Realities of Change


Project managers must recognize the realities of change to function effectively as leaders .

People Respond to Change Differently

It is a truism, perhaps even trite, to say that people are different. Not so in a different context. They also respond differently to change. In project management, this reality is quite evident because projects are endeavors that reflect change and involve many stakeholders, depending on the size and scope of a project. Generally, however, the larger the size and scope of a project, the more varied the people. And the more variety, the greater the varieties of ways people respond.

A number of ways are available for classifying people on how they respond to change. A good categorization is Ackoff's four types of people dealing with the future. The four types are: Reactivists, Inactivists, Proactivists, and Interactivists.

Reactivists manage change incrementally. They try to preserve the best of the past while capitalizing on the benefits of a change in the future. Inactivists manage change reluctantly and strive to preserve the present circumstances. Their focus is on the status quo. Proactivists embrace change to further a predetermined future. These people "get on the bandwagon" to further an inevitable change. They do not create the future, per se, but serve as catalysts. Interactivists, rather than furthering a change, make change happen through visioning. That is, they generate a vision of the future of what ought to be and then execute all activities accordingly . In other words, they make the future, thereby becoming initiators of change. [27]

Another good model is the one by Paul S. Stoltz, but it has less to do with change and more to do with adversity. I found this model very useful for anticipating how people will respond to intense periods of change that make projects difficult but exciting.

He develops the idea of an adversity quotient (AQ) that is really a behavior pattern exhibited during periods of great challenge. It is these moments of great adversity, such as a dramatic change, that distinguish our behavior when dealing with such circumstances. He observes that what matters is how people respond to an adverse situation. This response, reflective of one's AQ, manifests itself in thoughts, feelings, and actions. [28] Accordingly, the higher a person's AQ, the better the resilience exhibited during adversity, to include dealing with change.

He identifies three categories of people when dealing with adversity: Quitters, Campers, and Climbers.

Quitters cease altogether, having the lowest AQ; they are often bitter and avoid any change. Campers take an incremental approach; they accept change as long it enhances their comfort zones. Climbers have the highest AQ; they seek change and see it as an opportunity to grow. Climbers view change as a potential opportunity for growth and learning as well as an improvement. [29]

Diana Lilla takes a different approach, looking less at the emotional side of responding to change and more at the overall way project managers respond to change. She identifies four categories: Leader-driven, Process-driven , Team-driven, and Change management.

Leader-driven refers to project managers who make, or drive, change to occur, starting with themselves . Process-driven refers to project managers who implement change based on the advice of process experts. Team-driven refers to project managers who implement change that originates from stakeholders, e.g., team members . Change management refers to project managers who implement change based on the combination of process-driven and team-driven styles while achieving sponsorship and buy-in for it. [30]

Change involves considerable uncertainty. Some people embrace it; others avoid it at all costs. Uncertainty is, of course, the inverse of certainty . Between the two is a continuum. Drivers of this continuum are what is known and unknown, the expectations surrounding the change, and the degree of pain or gain associated with its actual implementation.

In a study of sixteen projects, Arnoud De Meyer, Christoph Loch, and Michael Pich identify four categories of uncertainty from a project perspective. These are Variation, Foreseen Uncertainty, Unforeseen Uncertainty, and Chaos.

Variation involves small changes to projects, resulting in a small continuum. Foreseen Uncertainty involves changes that may occur and have a substantial impact. Unforeseen Uncertainty involves unanticipated changes that seem to occur randomly . Chaos involves changes that are not determinable in anticipation or impact because the goals and plan of a project are not very well developed in the first place.

Naturally, Variation and Foreseen Uncertainty allow project managers to respond with some confidence when change occurs. The situation becomes more complicated and generates more angst for Unforeseen Uncertainty and Chaos. While project managers should exhibit leadership under all four categories of uncertainty, it is especially important to do so during Unforeseen Uncertainty and Chaos.

For Unforeseen Uncertainty, project managers must work on building relationships with stakeholders to respond effectively, e.g., developing alternative approaches and selecting the best one. De Meyer, Loch, and Pich observe that Unforeseen Uncertainty requires considerable investment of time and effort to get stakeholders to accept unplanned changes.

For Chaos, dealing with change becomes more complicated because the baseline to evaluate performance is not very well defined, if at all. Under Chaos, the appropriate response is one that is flexible and has a willingness to experiment. [31]

Change Can Rarely be Dealt with Top Down

Barriers to change can have many forms. Two common ways to classify barriers are psychological and physical.

Physical barriers are easy to identify. A project may be spread over a dispersed location making change difficult to implement. Or it may involve an inability to upgrade tools, such as software. Both examples are overt.

Psychological barriers are more difficult to ascertain. However, sometimes they can be overt, e.g., anger or expressions of noncompliance . Subtle barriers include a lack of desire to implement a change.

As leaders, project managers must exert every effort to deal with both categories; otherwise , they will likely fail. The last thing a leader can do is to isolate himself or herself from change; instead, they must actively destroy barriers to it. [32] The most difficult barriers are often those attributed to an organization, on overt and subtle levels. An overt example is the official policies and procedures of an organization; a subtle one is culture.

Such barriers can be quite pervasive and a powerful influence. In The Systems Thinker , Stefan Gueldenberg and Werner Hoffmann observe that people's behaviors are influenced and controlled by organizational frameworks. According to the authors, these barriers function as constraints and occur on two levels: at the strategic management level and management control level. The former establishes the direction and infrastructure; the later ensures consistency according to direction and resource allocation to support an infrastructure. [33]

Change, then, is very difficult due to the "chains" imposed by the organization alone. These chains are often called the laws of organizational change. Like all human laws, they are very difficult to overcome unless people exert the effort to make change happen. [34]

Change can rarely be dealt with top down; it cannot be simply decreed at any organizational level. Too often, project managers think that they simply need to proclaim "it shall happen" and it will be accepted and implemented.

Sometimes, of course, change will be accepted and implemented quite easily; often, that situation is short lived. People will likely revert to a preferred way once the source of coercion leaves , e.g., when the project manager departs.

To have meaningful, lasting change, project managers need to "pull" rather than "push" people to adopt change. As Kouzes and Posner observe, leaders should encourage people to adopt change according to a "natural diffusion process." [35]

Unfortunately, many project managers push rather than pull, only to add and increase existing barriers to change. Resistance, at least for awhile, can become even more stalwart, especially by stakeholders affected by a decreed change.

The key for overcoming or precluding resistance is to obtain the involvement of the key stakeholders most affected by a change. This involvement will generate a sense of ownership and commitment to a change, causing it to be more meaningful and lasting. Even during real periods of traumatic change, a grassroots approach for dealing with it has more impact.

Change Requires Creative Responses

By definition, change causes something unique. Sometimes "tried and tested " approaches work to handle change. Sometimes, these approaches fail and do so considerably by adding more problems than the change itself. When that occurs, a creative response is required, that is, respond in a unique way.

Unfortunately, many project managers fail to generate creative responses. Instead, they apply the routine, quick fix. These responses work in the short term with long- term complications. This shortsightedness occurs for many reasons, e.g., jumping to the solution without adequately defining a problem or issue. Others reasons include: allowing poor communications to persist, lack of teaming, an atmosphere of mistrust , and a low tolerance for ambiguity. When one or more of these factors arise, the likelihood of creative responses diminishes.

Project managers, therefore, must actively lay the groundwork to develop creative responses to change. This groundwork removes and deals with barriers discussed earlier and encourages involvement by stakeholders. In turn , this groundwork will generate commitment and accountability to ensure that a creative response is implemented. However, project managers must actively involve themselves in building commitment and challenge in order to introduce innovations.

Change Is Ever Present in the Form of Scope Creep

Most experienced project managers know that the world of projects occurs in a dynamic, not static, universe. They also realize that change comes from many different directions, internally and externally.

Often, failure to deal with such changes, at least from an external source, is due to an ill-defined scope, which often results from an inadequate understanding of requirements from the very beginning of the project.

Naturally, scope creep can also be due to a desire to satisfy the customer by providing more than required. Known as "gold plating ," this excess behavior can result in waste, both from a time and money perspective. Going beyond minimum requirements or scope increases risks.

Scope creep can result from a drifting goals phenomenon , which is trying to achieve multiple, competing objectives as opposed to meeting just one. [36] Gradually, the scope enlarges as do the number of objectives. Sooner or later, the aim is off, causing the project to expand beyond the original vision.

An important leadership action, therefore, is to control scope creep and its ally, drifting goals. The key is to define and maintain the scope and continue to focus on it throughout a project.

Project managers can manage drifting goals much like scope creep by looking at the interdependence of goals and mapping their relationships. Through mapping, project managers can determine which goal to focus on and which ones to de- emphasize at a particular point in time. [37]

Change Is Nonlinear

It comes in all forms and from all directions. In addition, the response to change is nonlinear. All change is directly connected with the past, present, and future and its management can profoundly impact on a large or small organization, e.g., department or project. For example, change can have "hard" impacts, e.g., policies or procedures, or "soft" impacts, e.g., such as to values and assumptions. Change, therefore, can be very difficult to wrestle with.

The problem with managing change is that many people, including some project managers, handle change in a paint-by-the- numbers approach or with a quick fix. Sometimes, perhaps frequently, the approaches may work and most managers are familiar with them because they treat their organizations as stable systems and not dynamic ones. In Management of Organizational Behavior , Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard observe that most managers tend to focus on what they refer to as "continuous or first-order" change involving the maintenance of stable systems. [38]

Not all changes, however, are equal and the more complex a change, the more nonlinear it becomes. Actions performed in the past may no longer work and may actually increase the complexity associated with issues like consensus, responsibility, accountability, and conflict resolution. The more subtle the areas, the greater the difficulty to manage change linearly, e.g., apply a quick fix. This type of change is the hardest to handle because the organization, or system, is changing and requires a considerable sophisticated management. Hersey and Blanchard note that what they call "discontinuous or second-order change" affects the basic states and properties of systems. [39]

This view of change requires leaders to understand the dynamics of change that constantly occurs. [40] A major reason why many people, including project managers, must treat change this way is because our institutions require formalized logic from the perspective of a narrow discipline. It becomes, therefore, very difficult to appreciate how everything is interconnected and affected by change to one degree or another.

As one might expect, changing anything on a project can have multiple impacts, some overt and others subtle. Some impacts may not be immediately apparent to people, processes, and culture. Being nonlinear presents many ambiguities that require the best attributes of leaders.

Change is as much psychological as technological and physical. Sometimes it seems it is easier to overcome the laws of physics than the laws of human nature when managing change. Nothing can be closer to the truth than in a project environment where the pace is often fast and furious. Changes constantly press against tight deadlines, limited budgets , and sometimes less than desirable physical conditions. Project managers also find themselves addressing ambiguous, conflicting demands. As Mary S. Kosh and Harold Kerzner observe, project managers sometimes face conflicting demands from people above and below them, e.g., more or less. Some factors contributing to these circumstances include: reliance on the control of resources to line management, need for other people to accomplish specific objectives, and no authority over resources. [41]

These and other stressful situations also affect team members. They usually face the same conditions relayed by project managers. Then add stress on them and burn out will hit sooner or later. Some common symptoms of burn out include an inability to focus, complacency, and carelessness.

While conditions may add to problems for adapting to change, so do psychological factors. For example, some people feel angst or fear when confronted with change. Or, they are unable to tolerate the ambiguity accompanied by change.

It is very important, therefore, that leaders in general and project managers in particular must consider, and perhaps emphasize, the psychology of change. Project managers often focus too much on the financial and technical at the expense of other issues. It is the other issues, e.g., people considerations, which can mean the difference between success and failure. [42]

Change Is a Learning Experience

Change is constant, but the experience that comes with it is always changing because each situation is somewhat unique. Rarely can a paint-by-numbers routine work when a change is large and complex. It then requires considerable learning as people respond to it. The best way to go about learning is to modify, even change, their current mindsets or paradigm. Managers must adopt a different paradigm, which involves the recognition that people have an incomplete knowledge base and, therefore, require the need to work collaboratively. [43]

Treating change as a learning experience does not come to leaders or managers very easily because of the "blame game," which looks at others for the cause of a problem when the fault may be internal and not with others at all. Managers often receive erroneous feedback about people who work for them. [44]

Another reason that change is not treated as a learning experience is because many project managers, largely due to the technical expertise, are not used to ambiguity that accompanies experiencing change. In Project Management , David Hawk and Karlos Artto note that project managers deal more comfortably with decisions that pertain to narrow topics, even if they are potentially wrong, than ambiguous issues requiring decisions that have a reasonable probability of being right. [45]

Team members also face pressure not to treat change as a learning experience. There is often more patience exhibited for putting out fires with costly rework than exercising creative thinking that takes more time but has a lasting, less-costly effect. The rewards often, therefore, go to the people who take the routine, noncontroversial change during a project, e.g., complying with a rigid methodology or technology no matter how ineffective or costly. Emphasis goes to compliance over developing a creative solution that accommodates a cost-effective change.

This pressure to comply with methodology or technique can restrict adaptability to change. Hawk and Artto note that companies following project management disciplines need to adopt knowledge-based, flexible practices in order to adapt to changing circumstances. [46]

[27] David L. Hawk and Karlos Artto, Factors impeding project management learning, Project Management , 5(1), 62, 1999.

[28] Paul G. Stoltz, Adversity Quotient @ Work , William Morrow, New York, 2000, p. 37.

[29] Paul G. Stoltz, Adversity Quotient @ Work , William Morrow, New York, 2000, pp. 1 “20.

[30] Diana Lilla, Project managers must serve as change agents , ESI Horizons , pp. 1 “3, February 2002.

[31] Arnoud De Meyer, Christoph H. Loch, and Michael T. Pich, Managing project uncertainty: from variation to chaos, MIT Sloan Management Review , pp. 60 “65, Winter 2002.

[32] James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge , Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1987, p. 59.

[33] Stefan C. Gueldenberg and Werner H. Hoffmann, Evolutionary leadership: a dynamic approach to managing complexity, The Systems Thinker , pp. 2 “5, November 2001.

[34] Peter R. Scholtes, The Team Handbook , Joiner Associates, Madison, WI, 1990, pp. 1 “20 to 1 “21.

[35] James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge , Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1987, p. 224.

[36] Daniel Kim, Drifting goals: the challenge of conflicting priorities, The Systems Thinker , p. 7, November 1999.

[37] Daniel Kim, Drifting goals: the challenge of conflicting priorities, The Systems Thinker , p. 7, November 1999.

[38] Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard, Management of Organizational Behavior , 6th ed., Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1993, p. 371.

[39] Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard, Management of Organizational Behavior , 6th ed., Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1993, p. 371.

[40] John W. Gardner, On Leadership , The Free Press, New York, 1990, p. 124.

[41] Mary S. Kosh and Harold Kerzner, Stress and burnout in project management, in Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Seminar/Symposium , October 8 “10, 1984, Philadelphia, PA, Project Management Institute, Newtown Square, PA, pp. 125 “126.

[42] Rick Maurer, Weeding out resistance to change, PM Network , p. 47, June 1998.

[43] Dori Digneti, Collaborative learning: real-time practice for knowledge generation, The Systems Thinker , p. 1, June/July 2000.

[44] John Sterman, Superstitious learning, The Systems Thinker , p. 4, June/July 1997.

[45] David L. Hawk and Karlos Artto, Factors impeding project management learning, Project Management , 5(1), 57, 1999.

[46] David L. Hawk and Karlos Artto, Factors impeding project management learning, Project Management , 5(1), 57, 1999.




Leading High Performance Projects
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