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Change without heat

One of the common comparisons I hear a lot in relation to change management is a scientific one. You know the way water can evaporate into a gas or freeze into a solid? This transition is as a result of energy at a molecular level, something you can’t see but you know is happening to make the molecules in the water “change” enough to make the transition happen. In this case, the energy is achieved through variations in temperature (e.g. heat makes water evaporate).

The application of heat makes the transition happen.

The application of project management makes changes happen, whether that change is about business, IT, construction, events or people.

On the surface, this is a fair analogy. Change does not just happen so it needs a catalyst, something that triggers the transition from one state to another. The molecules of water could easily be interpreted as the people that make change happen, from your Sponsor to your team to your customers.

Experience has shown me that the difficulty many Project Managers and change professionals have is in distinguishing the difference between energy and the means of delivering the energy. This can make the difference between a good PM and a great PM.

Good PMs get the job done; they deliver on time, within budget and to the quality expectations of all involved. They achieve their goals by applying pressure in the right way to the right people in order to get results.

But how they apply that pressure can be an issue. Too much “heat” means that people become stressed, teams become demotivated, conflicts become more likely. The dynamics of stakeholder relationships can suffer at the expense of getting the job done. If things appear to be going off course, the PM will simply turn up the heat in order to influence progress. They will still succeed but they will have put so much emphasis on applying pressure that the long term stability of the project/organisation is jeopardised.

How do good PMs become great PMs?

The answer is actually simple: spend time understanding people in order to understand where their energy comes from and use that to your advantage.

Great PMs know their teams and critical stakeholders well enough to understand their motivations and personalities. They can then leverage those factors to get those individuals moving in the right direction under their own energy.

“If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast endless sea.” - Antoine De Saint-Exupery

I once managed a small team to deliver a major people-focused change under tight timescales. My team included: a veteran PM who was coming up on retirement; an experienced Project Support Officer with ambitions to improve and develop herself; a new recruit with no experience of change delivery; a contractor with specialist knowledge on a short term contract. It was the very definition of a mixed bag.

To meet our goals, I could have just developed a plan, pointed each one at their duties and cracked the whip to ensure we delivered on time. In many ways, this is the easy option as I transfer accountability for delivery onto their shoulders (if they don’t deliver to me, we can’t deliver the project).

Instead I had a 1-2-1 meeting with each member of my team to ask them what they wanted out of this assignment. As the responses were so varied, I was able to leverage each individual in a way that gave them the greatest internal motivation. The veteran PM became a source of knowledge and support while the new recruit got his hands dirty with the work in order to learn on the job. The contractor had a position of prominence (great evidence for a CV) but I entrusted the experienced officer with more stakeholder engagement so she could demonstrate her capabilities to other areas of the business.

Each member of my team bought into our vision and could see ways to help each other as well as do their own job. Everyone had specific roles but the bespoke nature of each role gave them personal investment in the project and that created the energy we needed to successfully achieve our objectives.

“Rewards and motivation are an oil change for project engines. Do it regularly and often.” – Woody Williams

Investing time in people can be considered “the long way around” but the rewards can be so much greater. Teams that generate their own internal energy to implement change can deliver success for the organisation, the project and the individual. The Project Manager does not need to be on fire in order to get things done. Find a way to create that culture within your projects and you will see that you don’t need heat to make change happen.

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