Acting on Change

If one fact touches the realities of change on projects, it is that it will not go away. Change will arrive in unpredictable ways and have unanticipated impacts. Project managers do not have to be at its mercy however. They can do the following.

Be Responsive Rather than Reactive to Change

They must have a good understanding of the context of their projects and try to develop strategies to deal with unforeseen circumstances rather than wait for them. By doing so, they can anticipate and prepare themselves so " surprises " become the exception rather than the norm. This ability to size up context and respond to change efficiently and effectively reflects good leadership. In The Fifth Discipline , Peter Senge says that leadership involves assessing stakeholders and situations and developing appropriate strategies. [47]

Project managers, therefore, must be willing to forego the tendency towards perfection and, instead, use approximations to deal with change. [48] This behavior requires a paradigm shift because many project managers arrive via the technical ranks by learning to emphasize precision over approximation . Heuristics requires applying professional judgment that may mean making mistakes.

Assess and Evaluate Change from a Big Picture Perspective

During the fog of project management, it is so easy to forget about the big picture when so much occurs. This is especially the case when change comes from all directions and at different levels. Emotions can run so high for stakeholders that people can feel overwhelmed. This situation, in turn , can fuel resistance to change. Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky observe that when the status quo is shaken for whatever reason, people experience loss and a sense of being incompetent. As a natural consequence, people then exhibit resistance towards the change and the change agent or both. [49]

It is imperative, therefore, that project managers maintain focus on the overall vision, treating it as a guiding light to devise and adjust strategies for their projects. Heifetz and Linsky also note that despite having a vision to guide actions, leadership requires performance from "moment to moment." Leaders must respond as circumstances arise. [50]

By keeping the focus on the big picture, project managers can find it easier for team members and other stakeholders to "stay the course" when changes pour in from all directions and have varying degrees of impact. They can evaluate changes from the perspective of a vision and the big picture. This will require that everyone, of course, develop a wide-angle perspective of their project as well as exercise their ability to focus on major change issues. Hence, their perspectives must not be only on individual and project levels, but also those at departmental, cross-functional, enterprise, and business environment levels. Everyone can then exercise what Bernard J. Mohr calls "response-ability," which he defines as being able to understand the concerns of people and develop innovative solutions. [51]

Build Resilience in Yourself and Others

Resilience in the face of change is difficult to maintain if considerable adversity occurs. Yet, adversity can be an effective way to build resolve and to deal with endless changes. In fact, it can turn project managers into project leaders. However, project managers must not only build resilience in themselves, they must also build it in others and can do so by engendering an environment that encourages team members to build equivalent resilience, perhaps a much harder task than building their own.

To build such an environment, project managers must have a good understanding of people's capacities to tolerate change and adversity. Paul Stoltz identifies three capacities that relate to coping with adversity: required, existing, and accessed. Required capacity is what is needed to address the world's needs; existing, the complete set of skills and talents that a person possesses; and accessed, what portion of that capacity is actually employed. All three interplay to give people the opportunity to cope with adversity in some way, thereby reflecting a pattern of how they respond to adversity. In fact, it reflects the response patterns that a person exhibits when confronted with events. These patterns, in turn, affect future performance and behavior.

The keys to building resilience are providing an environment conducive for taking risks, encouraging people to embrace change, and stressing the need to remain positive. These are based on the qualities of people having a high adversity quotient , or AQ.

Building resilience is not just for individuals. According to Stoltz, teams can also have an AQ. The AQ value of a team will have a considerable influence on effectiveness. Stoltz writes that when adversity grows in magnitude, it affects what a team does and how it does it. AQ affects all activities from problem solving to information gathering. A team demonstrates its AQ during uncertain , chaotic circumstances. Obviously, as with individuals, a team with a high AQ exhibits focus and determination. [52] The keys to building resilience are much the same as for individuals.

Recognize and Deal with the Tolls of Change

Do not ignore or run from them. As leaders, project managers view change as a means to further achieve a vision. They manage change, therefore, rather than being managed by it, putting it into perspective for themselves and others. If circumstances appear to be crumbling, Kouzes and Posner note that it is at that time that leaders must articulate a vision for leading out of a world of uncertainty and chaos. [53]

Project managers, therefore, must turn change into an asset rather than a liability, especially from a human relations perspective, e.g., psychological and sociological. They prepare others to cope with change, e.g., having the capacity to adapt to it and to avoid ravages. Often, a failure to deal with change is not the change itself, however, but the inability to cope with the human impacts. This inability is reflected in communication breakdown, sloppy workmanship, and low morale , which translate into overall poor team performance.

They must, therefore, break down barriers to change on their teams, both formally and informally. Formal barriers are easily definable and changeable , e.g., procedures or schedules. Informal barriers are more challenging, e.g., informal networks, overcoming rigid mental models, preparing people to "step outside their shells ."

Establish an Infrastructure to Deal with Change

This infrastructure goes beyond establishing policies and procedures to manage change, e.g., to determine the priority and assess impacts. It also relates to establishing the "right atmosphere" to manage change that entails encouraging and sustaining an atmosphere of trust and open communication. People should be willing to discuss the who, what, when, where, why, and how of any change. They should also be willing to discuss the overall goal and whether a project can be effectively handled psychologically and sociologically. Trust plays an integral role because people will likely share information. Information sharing is especially important during dramatic change.

Project managers must also make an effort to build and sustain relationships with all the key stakeholders. These relationships often establish the "communication channels" for openly sharing information.

This infrastructure should also include adapting an overall framework to deal with change. It should include phases that encourage as much involvement and interaction as possible among people.

In Transforming the Way We Work , Marshall identifies five such phases that can be revised to suit any project management environment:

  • Phase 1: Need and Commitment

  • Phase 2: Preparing for Change

  • Phase 3: Assessment, Alignment, and Plan

  • Phase 4: Managing Implementation

  • Phase 5: Self-Sufficiency and Renewal

What is interesting about this approach is that it stresses less mechanics and more building trust and relationships that are so important to manage change and lower resistance to it. Emphasis is on collaboration rather than competition. [54]

The infrastructure should address other areas, too, and one of them is giving people a sense of control over change when it arrives. This requires the ability to assess change as well as to develop an effective action plan. Of course, this cannot occur without open communication and relationships. Project managers must develop, even out of necessity, an action plan when project control has deteriorated. This action plan is in response to a need to maintain value, support, and morale and at the core of doing so, establishes and maintains open communication with stakeholders. [55]

Keep the Focus on the Psychology of Change

In the end, it all matters how people think and feel about change. Regardless of whether or not a change is a good idea, if the key players do not think it is valuable and feel it is too uncomfortable, they will never implement a change.

Project managers should focus on the psychology and sociology of change, therefore, not just the technology. That means maintaining and stressing the need for balanced perspectives, being ever mindful of answering questions like:

  • Who will exhibit resistance?

  • What's in it for me (WIIFM)?

  • Who will lose? Who will gain?

  • How does a change fit within the overall vision? For an entire organization?

  • What are the best ways to communicate the answers to these questions? [56]

It also means identifying the major roles in any change implementation: change sponsor, agent, target, and advocate. The sponsor is the executive or senior manager who supports a change; from a project management perspective, it is a stakeholder to whom a project manager reports . The target is the recipient of a change; often it is the project team or people in the customer ranks. Advocates are people, e.g., members of a steering committee, who advocate change but cannot or will not do anything to support it; often these people come from higher levels in a cross-functional environment.

Project managers must constantly relate on a change-by-change basis with each member participating in those roles. Not only must project managers manage their relationships with each other, they must also deal with the relationships among the others, e.g., between advocates and sponsors.

All roles are important, however, I believe the most important ones are the agents . They are the people who make change happen (although all four to one degree or another play that role). These people are pathfinders who feel committed enough to make a change happen, even before seemingly insurmountable odds. They are the true believers who take the initiative and exercise the necessary zeal and creativity.

Once change becomes acceptable to some extent by stakeholders, project managers must encourage a sense of urgency. Saying that something is a good idea and getting to it later will not make much progress; sooner or later any change will die due to lack of passionate commitment. Project managers can build a sense of urgency by positioning change to further a key goal, establish and follow up on measurable ways to determine progress, hold people accountable for its implementation, and provide the necessary psychological and physical support.

Encourage Commitment, Ownership, and Accountability when Responding to Change

What project managers need is more than a tacit expression to implement a change. They need a strong emotional tie between people and the change itself. This emotional involvement can be handled by way of ownership and accountability regarding a change, thereby getting the desired level of commitment.

This tie between ownership and accountability has been stressed in many leadership books. This emphasis on creating a sense of ownership, despite all the diatribes about empowerment and delegation, rarely happens, resulting in a loss of shared purpose. Sadly, current organizations rely on compelling people to behave in a certain way. [57]

How can emotional commitment be generated?

Project managers must first involve people in planning for a change. Through participation comes a sense of ownership and accountability because people become emotionally invested. Kouzes and Posner note that providing choice makes it more difficult to back out because of the physical and psychological investment that will occur. [58] Bennis agrees and notes that change is most successful when those affected are involved in the planning. [59]

Project managers must also encourage collaboration when implementing a change. Through collaboration, people will hold each other accountable for following through on promised contributions. Project managers must structure their projects so that this occurs by emphasizing the need to share information, tie dependencies among tasks , obtain involvement and concurrence of key stakeholders for a particular change, and keep focus on the overall vision. Most importantly, they must concentrate on the communication structure to enhance mutual accountability and ownership. Using an approach to change depends on the communication patterns within a group before implementing a change. [60]

Demonstrate and Support Risk Taking

If project managers expect people to embrace change, they must exhibit the very same desired qualities, which definitely includes the ability to take risks.

Taking risks is difficult for just about everyone because it involves leaping into the unknown, which can result in loss, rejection , and loss of control. Above all, it involves fear. In Risking , David Viscott says that a false sense of security, based on anachronistic beliefs and values, hinders one's desire or ability for risk taking. [61]

Project managers must take the first step to embrace risk, especially if associated with change. In other words, they must model risk taking and then engender a climate that encourages risk taking by others, e.g., eliminating penalties for failure, building resilience, and encouraging an atmosphere of creativity and innovation.

Some ways that project managers can encourage risk taking is to adopt approaches that challenge the modus operandi, ask penetrating questions that challenge core values, reward people who take on change regardless of the possibility of success or failure, and embrace diversity in thinking.

The bottom line is that project managers must be open to risk taking if they expect others to do the same. Otherwise, uncertainty associated with risk taking can be quite paralyzing. So project managers must be open to new ideas, be willing to experiment, and face positive and negative consequences.

Encourage and Apply Creative, Innovative Solutions

This step ties directly with risk taking. Unfortunately, like risk taking, it is harder to do than to talk about. Often times, like risk taking, people have to be encouraged to be creative because, as Tom Peters notes in The Circle of Innovation , creativity jolts people "out of their comfort zones." [62] However, creativity does not just happen, since it involves people listening to their intuition and largely acting spontaneously. That is why project managers must lay the groundwork in the following ways to encourage creativity, such as tolerate experimentation, give visibility to creative people and their solutions, and provide an environment of trust and open communication.

Of course, creativity is not just for individuals. Teams can also be creative, contrary to popular belief. Project managers can play a key role in encouraging creativity much the same way John Kao describes as a jam session in jazz. In Jamming , Kao writes that leaders provide direction, inspiration, and facilitation and behavior similar to game masters. [63]

They orchestrate it in such a way to ensure that there is enough discipline while simultaneously allowing enough freedom so creativity can flow. Kao further notes that managers must identify what he calls the "sweet spot" between systems and analysis in carte blanche creativity. [64]

It also involves giving people sufficient autonomy while simultaneously keeping them ever mindful of being a team member. In Organizing Genius , Bennis and Patricia Biederman write that the best atmosphere for creativity is a blend of autonomy and concentration on a focused goal. [65]

Creativity is critical for managing nonroutine change. Individuals and teams must take risks by experimenting in thought and action. Project managers lay the groundwork for that to occur.

That is not an easy task for project managers because they and others also face internal roadblocks to being creative. In Conceptual Blockbusting , James Adams calls them "perceptual blocks," which are obstacles that prevent a person from hearing a clear perception of a problem and related information. Some examples of perceptual blocks include emotional, cultural, environmental, intellectual, and expressive blocks. [66]

To overcome the blocks, project managers must apply a wide range of creative tools and techniques to think outside the box in order to deal with change. These tools and techniques include brainstorming, listening to one's own intuition, and applying analogous and visual thinking.

Even more importantly, individuals and teams alike should understand the creative process that flows in five stages: problem identification, information gathering, incubation, insight, insight validation. [67]

[47] Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline , Currency Doubleday, New York, 1990, p. 344.

[48] Rodney D. Stroope and Frank G. Jenes, In search of the innovative project manager: the human side, in Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Seminar/Symposium , October 8 “10, 1984, Philadelphia, PA, Project Management Institute, Newtown Square, PA, p. 88.

[49] Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, A survival guide for leaders, Harvard Business Review , p. 66, June 2002.

[50] Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, A survival guide for leaders, Harvard Business Review , p. 66, June 2002.

[51] Bernard J. Mohr, Appreciative inquiry: igniting transformative action, The Systems Thinker , p. 1, February 2001.

[52] Bernard J. Mohr, Appreciative inquiry: igniting transformative action, The Systems Thinker , p. 1, February 2001, p. 210.

[53] James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge , Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1987, p. 71.

[54] Edward M. Marshall, Transforming the Way We Work , Amacom, New York, 1995, pp. 140 “164.

[55] Richard W. Bailey, Six steps to project recovery, PM Network , p. 33, May 2000.

[56] John Kotter, Leading change, 2002 Linkage Excellence in Management (seminar), p. 23.

[57] Dee Hock, The nature and creation of chaordic organizations, The Systems Thinker , p. 1, April 2000.

[58] James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge , Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1987, p. 226.

[59] Warren Bennis, Why Leaders Can't Lead , Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1989, pp. 147 “151.

[60] Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard, Management of Organizational Behavior , 6th ed., Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1993, p. 378.

[61] David Viscott, Risking , Pocket Books, New York, 1979, p. 19.

[62] Tom Peters, The Circle of Innovation , Vintage Books, New York, 1999, p. 385.

[63] John Kao, Jamming , HarperBusiness, New York, 1997, p. 19.

[64] John Kao, Jamming , HarperBusiness, New York, 1997, p. 41.

[65] Warren Bennis and Patricia W. Biederman, Organizing Genius , Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1997, p. 20.

[66] James L. Adams, Conceptual Blockbusting , 2nd ed., W.W. Norton, New York, 1979, pp. 13 “37.

[67] Philip A. Himmelfarb, Survival of the Fittest , Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1992, pp. 172 “174.

Leading High Performance Projects
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