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Why ‘people risk’ is a threat to projects and how to identify it

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When we deliver projects that involve installing new technology or making a change to a process, its true value to the organisation is dependent on its acceptance. If employees decide to continue with what feels comfortable because ‘it’s the way it's always been’ then the investment is likely to fail – the people risk is talking. This isn’t because the execution wasn’t a success but because each employee didn’t buy into why the change happened.

Psychologically speaking, people form habits based on what they know and are used to; we stay positioned where we feel safe. If that status quo shifts, our instinct is to overthink or fear it. We then begin to question the motive. Will it alter what I do or change my role into something I don’t recognise?

Change takes time, effort and relearning to instil new behaviours. So, the first degree of transformation starts with each individual. When we understand why something is happening, it empowers change to become possible. When we don’t, we resist and in a project environment, this is a risk.

By definition “risk management is a process that allows individual risk events and overall risk to be understood and managed proactively, optimising success by minimising threats and maximising opportunities and outcomes” APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition.

Managing the people risk within projects takes the same approach. The key is to expect and plan for it in the concept phase. During the feasibility study when decisions concern which stakeholders are involved and whether the project has sponsorship support. Having early conversations determines the type of backing you need to secure change management funding and resources.

If the return on investment and success depends on individuals learning new behaviours, as project managers we need to prioritise people as a risk. We must apply the same rigour and clear approach on people risks as with any other risk. By recording and assessing the impact on the project's success with plausible mitigation, we can achieve the best results.

So we know that people are risks to projects, but why?
Throughout my career in the retail and public sectors, I’ve learnt 10 fundamental struggles and reasons why we show an unwillingness to engage and inevitably change:

  1. Negative past experiences.
  2. Lack of understanding of what steps to take.
  3. Clarity for why change should happen.
  4. Dread of learning to relearn.
  5. Changes happening too fast, too often.
  6. Fearing failure.
  7. Not having the capacity to tackle new challenges.
  8. Knowing key influencers don’t buy into it.
  9. Concerned that change won't stick.
  10. Exercising the belief that change is good, but ‘I don’t need it’.

Do you ever think or feel this way when managing projects? Is this the reality you see within organisations? Have you ever questioned why cutting-edge technology is still underachieving after many years? The business case was good but it’s not clear why the solution isn’t outperforming the way it was planned?

Technological shifts, or in fact most shifts, don’t happen when something new is implemented. It arrives when people accept them; when a project delivers, we cannot assume what the outcome will be. The value comes from the level of effort each individual is ‘willing’ to contribute.

How do we spot  if stakeholders are accepting incoming change?
Put simply, if the belief in success is low, participation remains low. If it’s high, excitement grows.

  1. Confidence in the project increases
  2. Stakeholders become evangelists
  3. Marketing events gain traction
  4. Communications create eagerness to learn more
  5. Project specialists ‘ask’ to join the team
  6. New behaviours become evident
  7. A champions’ network starts to emerge
  8. Leadership support becomes visible
  9. Positive feedback becomes frequent
  10. A business case for change management is agreed

Successful change management aligns people with technological as well as other types of change. We need change management within projects to prevent the people risk on projects. When projects deliver a solution, individuals react to their uncertain future positively or negatively. If we recognise this as a natural response, both change management and project management methods come together, navigating the adjustments in harmony; successfully embedding change. Applying change management principles as a reaction to resistance while the project manages the implementation of the change is essential. Read more in my next blog on how to overcome people risks using change management.

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