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.

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