Project management is easy… Until you add the people factor!

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On the face of it, Project Management is easy! Affecting change through the structured implementation of a plan agreed upon by an organisation to deliver some specific business benefit, most likely under the spotlight of senior management sponsorship and some level of corporate governance would seem to, on the face of it, to be the simplest of tasks. Peanuts!

And yet as all of us on the front line of leading Programme Managemen are aware, it’s never that simple! So why is that? The problem with projects is that they involve change and change in turn invariably involves dealing with that most unpredictable and difficult to manage wildcard: people.

If you listen to any commercially successful leaders, you will doubtless hear them say at some point that the people behind the business drive ‘success’. Or as the famous American football coach – Vince Lombardi put it: “The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual”. And you know what – I would agree with that statement. However, what happens when change runs contrary to the beliefs and impulses of individuals across the organisation? In my last article I spoke about change happening when three key requirements are met:

  • Willingness to change
  • Clear and Shared vision of the future state
  • Defined and Accepted future state roadmap

So what happens when a critical mass of individuals are NOT willing to change and in fact are resistant to move away from the status quo and accept the future vision? How do you overcome blockage in the form of combined resistance from the people in the organisation and concerted efforts to thwart change? It is difficult to lead if people resist whatever it is you are trying to change.

Resistance to change is something that most of us have experienced, hell many of us have been on both sides of this fence as either resistor of change or trying to manage the impact of that resistance on a project we are leading. It’s important upfront to acknowledge that often resistance is not personal and before you can address it you need to understand it and engage, put another way – there is a need to step into another’s shoes and try to see the world from their perspective. Let’s admit one thing: if a change happens and you do not have any control over it and on top of that it affects what matters to you – then, of course, you are going to be unhappy about that. Emotions will take control; you will feel that you are surrounded by chaos uncertainly and anarchy.

Why people can be difficult to manage in the context of change often comes down to motivation. Human motivation is a highly complex subject, driven by a multitude of individual beliefs, desires, impulses and incentives. In organisations, this can often come down to addressing the “what’s in it for me?” question. Seeing a change through the prism of how it will impact “me” as an individual is a human nature; hot-wired into our fight-or-flight instincts that are alerted in the face of what can be either a perceived or even a real threat.

In driving change we must acknowledge that even with the clearest and forward-thinking vision backed up with structure and clarity around how we will transition to our end goal, not everyone will buy-in. People will assess the end state based on what that will mean for them and emotional responses will occur both rational and irrational. Fear and uncertainty can be driven by concerns about additional work stresses, and anxiety about the impact on individual status or social consequences. It can be driven by a feeling of rejection or marginalisation of contributions made under the current paradigm, and it can be a by-product of insecurity related to a person’s position or job security, also can be a consequence of an anxiety about workload and stress.

Change is foremost about people and people are complex.

So how do we establish a willingness to change when there is resistance? Well, based on my experience here are a few tips:

First off, be aware. The first step in starting to address resistance is to understand it. What is the nature of the concerns, where is the pushback likely to come from and from whom? Having clarity upfront on the impact the project will have both in terms of the target end state and on individuals from an emotional standpoint helps to fast track this. The vision and objectives represent the future model, which in turn provides the detail of what is changing, and therefore what people, processes, systems and structures are likely to be impacted. Placing yourself as a change leader in the perspective of the people involved helps to start to formulate a view of how this will affect them. A level of emotional intelligence is critical in this, whilst the voice of the business surveys, stakeholder engagement and targeted communications may surface concerns; it is not unusual for opposition to remain hidden. Individuals are often reluctant to visibly stand in the way of change but are more comfortable blocking progress or failing to engage at the operational level.

Understanding the nature of resistance and being able to empathise and understand the concerns is the first step to addressing this. The big five categories of human emotions, which can be associated with resistant behaviour are: discreditation, rejection, dilution, evasion and denial. All of those emotions will have many different faces and will be shown through different behaviours and situations. Spotting them is the first step to understanding how to address them. Again try to understand the change from the perspective of those impacted: are they going to win/lose with this new scenario? If they resist the change what is their most likely response going to be? Show empathy and seek first to understand. Try to see if there is a win/win scenario that hasn’t been fully appreciated or at least start to formulate an approach that is best suited to bring people along with you.

Where people’s roles are fundamentally changed as a consequence of a project, sensitivity is crucial. In my experience being transparent, upfront and honest about what is happening, the impact it will have on people’s position in the organisation and future roles, as well as the timing of the change and options for support (both emotional and career-wise), reduces anxiety and stress. Being clear on the part you expect people to play in the change, setting and agreeing on clear roles and responsibilities and having an open dialogue around this to engage and appeal to professional integrity often has the impact that resistance can be overcome and negative emotional response can be turned into a positive contribution to the delivery of the project. The ultimate goal is to turn a person who is negative about the project into a positive force for change and empower them to take the lead. This is not easy, and sometimes it’s not possible but it can only be achieved through dialogue and understanding of the deeper, less visible picture of the reality as seen by the person affected.

Secondly, communication is critical. I follow the TRIP model to ensure Timely, Relevant, Important and Comprehensible information is passed on. But this must be more than just a one-way stream of ‘corporate centric consciousness’. It needs to be open and two-way. Where possible walking the job and simply engaging people in open conversation is the best way to really understand how people are feeling and a first-hand opportunity to influence that. The view from inside the ‘project bunker’ can be misleading. The project team have a specific goal to achieve, don’t assume that operational folk or even those that support the vision feel the same. Projects however welcome are often seen as yet another imposition on an already stretched workload. Getting out and seeking different perspectives and finding out how people really feel helps to tailor messages and address concerns early before they gain traction across a wider audience. Communication needs to make the vision clear, the plans transparent and it needs to address concerns and reduce uncertainty. Making this consistent across the project team cannot be understated, nothing undermines change like conflicting messages that discredit the plans and weakens the case for change. Tangible delivery is predicated on the credibility of the vision and people’s willingness to support it, anything that dilutes that and creates uncertainty takes us away from a sustainable future model, a consistent narrative is a key to achieving this.

Thirdly – you have got to take the lead. The task of the Change Leader is navigating a route through the complexity of intricately woven human emotions whilst simultaneously making sure that business objectives, as well as the tangible part of the project delivery, is achieved. It’s a delicate balance encompassing bringing the people that make the organisation function along with you, and sometimes that is not easy.

This brings me to my final tip: be nice to people. Change is exciting for some and challenging for others. In big organisations, it is often a way of life and in life, there are winners and losers. Over a long career, there will be changes that work for you and those that work less well and often you don’t get a choice in that. Focusing on people, inspiring them to do great things, building good relationships, and acting with kindness and integrity will make the journey more rewarding and enjoyable and along the way, you will get more done and feel better about what you have achieved. Whilst delivering any major change project these findings have always been a core of what I personally believe in. I hope now you do as well.