When change is not as good as rest

Change is inevitable and can involve risk, but accomplished project managers know how to cope, writes Dan Matthews

A lot can happen in ten years. A decade ago we still had Concorde and Michael Jackson; Lance Armstrong was an inspirational sporting hero, not a drugs cheat, and no one had heard of Justin Bieber – he was only nine.

But ten years is a tight time-scale for a major infrastructure project to fall into place or a large building to go up in a city centre. In fact, from concept, consultation and blueprints, through to breaking ground and the final proud reveal, ten years is the blink of an eye.

London’s iconic icicle, The Shard, was designed in 2000 and the final pane of reinforced glass was fitted in the summer of 2012 – it opened in February 2013.

Although HS2, the high-speed train link that will eventually connect Scotland to the Channel Tunnel, has already been talked about for several years, phase one of the project connecting London to Birmingham has an estimated opening date of sometime in 2026.

But even this lengthy schedule is a mere flinch compared to the birth of Barcelona’s beautiful church, the Sagrada Familia, which shares HS2’s anticipated “live date” in 13 years from now. It’s a reflection of the project’s medieval timescale that the original architect, Antoni Gaudi, died in 1926.

The point of all this is that our best-laid plans are subject to influence by external forces far beyond our control. Using our decade timeframe, it’s easy to point at areas that will inevitably update: technology, the economy, the geopolitical environment, consumer behaviour, working trends, and so on and so forth.

Implementing a strategy involves changes to people, processes, products, services and everything associated

For project managers, change management is, therefore, an essential skill. The longer the timeframe, the more stuff can happen within and without your organisation, and the more open and adaptable plans must be. Plot a rigid course from point A to point B, and you are likely to cut the red ribbon on something that looks weird and doesn’t work.

“Large programmes take significant time to deliver and the world waits for no one,” says Paul Dixon, a partner at KPMG, who helped plan the London Olympic safety and security programme. “The external environment often changes and can have significant implications for the programme.

“Also, where delivering new or innovative programmes, it is sensible to be prepared for some of the assumptions made at the start of the programme to prove to be incorrect; this is normal and being able to respond flexibly is crucial.”

Mr Dixon has a three-step approach to change management. The first ingredient is keeping focused on the end-game or “eyes on the prize” as he calls it. It’s possible to stay flexible while sticking to important original goals.

The second element is good communication, which helps to keep all the various interested parties onside and prevents dissent in the ranks. If people are sick of hearing about every last detail, he says, you’re on the right track.

Lastly, it’s about the leadership skills that will keep a project on track despite all the inevitable setbacks and scares that jump up and bite project managers along the way. A strong, reasoned approach to change is vital.

“It’s essential for leaders to set a very clear vision and direction, and to engage others across the organisation,” agrees Nicky Little, head of leadership at Cirrus. “What is the purpose? It needs to be clearly communicated. People don’t want to feel things are being changed around them; they want to feel part of what’s happening.”

All this should be encapsulated in an organisation’s change strategy. Like a fire drill, this document outlines what measures need to take place, who should react and who should be informed of what’s about to happen when the alarms start a-blaring.

“Typically tiered for the size or complexity of the project or change, it will include a communication and governance framework to increase the likelihood of success,” says Andrew Reid, founder of Woovio, who has implemented several of his own projects. “It is important for communication to be two-way so the organisation can respond to positive or negative feedback as they implement the change.”

All well and good, but they say prevention is the best cure and surely it’s best to stamp on the risks before you even get going? The consensus on this question is that risks can be managed, but not erased. You can plan thoroughly, but every project is essentially a swan dive into unswum waters.

“Implementing a strategy involves changes to people, processes, products, services and everything associated,” says Ben Wales, managing director of IT project and programme management delivery and consultancy Acando UK.

“Much change is driven by external factors, even things as simple as a change affecting a supplier, causing that supplier to behave differently. Hence awareness of change and how change happens is vital to the health of every organisation.”

“You can’t eliminate risk,” agrees Professor Sim Sitkin, of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “What you can do is shrink risk to some extent and channel it. When there are real risks, when there are real losers, it’s better to get that out in the open quickly and help people adjust, than it is to try to hide it or drag it out.”

The phrase “a change is as good as a rest” doesn’t apply in the arena of project management. Good project managers should be alert to the reality of change, the impact it will have on plans and the measures that can steer things back towards a happy ending.