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Important People Doing Important Stuff That No-one Else Could Possibly Understand? No, I Don’t Think So.
By Mark A. Tipping

What do they have in common?

Hmmm … see the similarity here?

So, Dear Reader, what do skyscrapers, space shuttles and soothsayers have in common?

Well, mention delivering change or project management and every organization you talk to has a horror story to tell.

Many would even have you believe that it’s some sophisticated, difficult and dangerous black art practised by highly educated and well-trained soothsayers carrying project charters, GANTT charts and detailed schedules. They’re all building skyscrapers, launching space shuttles and merging banks.

Yet successful project and change management is really not difficult.

In truth, delivering change is a simple and largely predictable process and successful change is the intelligent application of that process – no matter how tough or complex the project seems.

Successful project management might seem scary or arcane, but I believe, that with the right support and guidance, just about anybody can be a project manager and everyone can be successful at delivering and owning change.

OK: let’s face facts. Delivering successful change traditionally hasn’t been easy

Whether a change is to business processes, computer systems or organizational structures, most people impacted by a given change believe it failed to meet its stated objectives. Although it is difficult finding up to date statistics, with most references still referring back to the 1994 CHAOS Report, or a 2000 update that states only 28% of technology projects were successful (that is to say: on-time, on-budget, with all features as specified), no matter what you read the track record isn’t great.

This means perhaps three out of four fail or do not deliver what and when they promised. And the results are often poorer for non-system changes.

But worse – anecdotally – through my discussions with thousands of stakeholders over the past 15 years, of the technically successful changes, nevertheless more than two-thirds of the clients, end-users and stakeholders:

  • are dis-satisfied or reject the change altogether
  • do not understand the new processes, systems or structures
  • feel they lacked involvement in the decision making
  • are threatened by the changing environment
  • perceive the change to be a failure

That means less than 10% of all stakeholders affected by new processes, systems and structures perceive the change as successful. Little wonder people in organizations of all kinds are wary of change. Have a look at this useful chart – produced when the 1st National Joint Police Union-Management Symposium, sponsored by the Michigan State University Schools of Labor and Industrial Relations and Criminal Justice, and the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (the COPS Office), was convened in October 2008 to provide a forum for union and management leaders to learn more about issues confronting them, as well as to learn to apply skills for effectively resolving them. With a good mixture of management and union personnel, it amply demonstrates that everyone knows what separates a good project change from a bad one.

Successful change vs. unsuccessful change

Successful change versus unsuccessful change. Well, dur.

OK, so let’s just run over what we do know – I mean, everyone knows this stuff, but let’s remind ourselves

Let’s just go straight back to the basics; to be successful at delivering change you need:

  • active user involvement
  • committed executive management support
  • appropriate project management rigor

Active user involvement

Firstly, and vitally, your users need to be involved right from the start. From conceptualizing, even before planning. In fact, really successful change will only occur if it feels like it’s driven by them.

They need to specify the requirements and ensure they are complete. They need to sign-off as the change progresses. You need them to take ownership of the outcomes and champion the change. Oh, and please note, you can’t ‘give’ ownership – it must be taken.

Committed executive management support

Availability of resources, user involvement, managing expectations, control of changes, scope, prioritization, politics, and governance are all made or broken by the level of commitment and focus of the executive management team. If you can’t get your executive fully committed, flag the project red, and walk away – it will save you (and them) a lot of stress and heartbreak.

Appropriate project management rigor

I’ve worked in some organizations where you needed detailed project documentation and lots of onerous project management rigor to successfully deliver a relatively small and simple change. I’ve also worked in organizations where relatively large and complex projects have been delivered with no more rigor than a few well-worded emails, some regular meetings and lots and lots of informal discussions and demonstrations. The art is to align the degree of rigor with the culture of the organization on a project-by-project basis.

Sisyphus = the definition of stupidity – doing the same thing expecting a different result

Just like Sisyphus pushing the rock back to the top of the hill, only to have it roll down again, as human beings we so often seem to keep taking the same approaches, only to repeat the same results. That way lies madness.

Traditional approaches of putting the Project Manager (PM) at the top of that hill and then buttressing him or her with more PM training, more PM rigour, and more PM policing have all failed to make long-term sustainable improvements in change success, and almost invariably seem to result in the PM (and thus the desired change) eventually falling down again.


OK, we’ve all been there. Whether pushing the rock or yelling up the hill. Question is, when are we going to stop?

We need to do something that’s really different.

With Sisyphus and his rock in mind, and that PM on top of the hill, we decided that it was time we took an entirely different approach.

We removed the hill.
Remove the hill? OK, That’s Different.

It’s all too easy to put the PM on top of the hill and, after telling them what to do, expect them to do it all.

After all, they’re a certified project manager so they can run the project, right? Easy. Next agenda item, please. Gee, isn’t it fun being a Director? Now we can all absolve ourselves of our responsibilities and sit back and let them deliver. And besides, if they stuff it up we won’t get the blame, will we?

In our experience, this is very common, but this hasn’t worked – and won’t ever work.

As we’ve said, we need to get the users actively involved. We need the executive fully committed. And we need to ensure that everyone, including clients, stakeholders, vendors, end-users and the project team, is applying the appropriate level of project management rigour for the culture of the organization and that particular initiative.

So instead of putting your PM on top of the hill, remove the hill and put everyone on the same field; the ‘we’re all responsible for this’ field.

Anyone for cricket?

Delivering successful change is all about teamwork and communication. Just like a successful cricket team – or just about any team sport, actually – the team is only as good as its coach. You know the famous adage about a team of champions as opposed to a champion team? It’s utterly true. Champion teams beat teams of champions every time. Yet we invest a fortune in finding good people for projects, and even more for good project managers, and almost nothing in their team coaching.

So why do we leave our PMs swinging in the breeze like this? Part of the problem is that we expect senior managers up the line to automatically (and successfully) play the role of team coach. But we say this assumption is facile, and foolish.

The senior manager may have too many projects running underneath them to allow them time to invest in each project team successfully.

They may have many skills the business needs, but actually be poor at people management. (This is surprisingly common.)

They may not even understand the disciplines of project management themselves – they may come from a different background altogether – how, then, are they to coach the PM and his mates in successful delivery?

Andrew Strauss gets a rock-solid cricket ball

Andrew Strauss gets a rock-solid cricket ball traveling at about 150 mph under his guard – and his helmet – in the West Indies. Now, when he’s picked himself up, you make him stand still and face the next one. That’s coaching.

Communication and Teamwork don’t just happen. They are coached by someone whose over-riding responsibility is not delivering the project, but delivering the communication and teamwork that will make it happen – person by person. To transform the likelihood of your project being successful, give someone ownership of the people who have ownership of the project. Here’s the “magic bullet” that so many projects need:

  • Introduce a coach, backed by processes and software that means they are tracking the project success in a formal manner, from a person by person perspective, not just shouting the team drinks on a Friday evening.
  • This person coaches everyone – from end users to executive overseers.

  • The coach attends steering committee meetings and “speaks truth to power” if things are heading off track, if the wrong people are in the wrong positions, or if it looks like success, (usually measured by the paper generated) but actually isn’t.

As a side benefit, having such a coach involved in your business almost inevitably delivers improved long-term cultural change, in a positive direction, as if by accident, way beyond the boundaries of the project concerned.

Mark A. Tipping is the founder of The Different Company. He has 20 years of Program and Business Management experience across a diverse range of industries including Banking and Finance, Telecommunications, Insurance, Distribution, and private enterprise.

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