Writing about project professionals as agents of change for the forthcoming spring 2023 issue of Project journal was a great opportunity to get under the bonnet of three outstanding APM Award-winning projects from Rolls-Royce, the MOD and Openreach.
Rolls-Royce’s Project Orpheus was an experiment in upending the firm’s traditional project processes and used agile techniques to deliver a brand-new jet-engine test prototype in double quick time. The MOD’s Cyber Resilience Programme, supported by Atkins, championed a behavioural as well as technical approach to improving cybersecurity in an increasingly high-risk environment. And Openreach’s Rubix project was a digital transformation project that saved £400m and freed up 2,000 engineers to accelerate vital fibre broadband roll-out in the UK.
All three were distinct but shared a common theme – their goal was as much about the human factor and championing faster and more innovative ways of working as about the more conventional deliverables like new systems and products.
What other shared insights can be gleaned from these three exemplars of change management projects?
1. C-suite buy-in
It’s axiomatic these days that projects need energetic support from the top if they are going to be winners. That’s true, but only up to a point – C-suite buy-in is, as mathematicians say, a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. Change that really sticks – even after the boss’s attention has moved on – is bottom-up and happens because those on the front line see the benefit and actually want it to happen.
So, projects that require mass adoption of new working practices stand or fall based on how well they are received by operational managers and their teams. No amount of CEO support will save a project that is seen to create problems for people rather than solve them.
2. The risk paradox
Most large organisations – and by association, their people – are pathologically risk averse. There are usually entirely sound reasons for this, but the law of unintended consequences applies. Overzealous or inappropriately heavy-handed de-risking at the project level can actually dramatically increase risk at the company level. Change may be risky, but no change at all is eventually fatal.
3. Become an influencer
You don’t need a million followers on TikTok to achieve this, but it does require a change of perspective on a project, from inside out to outside in. Who are the people in the organisation who will feel the most change most quickly? Show them how they will benefit as individuals – because what they will lose is generally much more apparent than what they will gain.
4. The right team is not necessarily the ‘best’ team
These projects varied widely in scale and scope, but they shared a focus on building the most consistently effective teams rather than the ones that looked ‘best’ on paper. A stable core team whose members work together, take ownership and solve problems collaboratively is more likely to succeed than one whose members may be individually more ‘expert’ but are partly detached, unused to each other and lacking in accountability.
5. Speed is not just about working harder
The need to deliver more change, more quickly, was a key motive behind all three projects. But speeding up change isn’t a question of working harder; it’s about working better. There are moments in most projects where deadlines are slipping and budgets creeping upwards – it can be tempting to try to fix the problem by just ‘powering through’, but that isn’t sustainable. What happens next time?
6. Leave the ‘most human’ jobs to humans
The final piece of the jigsaw is the growing impact of technology on the role of the project manager. More and more of what used to be considered the bread and butter of the job will be outsourced to software and ultimately to AI – a trend that is also taking place across a whole range of other technical professions, from accountancy to engineering. The result will be that what’s left for the humans will be the most human stuff – involving, engaging, persuading and championing change. To achieve change, you must be prepared to change yourself.