Leaning to People

Searching for (Project) Success

What drives the success of a project? I’m having a lot of conversations with clients and partners about this at the moment.

There the old story of a drunk who is found looking for his house keys under a street lamp.

“Are you sure you lost them here?” says the helpful stranger after a while.

“No,” replies the drunk, “but the light is better here.”

Where are we looking for the keys to project success, I wonder? Are we looking in the same places because that is where the light appears to be better? Most of the time, we look at the project manager, the individual.

So we send project managers on training courses. We get them assessed against competence measures, and so on.

More recently people have focused on the organisation, the whole enterprise. ‘Why is it that some organisations appear to be more successful in project delivery,’ people ask. So the search moves to the organisation’s culture and maturity.  And they conclude that project success is largely determined by the wider environment within which they run they run their projects. So maturity models have been devised. You have the classic CMMI model. There is the P3M3 for portfolios, programmes and projects. Assess the maturity of the organisation to deliver projects, they say; it is too simplistic to look only at the project manager.

And they are, of course, partly right.

So we look for success in:

  • the competence of the project manager (or programme manager – the same applies)
  • the maturity of the host organisation

But what if we are looking in the wrong places? What if it is only partly individual competence, and only partly to do with organisational maturity. But we could still be missing an area, an area where there is now a growing body of evidence that this is where much high performance can be found?

What about the team?

Leaning to People

Surprised by their reaction?

So, you are leading a new project, a new initiative, a new change. Early on in your project, you begin to explain to someone affected how your project will make things better for everyone and you expect them to welcome your new future with open arms.

Instead, their reaction surprises you, and maybe even hurts a little. They are not as positive about your change as you had expected.

So, whilst you might be disappointed by hostile responses, you can be prepared by considering five main reasons why people might respond the way they do. I use the acronym TONIC.

The roots of an invididual’s response to change usually falls within five areas. I use the word TONIC as an acronym for these.


’T’ stands for the type of individual. We know we are all different. But there are patterns. One profiling tool I use is the AEM-Cube analysis. It is particularly helpful in showing how an individual might respond to a proposed change. One of the three dimensions in the AEM-Cube is the exploration scale. At one end of the scale are those who seek stability, as a natural proclivity in their personality. Whilst at the other end of the scale there are those stimulated by exploring the new. We need those who can provide stability through the change, but we also need the leaders, the innovators, who can dream and deliver new solutions. Generally, the person who is more stability-oriented will require rather more convincing and might even come over as resistant to our change at the beginning.

The ‘O’ stands for their organisational history, what they have experienced in that particular organisation in the past. Perhaps the record of change initiatives, particularly in the recent past, has not been very successful – a series of failures, maybe, where some were bigger flops than others. If so, it will be harder to convince people to come on board with your change. Whereas if there have been a series of changes that have been successful, then people will be more confident that your change will be successful, and regard such changes as just a normal part of that organisation’s life.

Next, there is the nature of the change, the ’N’ in TONIC. Is the change fairly simple, or is it complex? Is it something that will evolve or emerge? Or is it planned as a big bang implementation? Will people be invited to volunteer and serve in the change, or will it be something everyone’s forced to do? All these types of change will evoke different responses.

The ‘I’ is for the individual’s history. Perhaps an individual comes with some very negative associations with the type of change you are proposing, associations that might be from a change in another organisation they have worked in in the past. Maybe the recent history of that person has some big negatives, like a sick child, or a bereavement of a loved one, or a painful divorce. None of these circumstances are your fault, but when their private life is so turbulent, such an individual will be searching for some normality in their work, and they will naturally react to your change as a threat to that.

Finally, there are the consequences of the change, the ‘C’ in TONIC. Again, project managers often focus on explaining the features they are offering, and so they are unprepared for this kind of thinking. Some people might conclude that this change will mean they lose something, perhaps a loss of influence or a loss of visibility, status, or freedom, or even their job. Different people will be differently affected, but more than that, left to themselves they will imagine all kinds of negative consequences. So we need to research carefully, if we can, how it might impact them and to set their expectations very carefully. 

These are just five drivers of how people react to a change. There are others, but these are major ones.


Understanding is more than half the solution. Having some grid or map like this, some set of anticipated causes of negative reaction to my work helps me to be prepared. As I think through TONIC, I am more prepared both to better present my change, and also to handle any objections when they come.

So, what’s the point? Simply this: the TONIC list helps me prepare before I present a change to someone. If I’m giving a formal presentation to a larger group, I might include some of these objections in my presentation, such as the organisation’s recent history and the type of change I’m proposing, and deal with those concerns as part of my presentation.

If I’m meeting a key individual, one-to-one, I might consider how they might react from what I already know about them, their role, their style of working and what I know they hold as their operating values. This helps me avoid causing unnecessary anxiety, offence or resistance.

Practical People Engagement online

I go into TONIC and other similar techniques further, including offering a nifty little checklist, on my new online course, Practical People Engagement, from my book of the same name, which is now open for enrollment.

Leaning to Action Leaning to People

Secrets of an Outstanding Project

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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?

Leaning to People

The Old Project Management Mindset

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.

Leaning to People

Leading Effective Change: A 10-Point Checklist for the Busy Leader

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.

Leaning to People

How is Your Leadership Trust Fund?

According to Professor Bruce Lloyd of London’s South Bank University, “The critical issue is, not change, but trust.”

Professor Bruce Lloyd

Bruce Lloyd

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.

Relational Boundaries

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:

Concentric Relational Boundaries
After Danny Silk, Keep Your Love On

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.

The Seven Keys to Exceptional Work
The Seven Keys eBook

The Seven Keys eBook

Revealing the Seven Key Areas that High Performers Pay Attention

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Leaning to People

Change or Die!

If you were told that unless you made a lifestyle change you would die, would you change?

Would you, though?

Research shows that you’re probably wrong.​

In this video, I report on some fascinating research first made known by Alan Deutschmann. The results are surprising but hopeful.​

What emerges is an unlikely but compelling story of how we are influenced much more effectively through our hearts than our heads.

One of my favourite quotes comes out of this research:

Joy is a more powerful motivator than fear.

Dr Dean Ornish
The Seven Keys to Exceptional Work
The Seven Keys eBook

The Seven Keys eBook

Revealing the Seven Key Areas that High Performers Pay Attention