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Inspiring Positive Change in Complex and Uncertain Times

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Recently I attended a conference put on by the APM’s Enabling Change SIG. Entitled ‘Inspiring Positive Change in Complex and Uncertain Times’.  Located in the convenient Regent’s Park Holiday Inn, the whole day event was a useful reminder of the volume of fast moving change that we are all expected to absorb, and an optimistic observation of how far the project management profession has come in the last 20 years.

Running through the whole day, and serving almost as a secondary heading for the conference, was the acronym VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. VUCA was first coined by the US military, like so many other project management concepts and models, and they used it to describe the situation after the Cold War; a situation which seems positively rule-bound compared to what we now have to deal with. I remember VUCA being quite a leftfield concept when I started out in programme management in the 1990s, but it was apparent that all the attendees at this conference accepted the idea of ‘living in grey’ as a simple fact of life.

Opening a very well-balanced day was APM’s Chair, John McGlynn who used the idea of VUCA as a frame to describe the organization’s clear strategy moving forward, and asked us to consider the opportunities that such an environment brings as well as the threats. He answered relevant questions on the impact of Brexit and development of project management apprenticeships, as well as generously welcoming the Change Management Institute and underlining the APM’s commitment to collaboration with other organisations.

Following hot on his heels was Elizabeth Harrin who, through her work with Otobos Consultants, has identified three emergent trends for project management – video, artificial intelligence and customisation. She spoke with passion about the changing face of Change, and challenged the diverse audience to use more video in their communication work. Particularly interesting to me were her observations about the possible self-selection of stakeholders in their engagement journey, and what that would mean for the customisation of data presentation.

See Elizabeth Harrin's presentation slides.

A welcome cup of coffee and opportunity to network was followed by a first class case study of IT transformation from John Mackie and Chris Bennett. It is a sign of how far project management has come to see a programme director and service delivery director deliver a joint presentation and talk about how they worked together to deliver the much-needed transformation at the Royal Mail. They were honest about the lessons they learned along the way, and transparent about their need to work outside the normal ‘rules’ and processes that the text books try to teach us about change programmes. Once again, the importance of effective stakeholder engagement was underlined.

See John Mackie and Chris Bennett's presentation slides.

After lunch is traditionally the graveyard spot for conference presentations, but Patrick Hoverstadt from Fractal Consulting gave us a very stimulating talk on how different systems approaches might be used to help deal with the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity inherent in contemporary projects. Patrick undermined his obvious experience by describing himself as a ‘project casual’ rather than a project professional, but there was no denying his excellent observation that projects are all about change, while project management appears to be about stopping changes to requirements – a paradox if ever there was one. I have felt for some time that systems thinking has a lot to give to traditional project management, and was delighted to hear Patrick suggest that soft systems methodology was an excellent tool to use for stakeholder identification and engagement.

See Patrick Hoverstadt's presentation slides

Bringing some welcome interactivity into the day was Nicola Busby, who reminded us of some classic change management techniques, including the McKinsey ‘7 S’ model, and facilitated table-working on a situation from her own experience. The 50 or so attendees had been thoughtfully seated on tables of about five, which leant an intimate and effective air to the group work.  Nicola’s experience as an accredited trainer for the APMG Change Management qualification shone through and she presented the classic change algorithms with clarity and enthusiasm.

See Nicola Busby's presentation slides

Design thinking has been gaining more of a foothold within project management for some time, and I was pleased to see that the SIG had asked Lee Sankey and Rebecca Kemp from Door to give a presentation after tea on creating change through design. We were all urged to be more integrative and holistic in our approaches (another nod to stakeholder engagement) and given a useful case study of early router design and the importance of empathy when considering requirements. The generative approach and learning through doing clearly parallel the oft-quoted ‘Agile’ thinking in software project management and represent a path that we must follow if we have any hope of getting our arms around the VUCA environment. Lee said - The choice is not “Are we creative?” “Can we design?” But “Are we going to design WELL?”

The final session of the day was led by Simon Williams from Transport for London and an Enabling Change SIG Committee Member.  He shared the experience of the SIG’s Transport, Public Services and Utilities industry Change Practitioner Groups to introduce the topic of “Achieving Positive Change in Constrained and Regulated Environments.”  Explaining how these groups had helped further the SIG’s mission to improve the change capability of organisations, teams and individuals, he said a key finding was that many organisations faced similar challenges yet were independently developing their own solutions.  There appears to be a significant opportunity to develop and share good practice more collaboratively, and organisations such as APM can certainly assist with this.  The session concluded with an energetic interactive debate, with table groups considering how regulation and uncertainty affect change, how positive change can best be achieved in a regulated environment and in different industry sectors, and what type of methodology works best in this situation.

See Simon Williams presentation slides.

Reflecting on the day during my train journey back to Oxford, I was really impressed with the breadth of thought from the SIG and the enthusiasm from the conference attendees. Attending something like this gives me hope that the promise of project management can be realised and that, one day, all projects may succeed.



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