Projects are a familiar concept. A project is a temporary structure to govern change. The project itself is the activity that happens between the start and the end. But what if there was no end date? What opportunities would this open up?
Could we live without projects? Yes, but we couldn’t survive without change. You could argue that the need for constant change and higher expectations from users demands that we should live without projects.
At the end of a project the change and improvement ends. We need to break away from the siloed nature of projects and look at implementing a continuous cycle of learning, adapting, delivering and reviewing if we’re to create and maintain the best products and services.
Change shouldn’t be the primary responsibility of projects. A project could be viewed as a way to produce a minimal viable product (MVP) but we need change to become an integral part of the way we work and think if we’re to maintain the momentum of the initial MVP and continue to build on that.
Cancel all projects?
No, I’m not proposing that we cancel all projects. Instead I’m suggesting that we seek to introduce a culture of change and improvement rather than single periods of change that end and stagnate.
I’ve worked with several clients where the work has switched from a project into a permanent organisational change programme. As the client teams became more involved in the ways of Agile, their understanding and attitude to change improved, they developed the skills to manage and govern change, they were able to witness the benefits of the cycle of validated change and the shift to continuous change became a virtuous circle.
Some of the improvements and opportunities you can expect include:
- Attitude - staff can implement changes and improvements to their processes and tools
- Change - there is a way to manage change
- Contribute - all staff have a vital part to play, they understand the customers and can change and shape the organisation for the better
- Satisfaction - playing a part in positive change really boosts personal and team morale
- Together - teams that improve together are stronger for the future, they produce better quality, they develop their own skills, they help to secure their own jobs
- Success - when all the individuals and teams in an organisation drive in the same direction they can make substantial positive improvements
- Continuation - the productivity, skill, efficiency and camaraderie of the team develops as it learns without fear of being disbanded as would happen with a project team
The people working closest to the customers, those delivering your service and using the tools, have a vital part to play in this process. This is where we find out what customers really need, it’s where we can validate the requirements. We need to encourage those people to make suggestions for improvement, however big or small, and there must be a simple process for capturing the suggestions.
For anyone to make a change they need to understand the context. Communicating the vision and the objectives of the business provides the context for people to understand how their suggestions and recommendations can make a difference. Knowing how even small changes contribute to the “bigger picture” can be a great motivation for the team.
Implementing the change cycle
Rather than go into the detail of implementing a change cycle in this post I’ll talk at a higher level about some ideas to consider if you’re thinking of implementing the change yourself.
I’ve found that people need to be supported and coached to help them understand how to identify a potentially positive improvement. I’ve done dry-runs, starting a two week period with a brief kick-off meeting asking the team to think about how they work over the next couple of week, thinking about what is working well for them, where they have difficulties, where the current tools are causing more work and what they’d like to improve if they had the opportunity.
At the end of the two week period we had a retrospective-style review and I asked some basic questions:
- What are the real problems?
- Who do these problems affect?
- Which of those can be fixed with training?
- Which of the problems are a result of poor tools or processes?
- Which of these require a change to the process?
- Which of these require a change to the tools?
- What is being done particularly well?
- What needs to stop happening?
- What needs to start happening?
- What are customers complaining about?
Recording these on post-its, displaying them on the wall against the company objectives, the team was able to identify common issues, the priority items and we had our first backlog.
This was a simple coaching session but people were quickly able to understand their own problems, link them with other problems, group some into training sessions and others into process and tool improvements.
Implementing the working change cycle took a while longer but developing a simple process for regularly reviewing, recording and prioritising was straight-forward and helped people to understand that the process could work and it began to encourage their acceptance of the overall need for change.
Authority, trust and coaching
A traditional management structure is unlikely to encourage this kind of change. Traditional management structures need to be revisited to support the delivery of continuous change. Rather than the traditional top-down management approach, higher management needs to play more of a coaching and support role, in a more inside out structure.
This doughnut structure would show the management team in the middle. It provides the vision for the organisation, sets the objectives and provides the support, delegates the delivery authority to the delivery teams and provides them with coaching and support to deliver the best service to the customers.
Not all teams have the experience to manage change. They have great ideas but to implement them is a very different challenge. This is where a change in attitude and structure is necessary. Instead of management being there solely to direct staff they need to take a step back, providing the team with direction and authority to support them through the change.
As a manager, if you’re sitting at the top of the tree directing the business and making decisions at the production level, you can’t expect to know everything that’s happening at the coal face. It’s important to give trust and authority to those who are face to face with the customer. If they have the support and the authority then they’re able to make decisions on the ground. That will help develop their skills and it’ll remove the reliance on higher management which in turn will help the continuous flow of work.
In my experience, a team that’s given the authority and trust to make decisions and implement change, responds really well. They take ownership of those changes and have pride in the work they produce. Provided they understand the overall business objectives then those decisions are made with the best intentions to support the business.
Measuring the value of change
Implementing change does come at a cost. However, not implementing change can come at an even greater cost.
We make changes in order to improve. To justify the investment in change you need to know that those changes have had the positive effect that was expected. Don’t expect every change to result in a positive change. Some changes will not work out as planned. You either have to throw them away or tweak them to make them work.
When you’re planning change consider how you’re going to measure the impact of that change. Why was the change proposed in the first place? What was the problem it was trying to solve? Was it related to quality, staff, customers, cost or process?
If there are problems with quality then you can measure that by reporting on defects and watching for a change in patterns. If staff are unhappy then you can simply talk to staff over a period of time and discuss the effect of the changes and whether or not they’ve had the desired impact. If there are problems with customers then speak with those customers. People are always happy to give an opinion! If the problem was with process or tools then the team will be able to provide enough insight to understand the impact of those changes.
Communicate plans and success
When change management switches from your project team to becoming part of your organisation’s culture, it’s important that people are aware of the changes they’re making, the effect they’re having on each other and on the business.
It’s important to communicate the effect of change. Encourage your teams to shout about their achievements, the changes they’ve made and the effect on the overall performance of the business. Consider displaying some of the following:
- The effect of change on staff
- Staff feedback - highlight some success stories
- Customer feedback - what are they saying about the changes
- How much time have the new processes and tools saved?
- What are the cost savings?
- What has been the effect on sales or trades?
- How is the business performing as a result of the changes?
- How do the changes affect the business goals?
As we’re required to do more, faster, in a changing landscape with increasing expectations from our customers it’s important to set up our organisations for continuous change and improvement.
What I’ve described above is based on real experience of working within some large organisations. It’s not all plain sailing but the benefits are worth the effort. You’ll instil a different mindset, a different approach to work and you’ll encourage positive contributions from all your staff. If you channel those efforts, if you coach the people effectively, if you allow them to grow, give them the trust and authority they need, then you stand every chance of transforming your organisation.