How could you learn to love and deliver change initiatives you may not agree with?

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When I received a phone call in January 2018 from a friendly head-hunter asking me if I would be interested in working on a programme to plan for a no-deal scenario from the Brexit negotiations, I jumped at a chance of a brand-new gig.  Little did I know I would spend the whole next year debating with my EU-based friends and family to justify my decision. 

This got me thinking, how do you stay professional on a project when everyone around you has strong, often irreconcilable views? And perhaps, even more challenging, how can you learn to love and deliver change initiatives that you may not agree with?

Over the past year, I presented on ‘Learning to love your Brexit PMO’ at various events in the UK and abroad. The basic premise is to try and persuade all those involved with, or likely to be involved with, Brexit planning, regardless of political persuasion, to stay focused on the business at hand. I like to think of it as reverse psychology. Take for example, running up a hill. Nobody likes running up hills, but if you flip it on its head and think ‘I love running up hills’, the hill suddenly becomes a lot less daunting. And you never know, you might even start to enjoy it.

This blog post is a taste of my presentations and the consequence of my 25-year career in project management.

Tip 1: Cultivate the right frame of mind – have a vision. Some project management professionals get distracted by personal biases and animosities. But none of this really matters when it comes to ensuring strategic continuity and successful delivery of business and technology change initiatives. Having a vision of what you’re striving to achieve is crucial. It is like a giant, complex puzzle I used to do with my children on Saturday nights. Once you know and envisage what you’re delivering, it’s a joy watching things slot into place.

Tip 2: Leave the personal out of it.  Brexit has been on the news daily since the decision to leave the EU in 2016.  Everyone has their approach to Brexit, in the UK and abroad.  Some people feel strongly about either staying or leaving, which immediately shifts them towards the ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ camps.  Then, others don’t feel particularly inclined towards flag waving for either camp, who want to try a different, more pragmatic approach to change our world.

Tip 3: Challenge your own perceptions. Clarify. Talk to people. Collaborate. Go agile. Misreading other people’s emotions is a common source of conflict, especially in the workplace.  We all come with emotional baggage, some more than others, but be open to other people’s views and analyse your own. A classic example was the well-intentioned colleague who offered advice which, because of previous clashes, the project leader immediately dismissed and ridiculed as criticism  – team moral killer.

Tip 4: Tune in.  True collaboration knows no boundaries, start by listening to others.  Once you have given up on the overall control, you will feel relieved.  Over the last year, I have delegated some of the most crucial parts of the project to younger developers, such as deciding on the ‘must have’ features of the front-end web pages of the multi-million-pound corporation. Incredibly, the new website is a breeze to navigate with incredible graphics.

Tip 5: Plan for success, risk assess for failure.  There is always a risk of failure.  On the way to work every morning, there is a slight risk we won’t make it to the other side of the busy street.  By staying focused, planning to cross it at the right point and at the right time, we do make it.  The same applies to the part of the Brexit programme that I was working on – with the help of my PMO, I ensured the planning and control was covered; RAID logs were alive with the sound of buzzing project managers. Clarity, transparency and clear structures aid delivery nicely.

Tip 6:  Celebrate.  Apparently there are six almost impossible things one can accomplish before breakfast.  Sometimes, and only sometimes, almost impossible things are achievable. Daydreaming is free, deadlines are essential, celebratory team events are elixirs for the soul.  We came, we assessed, we delivered. Even before the first official deadline of 29 March 2019.

Initially, any change is out of our comfort zone. I would like to conclude with the most truth I’ve learned since starting on this journey: working on complex, politically sensitive programmes takes endless hours of hard work. Contrary to popular narratives, nothing of real value can be successfully delivered by working in isolation; it takes time, incredible skillsets and patience.  Unusual for project management, isn't it? Inevitably, it is often combined with floods of blood, sweat and tears. 

So, remember take care of yourself and your stakeholders. Why not start by believing impossible things for 30 minutes every morning? I still enjoy it. Then maybe impossible tasks, like learning to love change initiatives you don’t agree with, will stop being impossible, and the changes will be delivered successfully.

Sunchana Johnston

Posted by Sunchana Johnston on 4th Jul 2019

About the Author

Experienced Independent Director and Fellow of the Association for Project Management - relentlessly advocating innovation & professionalism in project management, strategic planning, corporate governance, risk, project management, technology and business change, now actively seeking a non-executive role.

Author & international technical bilingual motivational speaker, experienced mentor and coach.

Fully qualified delivery oriented senior project/programme/portfolio management consultant. BREXIT PMO delivery.  AGILE coach & mentor, an expert user of MS Project & JIRA.  Fully certified Sarbanes-Oxley Expert (CSOE), Managing Successful Programmes, PRINCE2 Practitioner, P3M, Management of Risk, Agile and P3O Practitioner.  Committee member of APM Scotland & Women In Banking & Finance (WIBF), WOB, and WIPM volunteer.

Product knowledge:
Consolidated P30 planning, governance and risk management.
BREXIT business & technology transformations.
Portfolio management of a £1.2 billion financial services banking portfolio.
Strategic planning of a £2 billion capital investment programme.

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