lose perspective and become rash or foolhardy.

The second thing was a decision made many months before the match, in a committee room by a group of bureaucrats. This meant the match had to end with only four overs – 24 balls – to be bowled and England needing only 21 runs to win the game and claim an unprecedented 4-0 series victory. The light was worse than it had been at a previous point in a previous match, and because of the bureaucrats the umpires had no choice but to end the game; there was no room for common sense or in the moment thinking, only an arbitrary line marked in the sand by officious suits.

This ruling robbed the crowd of a fitting climax to the match, and England of a likely victory, but it also robbed the umpires of an opportunity to exercise common sense and manage in the moment, in the now.

The lesson here that while we all need rules in a business setting, they should not be so arbitrary and hard and fast that they prevent a sensible and reasonable decision be made to take an opportunity; bureaucracies stifle organisations because they limit thinking and discourage decisions being made in the moment.

Had the umpired been free to make up their own minds, then the courage shown by Michael Clarke to give the watching public a real show would have been vindicated; as it was, it was lost, denied by bureaucracy.

Have a think about your leaders in your organisation – are they courageous? Fair-minded? Do they balance what it right for themselves with what is just right?

Think about your organisation, about its rules and regulations (and remember these can be unwritten rules, not just the “official” ones). Do they prevent the courageous and fair-minded leaders from leading in the right way? Do they allow common sense to prevail and let people manage in the now? Can your organisation learn a valuable lesson from the strange and wonderful world of cricket? I hope it can.