Category Archives: Business Transformation

How to lead a project in a VUCA environment…

colorful-turbulence

“To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often” – Winston Churchill

I was reading the book “Playing to Win, how strategies really work” from A.G. Lawley and Roger L. Martin recently, and came across the term VUCA. It caught my attention and triggered me to do some research, because I wanted to understand what it means to a project leader in today’s world.

What does VUCA stand for?

According the University of North Carolina, the notion of VUCA was introduced by the U.S. Army War College to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, multilateral world, which resulted from the end of the Cold War. The acronym itself was not created until the late 1990s, and it was not until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that notion and acronym really took hold. VUCA was subsequently adopted by strategic business leaders to describe the chaotic, turbulent, and rapidly changing business environment that has become the “new normal.”

Going in each of the four dimensions in more detail, Wikipedia says that:

  • Volatility, is the nature and dynamics of change, and the nature and speed of change forces and change catalysts.
  • Uncertainty, is the lack of predictability, the prospects for surprise, and the sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events.
  • Complexity, is the multiplex of forces, the confounding of issues and the chaos and confusion that surround an organization.
  • Ambiguity, is the haziness of reality, the potential for misreads, and the mixed meanings of conditions; cause-and-effect confusion

The University of North Carolina says that you need to counter each of them by changing leadership behavior. Volatility can be countered by vision. Leaders with vision can make better decisions and handle turbulence with the future state in mind. Better understanding and the ability to stop, look and listen counters uncertainty. Leaders can counter complexity with clarity and by making sense of chaos they can improve their decision-making. Finally, ambiguity can be countered with agility and the ability to communicate across the organization and to move quickly to apply solutions.

Given these definitions and assuming that you are working as a project leader for an organization that operates in a VUCA environment, what can you do when you have the responsibility to deliver an IT enabled business transformation initiative?

Here are some thoughts and suggestions that you can consider:

  • Understand the internal and external forces that can cause the organization to be in a state of turbulence
  • Make sure that you understand the vision of the organization and the future state it is moving towards. Regularly check if there is alignment with the vision, goals and strategy of the project. Work with the business leaders to clarify and remove possible discrepancies
  • Consistently manage a clear scope statement and definition of WHAT the project is going to deliver and how it meets project and business goals
  • Execute a robust issue and risk management process with key internal and external stakeholders to and monitor if root-causes tend to change overtime as well as risk triggers. Adjust your ability to respond if required, for example do a skill assessment and determine if your capability, capacity and agility is at the level that it needs to be. Keep it practical and realistic
  • Surround you with seasoned subject matter experts in areas where the ‘VUCA calories’ are high. Their thought leadership should enable you to quickly sense, respond and adjust when needed
  • Communicate the vision, goals, strategy, plan and status on a regular basis to all stakeholders. Make them part of the thinking process as that improves commitment and chances of being successful
  • Implement alert mechanisms that quickly inform you about threats, risks and actual deviations from the critical path. Key aspect of this is ‘management by walking around’. Make it a habit that you frequently speak to stakeholders who have deep insight in certain VUCA drivers, and give you meaningful feedback
  • Deal with forces that are in your scope of control and create unnecessary chaos immediately, by setting exceptions first and taking corrective actions second, for example by removing or defusing You need forces that understand chaos and can help simplify circumstances, not the opposite
  • Implement methods, tools and standards that are robust but flexible to accommodate a change in approach
  • Always aim for being ahead of the curve and be on the ball by having alternative strategies and plans readily available to change the course of action when it is needed

VUCA is a reality of the day and you have to deal with it as project leader. Use VUCA in your advantage by treating it as a force of change that is needed to achieve your project goals. Manage VUCA as an opportunity!

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©

Make Things Happen

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“Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen” – Michael Jordan

How does a great project leader Make Things Happen? 

To lead projects to success, there are 7 factors that you need to be mindful of:

  1. Awareness
  2. Aspiration
  3. Ability
  4. Alteration
  5. Action
  6. Alertness
  7. Achievement

AWARENESS is the first factor. Organizations who ultimately manifest their goals through projects have a high level of awareness. They understand their business context, strengths, weaknesses and constraints. They have a well-articulated vision, have made choices on what to do, what not to do and know how to get there. They have assigned a project leader who in tandem with the visionary leader (see one of my previous posts) is set up for success by the sponsor.

The second factor is ASPIRATION. High performing teams that make things happen thrive on ambition. They deliver a new, top quality product and/or service, because the people who make up the team are committed and intrinsically motivated to be part of a game changing journey. Daniel H. Pink, a well-known author of books about business, work and management, says that motivation is coming from the inside. Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose are the new 21st century ingredients for leadership.

ABILITY to deliver is the third factor. A project leader’s primary responsibility is to build a team that is able to deliver results. What does ability mean? Think about values like: talent, skills, expertise, knowledge, patience, perseverance, leniency, capacity, mastery, cleverness, far-sightedness, keen and flexibility. The project leader is responsible to acquire the right mix of professionals and unlock, extend and apply their talents in order to meet the purpose of the project and career ambitions of the individuals. A great project leader is a great coach at the same time.

ALTERATION is the fourth factor. In order to reach the future end state that is intended to be substantially different and better than today, the organization must change. John P. Kotter, Professor at Harvard Business School and best-selling author, says that the key aspect of triggering that change is to establish a sense of urgency. Change leadership is a responsibility of the visionary leader and the project leader. Where the visionary leader is more focused on shaping and communicating the vision, the project leader is keen on embedding change in the organization by transforming people, process and technology in an integrated manner.

The fifth factor is ACTION. A project leader who wants to meet the purpose (vision, goals, objectives) of the project, has an action plan to get to the future state. He understands the vision (WHAT) and knows the primary and secondary pathways (HOW) to follow. During the execution phase everything that the project does is based on a well-communicated action-oriented-plan. Project performance is measured against the plan that is owned by all the key stakeholders. A successful plan has many layers of detail. At the executive level it is sufficient to have a ‘plan-on-a-single-page’ representing major work streams and key milestones. At the project level, the leader maintains a work package driven plan that can be broken down in many team level work plans. The lower you go, the shorter the horizon of the plans.

ALERTNESS is the sixth factor. Top performing project leaders implement a highly effective alert system into their day-to-day operations that avoid the project from derailment. These alerts are going beyond the common performance reporting mechanisms. The best alerts the project leader can receive, are obtained through verbal communications with many different stakeholders. The ability to build trustworthy relationships is therefore a critical skill for the project leader, because valuable alerts only come from trusted sources. Another key value besides trust is creativity. Once the project leader receives an alert, an instant response is oftentimes required. The ability to quickly propose alternatives to the right decision makers is at that point in time very important to keep things moving forward.

The seventh and last factor is ACHIEVEMENT. There are a number of things that are very important when project results come in: celebration, sustainment and continuous improvement are the key ones. Successes must be celebrated. Top project leaders create a positive, motiving and inspiring work climate where people deliver results that they can feel proud of. Empowerment, ownership, acknowledgement and affirmation are core ingredients of such an environment. Realistic project plans have quick wins that enable the creation of a project culture with a winner’s mentality where top talent wants to deliver, share and develop the best of the best. The other aspect of Achievement is sustainment. Projects deliver a new product and/or service that must be supported. Part of the achievement process is to ensure that the organization has the required sustainment capacity. The transition planning of capabilities is a joined effort of the project and business operations. Last but not least, continuous improvement (Kaizen). Organizations that are on an evolutionary path of prolonged change and who are successful in achieving goals over and over again oftentimes have a learning capability build into their organizational culture and project approach. Learning is being perceived as an investment and not as an expense. Great project leaders coach top talented professionals throughout the project lifecycle because they care for the organization, the team and foremost the people.

 

Bas de Baat
Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©

Pick the right people!

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In 2002, Colin Powell, an American statesman and retired four-star general in the United States Army, published one of his bestsellers: “The Powell Principles: 24 lessons from Colin Powell, a Legendary Leader.” The lessons are concise, clear, straightforward and very valuable to any Leader. If you have the opportunity to read this book, please do so. I am sure you will enjoy it as I did.

What are the 24 lessons? I am listing them here below so you get an idea of  what Powell is talking about. For this blog post, I am selecting 3 of them and share my opinion with you of how a Pragmatic Project Leader can best apply them. Here is the full list:

  1. Promote a clash of ideas
  2. Be prepared to piss people off
  3. Establish trust
  4. Walk the talk
  5. Pick the right people
  6. Listen
  7. Be vigilant in details
  8. Be a disorganizer
  9. Check your ego at the door
  10. Let change lead growth
  11. Seek consensus (but don’t be ruled by it)
  12. Fit no stereotypes
  13. Simplify
  14. Let situation dictate strategy
  15. Push the envelope
  16. Close with the enemy
  17. View People as partners
  18. Challenge the pros
  19. Don’t rely on charts and title
  20. Trust those in the trenches
  21. Make optimism a top priority
  22. Have fun in your command
  23. Strive for balance
  24. Prepare to be lonely

I can tell you that it wasn’t easy to select 3 lessons learned, as most of them are intriguing and worthwhile to address. Because I have talked about trust in one of my previous posts, I did not select ‘Establish Trust’, however my opinion is that this is the most prominent critical success factor of a project. What I did select is the following:

  1. Pick the right people
  2. Listen
  3. Let change lead growth

 

Pick the right people

 People aren’t just a piece of the puzzle, they are the puzzle. Or more accurately, they’re the solution to the puzzle – Colin Powell

Picking the right people for your project team is crucial. It is almost as important as establishing and maintaining trust. That’s a topic I have published a post about before. But how do you pick the right people as a practical project leader? That is not an easy task. Sometimes you come in when the selection has been completed and people have been assigned to the project. Making changes at that point in time is hard to do. In that case, do a thorough assessment and notify the Executive of potential skill gaps and risks you have identified. Most likely the Executive assembled the team, or at least approved it. Escalating your concerns to the Executive in a structured and informative manner is all you can do. After that: start rowing with the team you have! If you do have the option to build your team from scratch, think about the following.

Understand the complexities of the solution, the organization, the culture and the business context before you start with defining the required skill set and mix you need in order to deliver. If the initiative that you are leading has a substantial business transformation component, you want to make sure that the people you select are aligned with the vision of the end state that you are going to move towards. They must believe in the ‘product’ that the project is about to deliver. If you don’t have that certainty, you are probably going to feel pretty lonely soon and struggle with manifesting the change. As orchestrator you want people in your team that want and can sing from the same song sheet. They must be able to identify themselves with the notes and the lyrics.

How do you make sure that you are looking for the right skills? If you don’t know that for sure that’s perfectly fine, you just need to consult an expert in those particular areas and ask for input. Executives expect you to assemble the right team, not to have deep expertise in all aspects. Feel good when you don’t know as long as you are aware of it. Once you have defined the right skill set, there is one other step to take before you can start the recruitment process. You want to attract people that have the right attitude, values and beliefs. Ultimately, we all know that any team performs and delivers when people work well together. It sounds simple and it truly is. As Pragmatic Project Leader you want to work with people that are intelligent, humble and hungry. It is not only about knowledge and experience, it is also about personality. Teams perform well when personalities match. Too often I see that selections are made on the candidates resume and much less on the fit with the team. Intelligence and being humble need no further clarification. Being hungry does. What does that mean? People who have a motivated interest in joining your project and want to take the extra mile to deliver, are the ones who are hungry and are the ones you want to have in your team. They will become your front runners. When the going gets tough, they will step up and safe your bacon. Consider selecting a candidate who has less knowledge and experience, but who is humble and hungry, because that’s something that you cannot change and you have to live with that.

Once you have selected your team players, the journey begins.  Your responsibility is shifting towards managing the team and coaching each of the players such that their individual talents grow and their output and contribution to the project gets optimized. In every project that I have been part of, the team is going through ups and downs, through stages of development. As Pragmatic Project Leader you must be aware of that team dynamic and your role is to manage the relationships between the players. It is your moral obligation to grow people in their careers. That is often one of the motivations why people want to join your project.

Psychologist Bruce Tuckman came up with the memorable phrase “forming, storming, norming, and performing” in his 1965 article, “Development Sequence in Small Groups.” He used it to describe the path that most teams follow on their way to high performance. Later, he added a fifth stage, “adjourning.” If you aren’t familiar with that concept, I recommend to read it. In my future posts about team performance, I will come back on it

Listen

Good listening begets good listening. Ideas get exchanged faster and more reliable – Colin Powell

Or like Stephen Covey said: ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” As practical project leader you are in a lot of meetings, conference calls, conversations and other forms of gatherings, where a lot of information is being exchanged each and every day.

Now, how often are you in a meeting where you notice that people are simply not listening, and over time topics circle back over and over again? As practical project leader you want to intervene when that happens. The best way to do that is to listen actively, thoroughly grasp the subject and speak up at the right moment. When is that? When your gut tells you to. When you speak up paraphrase what you have been listening to and ask for confirmation from the people participating in the discussion. Make it an inclusive discussion by inviting people to speak up who have been quiet before. You want to do that with people who have a serious stake in the outcome of the meeting. It is your responsibility as Pragmatic Project Leader that the right people participate, listen, speak up and make timely decisions.

There are in my mind two very effective ways to obtain valuable information that benefits the project by putting on your listening hat. The first one that I am a strong advocate of is what is often called ‘management by walking around.’ You are engaging with individuals or group of individuals on the project floor in an informal way and asks open questions about work and life. These meetings can have positive side effects as well like team motivation, team integration and collaboration. The second one that I find effective and often have are 1:1 coaching sessions, where you help improve the talented individual by making a connection between performance, contribution to the project, career development and aspirations in life. Coaching can become a fascinating aspect of practical project leadership. If you want to read more about coaching, search for books and/or articles about the GROW model.

Let change lead growth

Leaders need to encourage a philosophy in which change becomes equivalent to growth and growth becomes equivalent to satisfaction – Colin Powell

It is imperative that if you want to achieve your dreams you must change. Think.Change.Achieve is the core concept of PM Consult. Organizational change management is a key component of our advisory services. The capability to manifest ‘Change’ through an IT business transformation project is as important as expertise of business process and technology design and delivery (the solution). But why do organizations not treat it as such when they initiate new projects?

Oftentimes there is a lot of talk about organizational change management, but it hardly translates in concrete, consistent action plans that leadership follows through. There is no shortage of opinions of what must change, who must change by when and what happens if change does not occur. Having said all of that, it seems that organizations  have little experience of how you make ‘Change’ happen. Not giving ‘Change’ the right priority is really too bad and unnecessary. One of the symptoms of a failing organizational change management team is that they only perform ‘communication activities’, whereas the core focus should be on alignment, commitment, transformation and implementation.

If you read literature about why projects fail, the organization’s inability to change is over and over again mentioned as a root cause. I think that one of the reasons why this happens is that organizations do not value change management activities as they should, because it is hard to make its effectiveness tangible. It is not an easy task to find a correlation between for example ‘executive alignment sessions’ and the organization materializing the vision of the end state.

There is a saying “without great risk, no great reward”. Organizations that want to move to a new, promising future end state must change and therefore intrinsically must take risk.  And that is exactly where the problem lies. Typically organizations are risk averse and only want to pursue activities that can be planned in detail and tightly managed.  Organizational change management does not fall in that category. On the contrary, business process and technology design and delivery, the more tangible aspects of an IT business transformation, do. Organizational change management must always be ahead of the curve, meaning it starts ahead of business process and technology design and delivery.

How can we change this situation? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Make the business case! An investment in change multiplies investments in business process and technology and therefore overall business value of the initiative
  2. Formulate a transparent, action oriented change management plan. Sell that plan, get alignment and commitment
  3. Recruit adequately skilled organizational change management experts on your project and follow their advice
  4. Assign a change leader who is comfortable to take great risk when necessary. Actively manage risks in favour of achieving the goals and future end state. Ideally the visionary leader that I talked about in one of my previous posts is that change leader
  5. Make the execution of the change management plan a productive journey with meaningful deliverables that contribute to the success of the project. Make it an instrumental part of project status meetings and Executive briefings

Change is fun. That is the exciting part of IT business transformation projects. Embrace and it pays off.

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©