As change leaders – and most of us are change leaders at some time or another – we can have quite a high appetite for change. When we lead a change, we look to persuade others around us to come along. Yet, what is the effect on our customers and our colleagues of a perceived endless series of changes?
In my previous article on the Matrix Body Farm, I considered how the valuable margin in our work to serve others can be eroded or removed altogether by the growing trend towards micro-control through targets.
There is another unintentional effect that keeps people incompetent, and it is driven by those of us who are change leaders!
Now, we like to think of ourselves as the good guys, the people who change the world for the better. Sure, there may be pain in the journey, but ultimately we tell ourselves that are there to make our organisations better, that this pain we inflict is worth it.
Well, my wife and I were talking with some friends about the brutalising effects information systems can have on healthcare, when she recalled her time as a receptionist at a doctors’ practice. She is very much a people-focused administrator, so medical receptionist was a good match fit for her at the time. Yet, she said this:
One of the oldest change management models — maps, I call them — comes from Kurt Lewin. It has stood the test of time because this map is simple, yet powerful. Here’s a video from my Leader’s Map Room.
When people say, “I just don’t know what is normal anymore,” and they keep on saying that over time, yes, they are incompetent, but maybe we have made them that way. And we keep them that way. Just when they are just about to discover the new normal, we come along with our next wave of change.
Maybe when we keep changing things, we keep people in incompetence. They never have the opportunity to gain mastery.
It’s the refreeze of the Lewin Map, that is crucial. If we keep people from entering their own refreeze stage, it’s as if we are keeping them in liquid incompetence, a very uncomfortable place to live and work.
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?
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.
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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