Stephen Billing’s Blog

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Informal Communication: The Neglected Poor Relation?

Stephen Billing, May 1, 2009

This article was published in the Changing Organisations Newsletter ISSN 1174-5576 Num 4: May 2009.

Informal communications – for example gossip over coffee – are what make or break change efforts. A rumour or a concern can so easily be fanned through informal communication into a wildfire of suspicion and resistance. And yet change leaders often concentrate on formal communications (e.g. written) at the expense of informal channels of communications.

My scientific survey tells me that 75% of projects concentrate on formal communications and ignore informal. 75% of change efforts are reputed to fail. You do the maths.

I really think that sponsors of change projects, project managers of change projects, those involved in change project teams and business unit managers have a big problem on their hands.

Even though you may plan the project well, sign off on the risk and issues registers, conduct steering group meetings that are efficient and get through everything on the agenda, deliver the deliverables on time and within budget, and give progress reports to line managers, these are all inputs, not outcomes.

Of most importance to you as a sponsor of a change project are the outcomes. Line managers are most concerned about the impact of the project on their operations and what they will have to do to make it work (i.e. outcomes for their business unit). Project managers and their teams, by contrast, become more concerned about deliverables, which are inputs. Project management structure and planning drives them in this direction – to have all the papers ready for a steering group meeting, for example.

Immediately you can see the dilemma of inputs versus outcomes. Deliverables (a concept invented as a way of measuring progress towards the desired outcomes, i.e. to measure progress of inputs, especially useful for long term projects) include things like project plans, reports on progress, strategy documents, databases, people recruited, leases secured, and equipment purchased. Unfortunately, success in these things is then taken to equate to the success of the project overall.

Project sponsors, through their close alliances with project managers and their teams, also run the risk of being seduced into prioritising deliverables at the expense of outcomes. By contrast, line managers are seldom influenced this way, perhaps because they often don’t develop the same close associations with these project teams.

From a project sponsor’s point of view however, outcomes can only be measured after the change project is implemented. At the same time, project sponsors play a pivotal part in whether the outcomes of the project are achieved or not. They are the ones with relationships with their senior level peers, who secure and commit resources and who provide real world guidance to their project, programme managers and steering groups.

Your project management effectiveness is one component of the solution. And you surely do need good project management, make no mistake. You also need the right mix of technical skills on the team. But good project management and good technical skills are often seen as the whole story. In reality they are only part of the mix. In order to achieve the outcomes you desire, you also need to make sure that the right range of views have been incorporated into the decision making, and that the shadow conversations have been taken into account.

So one thing that you can do as sponsor of a change project is to keep in touch (perhaps informally, and definitely with an open mind) with the line managers. Project managers would also do well to adopt the same approach.

The grave danger I am warning you of, is that initiatives live or die in the shadow conversations – over the coffee machines, in the smoking rooms, in the cafeteria, in the corridors, at staff drinks, around the water cooler. And project sponsors, project managers, project teams, and human resources people, typically do not spend their time in those places. Blinding flash of the obvious – if informal communications are so critical to the success of change initiatives, why are all the communications efforts concentrated solely on the formal communications channels?

No wonder the failure rate for change projects is reputed to be so high.

 

The Problem with Project Management in Organisational Change

Stephen Billing, March 15, 2009

Informal communications – for example gossip over coffee – are what make or break change efforts. So often, change leaders concentrate on formal communications and have not considered how they will engage informal channels of communications.

75% of change efforts are reputed to fail. You do the maths.

I really think that sponsors of change projects, project managers of change projects, those involved in change project teams, business unit managers, and consultants like me all have a big problem on our hands.

Even though you may plan the project well, sign off on the risk and issues registers, conduct steering group meetings that are efficient and get through everything on the agenda, deliver the deliverables on time and within budget, and give progress reports to senior and line managers, these are all inputs, not outcomes.

Of most importance to you as a sponsor of a change project are the outcomes. Line managers are most concerned about the impact of the project on their operations and what they will have to do to make it work (i.e. outcomes for their business unit). Project managers and their teams, by contrast, become more concerned about deliverables, which are inputs. Project management structure and planning drives them in this direction – to have all the papers ready for a steering group meeting, for example.

Immediately you can see the dilemma of inputs versus outcomes. Deliverables (this concept was invented as a way of measuring progress towards the goal, i.e. to measure progress of inputs, especially useful for long term projects) include things like project plans, reports on progress, strategy documents, databases, people recruited, leases secured, and equipment purchased. The problem is that success in these things is then taken to equate to the success of the project overall.

Project sponsors, through their close alliances with project managers and their teams, also run the risk of being seduced into prioritising deliverables at the expense of outcomes. By contrast, line managers seldom are seduced this way, perhaps because they often don’t develop the same close associations with these project teams. 

From a project sponsor’s point of view however, outcomes can only be measured after the change project is implemented. At the same time, project sponsors play a pivotal part in whether the outcomes of the project are achieved or not. They are the ones with relationships with their senior level peers, who secure and commit resources and who provide real world guidance to their project and programme managers.

Your project management effectiveness is one component of the solution. And you surely do need good project management, make no mistake. You also need the right mix of technical skills on the team. But good project management and good technical skills are only part of the mix. In order to achieve the outcomes you desire, you also need to make sure that the right range of views have been incorporated into the decision making, that the shadow conversations have been taken into account.

So one thing that you can do as sponsor of a change project is to keep in touch (perhaps informally, and definitely with an open mind) with the line managers. Project managers would also do well to adopt the same approach.

The grave danger I am warning you of, is that initiatives live or die in the shadow conversations – over the coffee machines, in the smoking rooms, in the cafeteria, in the corridors, at staff drinks, around the water cooler. And project sponsors, project managers, project teams, and human resources people, typically do not spend their time in those places. Blinding flash of the obvious – if informal communications are so critical to the success of change initiatives, why are all the communications efforts concentrated solely on the formal communications channels?

No wonder the standard statistic is that 75% of change projects are reputed to fail.

 

Conflict – the Stuff of Life

Stephen Billing, September 5, 2008

I had a client who took up a new position as a manager in a new organisation. There was a significant change in the approach being used to achieve the group’s purpose and consequently the group was reorganised.

After a particularly difficult day filled with conflict he said to me "Do I atract this hostility?"

Another client after a bad day said to me enviously about another project manager I was working with "That project manager has a smooth running project and doesn’t have the kind of conflict going on in my project." Little did he know that the other project manager was dealing with a problem with a team member who was openly hostile, rude and not performing.

I pointed out to both these clients that these issues of conflict are going on all the time – they are the stuff of organisational life.

I have come to see that we are all in the process of negotiating with interdependent others as we try to go on together in a world where we have different, competing intentions. Conflict must inevitably arise when you are dependent on another and they are also dependent on you. Walking away is only an option if you are no longer to be involved with that project or organisation.

We are always negotiating conflict of some kind. But we tend to blame others and see them as the source of the conflict rather than accepting that as human beings in organisations conflict and power relating are inevitably a part.

This becomes especially noticeable in times of change when the conflicting intentions we have are highlighted.

And sometimes it seems like others don’t have it quite so hard as we do. But you never know what’s going on in the house next door…

What do you think?