A few years ago, I was called in to consult for a large IT transformation programme in healthcare. It concerned a large teaching hospital over a number of sites across a major city. The change would be so radical to current working practices that the systems provider had even built a simulated ward where the people who worked in that hospital could experience the new system and appreciate how radically different work would be after this change.
In itself, this was a powerful visionary tool. Healthcare workers could try this simulation to experience for themselves how much better life would be for themselves and, as a consequence, for the patients they treated. It was using the principles of agile development, where you give the customer an early taste of what they could have so that they can make informed choices about the details of the new product. It acknowledged that people need to experience before they can engage proactively in what they want.
The programme was now entering a critical phase. There was barely a year before the hospital would be switched over to the new system.
You have a problem…
However, there was a problem. As I interviewed them, none of the leaders of this change in the hospital had ever visited this simulation.
As I dug deeper, I discovered that all of the leaders were chronically time-poor. Even without the change, for most of them, their other workloads were rising. Other than attending the monthly meeting on the programme, they had zero capacity to engage with the change, let alone make it a priority in their work. Few seemed to have any solutions to delegating out some of their work to create margin.
And as I probed, I discovered it got even worse. The people below these senior managers and clinical leads, the people who would be expected to learn and operate the new system – the clinicians, paramedics and administrators – had no hope of finding the time to make this change as well as running a busy hospital network.
I felt there was a kind of collective denial. It was as if everything was expected from the supplier and that at the switch over, everything should run smoothly without any involvement from them. Some of the more political members of the leadership team I suspected were expecting the change to fail, so they did not want to be associated with it too closely.
It was a car crash waiting to happen. The programme manager was frustrated with his inability to get through to his customers. It risked all the investment they had made in the programme to that point (three years in).
This is where time, energy and space margins for each of us as individuals cumulatively impact the margin an organisation has or doesn’t have for its own change and development.
We can plan the most elegant change, using the most progressive approaches, such as this ward simulation, but if the stakeholder receiving it does not have the margins needed for transitioning to the new, then at best it will falter, at worst fail.
So, the prerequisites for change in the organisation receiving the change are almost more important than how the change itself is planned and presented.
Cecile was unhappy that I left her hanging with my previous article on where we place the praise or blame for project failure or success. I had hinted at the team.
Yes what about the team then, Patrick ? Hoping to read the rest of your always deep analysis!
And Cecile is quite correct. I’m grateful for her question. I did leave you, the reader, hanging. So I am bringing forward this follow-up article in my editorial schedule.
If we set aside the traditional management mindset for a moment and consider the project manager as a leader of change, we can move beyond looking at the hierarchic levels and entities of the organisation, the project manager and the project team. Instead, we consider the challenges of leading a project team through change.
Adair considers the actions a leader must take, whatever their working environment. He maintains that to be effective, the leader must:
Achieve the task
Build and maintain the team
Develop the individual
He goes on to list a number of responsibilities for the leader under each of these categories.
Hiring Great People?
I wouldn’t disagree with Adair. Also, I am seeing much emphasis these days on hiring great people as meaning hiring deep expertise in particular exclusive specialisms and then letting them get on with clearly-defined work while keeping the whole team informed.
This, too, is fine – as far as it goes – but a group of geeks is not a team.
“Ah, yes!” you might be thinking. “There needs to be team synergy.” Well yes, but I feel that even the associations we have with the word synergy are usually not deep enough.
An Unregarded Critical Success Factor
A true leader changes the environment around her. She brings out things in people that perhaps team members did not even know they had within themselves. That leader begins to model values, and guard a culture, even if she never uses the language of culture. It is possible – and I have done it from time to time – to create a culture within a project, that begins to outperform the norm within the surrounding organisation.
Sure, as Adair says, the good leader does pay attention to the goal of the project and the individual contributions towards that goal (task), as well as good team-working, while developing the individuals within the team. Yes, John Adair, that leader ticks all your boxes.
But can we go deeper and help individual team members engage with matters beyond their individual domains in positive ways? Specialists can show up to meetings as generalists; geeks can become generous, and contribute to discussions in domains other than their specialisms. And they discover in a culture of honour and respect. This encourages team members to lean towards others with empathy and greater influence.
The Villain of Failure
So, back to the question: who do we blame when a project fails, or when its outcomes are disappointing?
The fact is that projects are, by definition, unique means that they are not kind learning environments, as psychologist Robin Hogarth would describe them. We lead a project, we are not navigating something as rules-based as Candy Crush or World of Warcraft. No. In Hogarth’s terms, a project can be a wicked learning environment. For example, we find that what worked for us before may not work next time, even in the same project.
What we require is high-order intuitive leadership. This kind of leadership creates a positive, engaging, honouring culture that invites people to own the challenge of the whole project; to cross into domains where they may feel vulnerable and incompetent at first. But backed by a positive, encouraging leader, they learn to be brave, to share in generous conversations, and to discover breakthrough solutions from within the team.
Maybe I will publish a further article on this and share my biscuit-based culture…and how this worked on a computer server engineering project. But that is for another time… and, of course, the biscuit culture may never work again.
It could just crumble. (Sorry! Awful pun!)
Do leave your comments below.
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Earlier this month I had the opportunity to interview a couple of my clients from the British Antarctic Survey: Linda Capper, who is the Head of Communications, and Andy Jeffries, the Programme Manager for the new polar research vessel, the RRS Sir David Attenborough. I was honoured to be invited to the launch of the new boat last month in Birkenhead.
Following that launch, Linda and Andy agreed to be interviewed by me about this intriguing project. You can watch the full interview here:
Since recording this interview two things stand out for me:
This project is already very successful. At 30:35, Andy talks about how the project is not only successful but is one of the highest-rated in the UK Government’s top 200 major projects; and
A lot of what was said is contrary to common thinking, both about our planet and about how to manage substantial marine engineering projects like this one. In fact, Linda and Andy knock a lot of conventional wisdom on its head.
Let’s look at some of the conventional beliefs that Linda and Andy take issue with, in the course of this interview.
“Antarctica is so remote that it has nothing much to do with us.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. As Linda explained [04:00], through the work of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and polar research by other nations, it became clear that we are more connected with the continent of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean than many of us realise. Sir David Attenborough himself said at the launch, “What happens down there, affects us up here. And what we do here, affects what happens down there.”
Working with the National Environment Research Council (NERC) and BAS over the last four years, I am convinced that this kind of research is critical for our own and future generations on this planet.
“Reducing your fleet by half is downsizing.”
[05:33] Linda explained this difficult decision. Currently, BAS operates two vessels, with one planned for decommissioning next year. BAS could have replaced like for like, but ultimately the preferred solution, a larger more powerful ship, which allows experiments on board among other things, leads to better science.
As Andy later pointed out, a reduction in the operational budget of running two ships, means more resources for important science. And, after all, science is the mission of BAS, isn’t it?
Sometimes we can be so focused on a part of the organisation’s problems – in this case, resilience – that we can overlook a simpler, more powerful solution.
The decision still means trade-offs for some stakeholders that they were unhappy about at first. But now everyone is much more aligned with making the new vessel an outstanding success.
Sometimes we can be so focused on part of the problem that we can overlook simpler, more powerful solutions.
“You can only have one customer on a project.”
I’ve heard this statement made in project management training courses. When it comes to decision-making on a project, people say, “Anything with two heads is a monster.” This statement is true when it comes to making a decision and giving clear direction. But governance – the organisation of roles and decision-making – while it should adequately represent the customer, is not the customer. Andy [09:20] began by saying he had two major customers, and later Linda argued there were several others.
Linda [15:20] described the communications strategy. The project developed it with the aim that every customer needed to gain something from the communications. The customers, in her view, includes several government bodies as well as an ecosystem of private companies. This strategy helped her and others work through difficult issues for some stakeholders.
“You need a large core team for a £200 million project like this.”
Andy has a team of four [09:20]. Yes, four! He describes this team as spanning four decades – one person for each decade – which in itself is a strength for him. Team members are bound to see things from a different perspective.
It is the fashion to recruit and create generation-based cultures, particularly in the digital world, that claim better empathy with their own new breed of customer. Andy’s team does that as well as bring in the experience of different generations. The experience that comes with age has something to offer as well.
“It’s impossible to future-proof a vessel like this since the project is over several years; it will be obsolescent by the time it goes into service!”
“You can’t possibly consider an Agile approach to building such a huge ship.”
Andy explained [23:30] how they created a change budget so that obsolescence-on-delivery was less likely to happen. In fact, much of the thinking on this sizeable marine engineering project was more akin to Agile approaches than the traditional Specify-Design-Build (Waterfall) method we might expect from a substantial marine engineering project like this. As a result, much is impressive about the new vessel, where it has been able to take advantage of technologies that weren’t even in existence when the project began.
The change budget was their guard against obsolescence. I suggested it might be called an opportunity budget. With such rapid advances in technology, I’m sure these approaches will be needed by more and more projects, in all kinds of sectors.
“Expertise in the particular technical field of the project is everything when managing a project like this.”
When people recruit for a project manager in, for example, server systems projects, they are likely to look for a candidate with experience of server system projects; and when they recruit for a project in building construction, they look for managers who have had the experience of such projects. This practice seems to make sense. It is called domain experience. Employers place a high premium on recruiting project managers with domain experience.
And yet, Andy not only claims to have minimal previous ship-building experience [34:15] but argues that domain experience can be a disadvantage.
Maybe domain experience in leading and managing isn’t quite as important as some say it is.
“People need to talk about Benefits Management.”
Andy says, no they don’t. In fact, he argues [36:00] that this is management jargon and it gets in the way of thinking about the rationale for the project.
We do need to be careful with our language, particularly in areas we care about. It can marginalise people without our realising it.
“There is no way back from negative press that goes viral (i.e. when the British public wanted to call the vessel Boaty McBoatface)”
As you can probably tell by now, I’m a great fan of Linda Capper. In this segment of the interview [39:05], Linda talked me through the highs and lows of the initiative to put the naming of the boat to the public. Communications in the public domain can be a two-edged sword. Here, though, there was skilful use of the media that capitalised on an otherwise-embarrassing episode.
Calling out the gold in each other
Finally, I got Linda and Andy each to call the gold out in each other [52:40]. It’s interesting what each of my guests said about each other, but also how ready they were to do this.
We could do with more appreciative, honouring work environments like that, couldn’t we?
In my last post, I began to explore radical transparency from a the example of a client organisation. To lead transparently generates trust. This kind of leadership shows up before people with integrity.
However, a lot of leaders baulk at precisely this invitation to transparency. It is a vulnerable place, and for some, it is far too uncomfortable, dangerous even. They would rather hide; hide in their boardrooms, or behind closed doors; hiding behind unnecessary secrecy, behind the obfuscation of corporate jargon, using information as a weapon rather than for engagement with people involved. Or they often pretend, hiding behind a mask. They fear the real them being seen.
The problem is that we are not as stupid as these leaders think we are. We see through their masks. Eventually. We look for integrity and are disappointed to find hypocrisy. We see through the veil of secrecy for brave leaders, and instead, we see fear.
The shelf life of these less-than vulnerable leaders is short. Soon the game’s up. We see you. We see you for who you are.
Warts and All
When Oliver Cromwell won the English Civil War and became Lord Protector – not King – of England, he commissioned a portrait from Sir Peter Lely, with these instructions: the artist was to paint him “warts and all,” and not as the convention of the day would have it, the equivalent to photoshopping a model to make the subject look more attractive. Here was the result:
Cromwell had dealt with his vanity and refused to present an image of himself other than what was reality.
This illustrates that an alternative is available, but it can require an uncomfortable journey for the leader. The warts-and-all leader has experienced shame and dealt with it. They are comfortable with their imperfections. They have a robust “take me or leave me” attitude. They risk vulnerability and show us their true selves. Now, that is leadership that builds trust.
I’ve experienced both kinds. The secretive or pretentious leaders have betrayed my trust more than once and hurt me. So it takes me a while now to trust a leader.
But those authentic leaders I know, and they do exist, can call on me, and I’ll do what I can for them.
I love them, warts and all.
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Some years ago we conducted some research into high performers in project management, and one of the outstanding differences between them and the control group was a significant behaviour we called Leaning to People. The high performers seemed to get their results because they gave time to the critical relationships around themselves.
This behaviour was an important discovery. We began to practise this ourselves, prioritising our time with others and found we got much better results in our work.
However, this was not emphasised enough – and still isn’t – on most project management curricula, training and bodies of knowledge. This lack of stress on relationships is understandable but is harmful. Project management as a discipline has a heritage in construction and engineering. However, the overarching worldview of these disciplines tends to reduce people to either resources or obstacles. It’s quite dehumanising.
So I wrote Practical People Engagement: Leading Change through the Power of Relationships. That was nearly five years ago, and it is still my best-selling book. Shortly after it was published, APMG-International adopted it as the core reference for their qualification in Stakeholder Engagement.
Again, old project management mindsets can creep in here by referring to people and groups as stakeholders. Worse still, project managers still use the term stakeholder management. Who among us likes to be managed and controlled, especially if that person is not our boss? Often, efforts to influence and achieve positive outcomes can often fail right there.
Developing the skill of Leaning to People, is not primarily an issue of learning a technique, a process, acquiring management tools or models, although these are all useful resources. No, a high-order Leaning to People skill is beyond that. It starts with a mindset. This video illustrates this:
I’ve been working on a new approach to what I have been calling Exploring People Engagement (EPE), an online workshop. This new approach will be an online seminar that I will be launching soon. The new seminar is about leading people through change. In the seminar we explore a superior mindset, and how we work that out in better ways on our own changes, leading people to better outcomes.
What would happen if we all developed this skill? What if we were able to lead people to change more easily and realise better outcomes? What if we were able to develop that Leaning to People skill set to high order in our daily lives? That would begin to shift things for the better, wouldn’t it?
I want to equip people to lead their change better, to become world-changers.
I have a friend, Rachel, who is a world-changer. She does this in small groups of people at a time. She takes broken women, broken through loss, grief, through domestic abuse, and gently leads them to wholeness of self-identity and hope. What she does is truly transformational. She is a world-changer, one group at a time.
Change management –– or change leadership, as I like to call it, –– is a big subject. So many books have been written on the subject, and there are more books every year. I know this because I was a contributing author to The Effective Change Manager’s Handbook, the standard reference of the global Change Management Institute.
And we live in a VUCA world: a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. We are learning new ways of navigating this new world all the time.
Most likely, most of us will be thrown into leading some sort of change before we have had any kind of change management training. Even if you have had such training, it may be difficult to recall the essentials when you find yourself launched into the thick of it.
There will be pressure to get started. That change won’t wait until you’ve learned everything. So taking all this into account, how would you prevent yourself from getting lost in the weeds?
It is possible to get the essence of change leadership down into a short checklist, something we can carry with us into the VUCA of change. Something like the Pareto Principle is operating here. Despite a huge and complex body of knowledge, it is possible to have a short checklist you can return to again and again that will serve you well.
So I’ve distilled for you the essentials of leading change down to a 10-point checklist, that you can download below. It’s not exhaustive and if you rely on the checklist alone, you are likely to get into trouble, or miss something. But it is a start. Follow this and it will take you a long way.
According to Professor Bruce Lloyd of London’s South Bank University, “The critical issue is, not change, but trust.”
This is consistent with research by Patrick Lencioni’s Table Group, San Francisco. In his, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, Lencioni illustrates how in an executive team trust is a fundamental platform for a co-ordinated effort forward.
It is interesting how little attention is given to the matter of trust in so much of the literature and training about Leadership and Change Management. Perhaps this is because academics and methodologists look for clues in the wrong places, in ‘objectives’ and other less ‘emotional’ areas. Perhaps it is because many in senior management still subscribe to situational ethics in dealing with people, and look to quick, expedient remedies.
However, evidence has been there for some time now that trust is necessary for leading change, and it is built up over a period of time. I believe that trust is the oxygen of change. Where there is no trust, you might see change through, but as one of my American friends would say, “You leave a lot of blood on the trail.”
The Relational Bank Account
One of the most powerful relational metaphors is the relational bank account, the idea that in any relationship we have, there is a kind of bank account. We can do things to top up that account – such as serving people, going out of our way to be kind to them – as well as do things that make withdrawals. Once the account is empty, you can’t make any further withdrawals. You can’t ask favours that will be looked upon kindly. Trust is similar, but damage someone’s trust and the account can be emptied quite suddenly. On the other hand, always delivering on your promises, for example, builds trust.
Danny Silk, in his book, Keep Your Love On, explains this in terms of boundaries. Healthy relationships are created, grow and are maintained with clear boundaries. We all have these boundaries. These might be illustrated thus:
We don’t allow most of the world into our intimate spaces, nor should we. By the same token, we should not expect the people we are trying to influence, our stakeholders, to allow us in all the way. Just because I’m interested in your product doesn’t make us best buddies. Healthy relationships are built on these graduated boundaries in our lives. These boundaries are not walls but are permeable. Most of us are scanning the people around us to decide whether we let people through into the next level. Managing these boundaries is not uncaring but is healthy social behaviour.
So, we may want to consider an influencing strategy with some key stakeholders that take us at least from the outside of the circles, where they regard us a one of their tribe.
If you have a Stakeholder Engagement Strategy, is there any measure of how you are doing in terms of trust from your key stakeholders?
Are you measuring trust among your stakeholders? If so, how are you doing this? Let me know in the comments below.
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