People and the feng shui of teams

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Ancient ideas, modern problems
Feng shui is an ancient Chinese belief that the way we organise our physical environment can have an impact on our well being and life prospects. By carefully positioning the things we possess and the buildings that we live and work in we can bring our life balance, health and luck. In an idle moment it struck me that this underlying principle is one that we project managers would do well to pay attention to. Particularly when thinking about the people that we work with.

The project problem...
Being brought in to sort out a project that isn’t performing is something that has happened quite often in my life. Generally there are two causes: poorly understood scope, and a crazy team structure with little or no thought having been given to individuals roles and how they interact with others in the team.

I won’t bore you with a rant about scope. If you are involved in the world of projects you will have your own horror stories to tell and scars to show! Why would you want to listen to mine?

Let me focus instead on team shape. Generally if you get the shape of the team wrong, you end up with people doing the wrong things - their actual talents being wasted- with bumps and scrapes along the way where roles overlap. Conflict within the team always results in delay and to be blunt this is a tremendous waste of everyones time, not to mention being very stressful for everyone involved.

… And what about when it gets bigger?
I used to work for a company that was constantly restructuring. Indeed I had a boss who could never stop tinkering with the organisation structure. The trouble was that he would forget which version of the structure he had just rolled out and behave as if the previous one, or a mixture of earlier ones, was still in place!

This could be quite stressful and sometimes resulted in very strange conversations. I can recall being collared by him in the corridor and asked to sort out some resourcing issue that he had only a month before given to the newly appointed resourcing manager. The resourcing manager was a colleague of mine who was regularly, and genuinely, ill until this boss ceased to be his boss at which point he enjoyed a miraculous recovery!

When change is poorly thought through or delivered too quickly its business impact is subverted by the force of its own inadequacy and it can begin to feel like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

People are flesh and blood
Restructuring can seem easy on paper, “just redraw the structure, share out the roles and get rid of the chaff.” And yes I have heard it described in broadly similar terms. It just gets more difficult when we actually try to make it happen. People are flesh and blood. They are not pawns on a chessboard or, even worse, some sort of mechanical work machine!

Maybe we should take the harder road and attempt to actually understand the impact that the change will have. At the very least we should have the good grace to keep in mind that those affected are likely to be feeling pretty bruised by the process. It is also good manners to remember what their new roles are and not expect them to do their old jobs as well!

It’s all very well drawing up a change-pain curve and being all “consultanty” about it, but if we then do nothing about the rollercoaster that the staff are on then we might just as well let people know by text message!


Top 12 reasons why people resist change 

The feng shui of teams
Which brings me to the feng shui of team organisation. I have to confess that I am not at all sure that rearranging my furniture will change the amount of luck or success in my life. I am sure however that paying proper attention to the needs and talents of the people in the team and making sure that the structures we implement are clear and effective can make a real difference to the success of any undertaking.

I am equally sure that time taken getting to know the people we are responsible for, understanding their strengths, weaknesses and pressure points is never time wasted. Projects rely entirely upon people, let’s “rearrange the furniture” so that they are freed to deliver.


Posted by Colin Parker on 19th Nov 2014

About the Author

Colin has been a project manager since 1997 and a member of the APM since 2004. Before going freelance in 2007 he fulfilled a number of roles, including project manager, service manager and operations manager for a software house. Since then he has been busy working for a number of large clients including Thames Water, Veolia Water, Vennsys and Babcock. His work generally includes a mixture of IT and business change with a recent focus on large contract transition management in the water utility sector. Recent projects have included an IT infrastructure transition, waste contractor business transition and an ERP selection project. Colin is a member of the APM Programme Management SIG Committee: Colin on LinkedIn:

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