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Social activism holds valuable lessons for project managers

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What makes a great project manager? Perhaps the answer is a natural gift for getting everyone behind a new, slightly unloved initiative – or the ability to win over a room full of doubters with humour and a Gantt chart to die for. These are handy skills, for sure. But what if you could use the combination of skills that has helped social activists make big things happen fast – without a team or a budget?

Social activism holds valuable lessons in making change happen. The simplest is: take action. Do the thing rather than circumnavigating it on email. Go talk to the naysayers. See if you can boost your confidence by going big on an honest chat with an over-optimistic sponsor.

When you take action, your comfort zone expands.

Activist skills are powerful when leading change

My definition of a change activist is someone who takes action in line with their values, even when that takes them outside of their comfort zone.

Are you good at knowing what you stand for and what matters? Do you feel able to take action when you need to – even when the ‘well inside the comfort zone’ review meeting is more appealing?

Wouldn’t it be good to be a leader known for deeds as well as words – someone who can articulate humanity in the project brief and take people with them? The mindset I’m proposing is a little less conversation, a little more action.

Looking back at some of the biggest change success stories in history, I find three consistent foundations – passion, purpose and plan (in that order). Having passion for the change is the starting point. That passion drives the intense search for purpose or strategic direction. Then combine both to create a compelling plan.

The trouble is, most organisations ask for a plan first, then consider the purpose. But what about passion? It takes more than a Gantt chart to win hearts and minds. What is the point of the smartest resource schedule ever, or a gorgeous slide deck for the board, if no one believes the project makes a difference anyway?

My sense is many organisations are ready for a more inclusive, connected and compelling approach to change – I hope change activism leads that charge. If you are reading this, you are probably a project or programme manager – one of the most sought-after skillsets. So why not choose to be a change activist leader, putting planet and people into the mix, and taking action because you care about the outcomes?

You are someone who already builds trust and creates valuable outcomes. My hope is that the heart-first approach learned from activism will not only give you more confidence and put a smile on the face of the sponsor and the board, but also make everyone in the team feel good.

Passion, purpose, plan

I’m the founder and ex-CEO of Magic Breakfast, a charity delivering healthy breakfasts to schools where children arrive too hungry to learn – here in the UK. The charity offers food with no price barrier or stigma; any child who wants a breakfast can have one. It now reaches 200,000 children every day in 1,000 schools.

I had no background in school food or education – I just found out about the problem while doing research. The local authority said it would “audit hunger”. I said that unless the report was edible, it wouldn’t help the kids that much. So, I started buying food, dropping off a fortnight of supplies – bagels, cereals, milk – to five schools to start with.

Just a toasted bagel and a glass of milk gave many vulnerable children a morning of study. ROI? Not bad.

I am probably the least organised person you will ever meet. But the passion I found in the lives of social activists gave me fire to try – to not worry if I screwed up. Read about the passion, purpose and plan in the lives of Martin Luther King Jr, Marcus Rashford MBE, Big Issue founder Lord John Bird, and Charlot Magayi – winner of a 2022 Earthshot prize.

A final thought: use your considerable power to unleash your potential as a project professional. Anyone can make a difference. Why not you?

Hear more thought leadership and inspiration from Carmel at the APM Conference 2023 - Change Changes


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  1. Thomas Barnardiston
    Thomas Barnardiston 23 February 2023, 09:50 AM

    Great article Carmel - it goes to show everyone can make a difference if they have the right intention, passion, and an open mind.