Project Ecology Online (PEO) is a website with an a la carte
menu of content that gives individuals and companies the tools and know-how to
combine Project Management, Facilitation and Organizational Change Management in
order to create an environment where projects can thrive – in other words a
full methodology translating business strategy into results.
After 20+ years in Project Management as a practitioner and
a coach, I have decided to collect the wealth of templates and processes I have
developed, successfully applied on projects and used in educational settings and
share them; not just with my immediate clients, but with other professionals
who are looking to add useful tools to their repertoire and with companies that
are developing a Project Management function in their organization.
I had a great time yesterday speaking at the annual Fort Worth PMI Chapter Conference. This year’s motto was “Pathway to Success – People. Purpose. Passion” We had an amazing selection of presenters and a fabulous Mastermind over lunch.
As a thank-you I wanted to share my presentation on scoping your project for success. I talked about 4 powerful facilitation techniques that allow you to put all the information about your project on the table, understand and address everyone’s expectations, make collaborative decisions, negotiate commitment and finally leave with a solid agreement on what is in and out of scope for your project.
During a workshop a few months ago one of the participants asked me an interesting question. He wanted to know what I would recommend as the best day to hold a weekly project status meeting.
I do not believe I had ever discussed this before, but my recommendation was pretty much a no-brainer: if you can manage it, choose Wednesdays!
At this point other participants offered up their opinions and it turned out we had quite a few practitioners who favored Mondays or Tuesdays to take status in order to focus the team on the new work week, and others who preferred holding their status meetings on a Thursday or Friday to wrap up the accomplishments for the current week.
Where your status meeting falls will probably always be a mix of your own experience and preferences and your customer sponsor’s availability, and I am not attempting to sell my recommendation as gospel truth, but here are some reasons for championing good old Hump Day.
A few years ago I was People Change Manager on a hospital project that was tasked with changing out the facility’s old card punching system with a biometric fingerprint reading system. Hospital management had been made aware of the fact that employees would occasionally punch in using their colleagues’ cards, so the old system was neither very safe nor very accurate. The hospital had also contracted with another vendor, who was supplying and installing the readers. Our project team was responsible for the software, data, communication with hospital staff and training.
While we were in transition with old readers removed and the new readers being installed the hospital did not have an active time punch system, and so management was watching our progress very carefully in the hopes of keeping unchecked coming and going of employees to a minimum.
During our routine Friday status meeting with our sponsor our project manager reported the project status as green. We had completed all the tasks scheduled for the week, fingerprinting employees and loading the data at the projected rate and speed. After the status meeting we were winding down, some team members started to leave for the weekend and I stayed behind a little, because I needed to discuss room allocation for a training event the following week with the project manager.
As we were talking the project manager’s phone rang and from the level of volume on the other end it sounded like his caller was not a very happy person. It transpired that after our status meeting the vendor had also submitted their status, and from their perspective the project wasn’t green at all, in fact they had indicated they were in the red on their schedule. So the angry caller was our hospital project sponsor wanting to know what the heck was going on. How could we tell him the project was doing great when it obviously wasn’t?
Well, it was now 4:30 on a Friday afternoon – most of our team was not on site any more, my project manager had just been as good as called a liar and we had no idea what was going on. We scrambled around for an hour or so, eventually got a hold of someone from the hardware vendor company and a copy of their status report and found out that several of the readers installed during the week were not functioning properly and would have to be exchanged. This would set the project back by about a week, which was not something our client wanted to hear, but it also explained the discrepancy between our status green and their status red.
Our project had reported correctly – from our perspective, but since we were not project managing the vendor, we had been unaware of their difficulties. By the time the project manager had his facts together and rang our sponsor, however, he could not be reached, and the whole unpleasant mess had to wait until the following Monday to get straightened out.
With a status meeting on a Wednesday we could have sorted everything the next day and maybe even have brainstormed with the vendor for a solution to reduce the project delay. Status meetings at the end of the week leave little time to address issues that get flagged up.
So what about the start of the week? To me that depends a little on how you use your status meetings. If they are a time to allocate work as well as take status, then maybe you want to start your week this way. However, I keep work assignment and status meetings separate. I will have a quick stand-up on Monday morning to ensure everyone knows what’s coming up that week and find out if I need to re-allocate tasks because of last-minute conflicts or out-times. After that people can immerse themselves in clearing their back-log of emails and whatever else has accumulated over the weekend. It also gives me two days of time to see how everything is going, talk to team members and assemble my status report for later in the week.
For my status meeting I usually release the status report ahead of time, so everyone has a chance to read it. I rarely take status during the meeting, since people can read, but rather concentrate on areas that I already know are status yellow or red and figure out with the team how to get back on track. In addition to that I pretty much run my status meeting off my issues log. Open issues become agenda items. They are discussed and their progress or resolution is documented. New issues are brought up, described and assigned owners and due dates. This way we have both meeting minutes and action items for the next status meeting.
If I tried to do this on a Monday I would not have sufficient time to assemble all of the information for the status report, and people may have a harder time giving me status since they have to get back into the swing of things themselves.
Over the years I’ve really come to like the cadence of starting the week with a quick look ahead, then see where we are, put together a status report and have everyone get together to trouble-shoot mid-week and then spend the last two days getting right on top of newly opened issues.
So if you’re a project manager you don’t have to be called Mike to get to like Hump Days!
In my first two articles about this topic I described how to use the concept of open vs. closed organizations in order to gain an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses an organization possesses. To help a company transform successfully a change manager must adjust the organization appropriately so that its form is optimally matched to its function. I also covered a case study to show how the model worked on one of my own projects.
In this third and last installment I want do provide a
little more of a deep-dive and cover the expression of an open and closed
culture in different aspects of an organization. Hopefully this will allow you
to record your own observations and build your own diagnostic capabilities when
it comes to analyzing culture.
Don Harrison with AIM defines corporate culture as “the
collective pattern of behaviors, values, and unwritten rules developed over
Behavior of members of an organization is easy to spot; it
is demonstrated in observable actions and guides operations on a daily basis. It
is reflected in the structure of an organization, such as a functional organization
versus a matrix organization. It can be tracked through organizational charts,
ways of working or HR policies and typically is readily discussed.
The shared values of an organization are its underlying,
driving beliefs to which anyone can refer, either as a guide to action or as a
justification for having taken action. They are essential to personal and
organizational integrity and provide guidance for making and implementing
Unwritten rules determine what members of the organization
perceive to be successful behaviors. These successful behaviors become
replicated over and over until they become “the way we do things around here”. The
rules are generally not openly debated and therefore very powerful. They are harder
to lay open than the observable behaviors or the underlying values of an
It follows, therefore, that if we want to assess whether a
client’s culture is primarily open or closed we should look to the behavioral
aspect of culture. Some dimensions that suggest themselves are how people
perform their jobs, how they interact with one another, how the organization
focuses on what is important and how it is structured.
As you conduct a culture audit and speak with stakeholders
pay attention to the following information:
people’s jobs – open vs. closed:
There are many ways to achieve performance vs. there
is only one sanctioned way to do the job
Only the most critical aspects of jobs and
methods are specified vs. jobs and methods are specified to the greatest extent
Jobs require a variety of skills and knowledge
and training and development are lifelong vs. jobs are narrowly defined and training
periods are short to enable quick placement
Observations about how people interact with one another –
open vs. closed:
People work in groups to assure interaction and
problem solving vs. people work mostly by themselves to minimize distraction
People stress the importance of work-life
balance vs. people believe that working hard and going “above and
beyond” is important
Emphasis is on self-organizing teams vs. emphasis
is on leadership
Managers stress self-motivation and
self-responsibility vs. managers stress clear goal-setting and control
Diversity in race, world view and gender tends
to be higher than the industry norm vs. diversity in race, world view and
gender tends to be lower than industry norm
Observations about how the organization focuses on what is
important – open vs. closed
Mistakes are controlled as near as possible to
the point of origin vs. mistakes are controlled by specialized functions if
they cannot be eliminated
Information goes directly to the point where
action can be taken vs. information flows up the management hierarchy for
Daily behavior is primarily motivated by
high-level vision and strategy vs. daily behavior is primarily driven by policy
Observations about the structure of the organization – open
The structure is mainly purpose and issue-based
vs. the structure is fairly bureaucratic and mainly function-based
Decision-making is based on knowledge and
expertise vs. Decision-making is based on power and status
Role descriptions are flexible and people
self-determine their career path vs. detailed role descriptions and clear rules
for promotions and advancement
Hierarchies tend to be flat and job-titles are
fairly unimportant vs. a complex, many-tiered organization with emphasis on
specific job titles
During your analysis you will rarely find a client who
expresses culture in only an open or a closed way, but you will be able to see
markers that give you an overall idea what you are dealing with.
Keep in mind that neither an open or a closed culture are inherently good or bad as long as they are the best fit for the function the organization or a group within the organization has to perform: if a team works regularly under hazardous conditions where strict rules and protocols need to be followed to ensure every team member’s safety it should adopt a more closed style of organization since the ad-hoc style of behavior typically associated with an open culture could endanger people’s lives.
As a change manager reserve judgment during your observations, seek to understand what the organization wishes to achieve and then determine with your client which aspects of their culture currently present obstacles to the proposed change and which ones could be used as levers to drive change – remember: “Form follows Function”!
In my first article about this topic I described how to use the concept of open vs. closed organizations in order to gain an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses an organization possesses. In order to help a company transform successfully a change manager must adjust the organization appropriately so that its form is optimally matched to its function. Read Part 1 here!
In this article I will go over a case study and show how the
model worked on one of my own projects by allowing me first to understand my
client and then to successfully help them to adapt to change.
A few years ago I was able to use my analysis on a
healthcare Program Management Office (PMO) project. My client wanted to
establish a hospital-wide PMO for all of their IT functions, but felt that this
kind of centralization would be a very hard sell, because many departments
within the hospital had grown their own IT functions over the years: people who
were embedded within different teams and had implemented a wide variety of
tools and processes.
During interviews with many of
the project stakeholders, managers, IT staff and HR personnel I found that the
hospital was mostly influenced by financial and cost considerations. Teams
judged their employer to be very bureaucratic in its way of working. Procedures
were important, job roles for healthcare staff were very clearly described, regulations
won out over discretionary judgments and hierarchies mattered. Overall the organization
was seen as more cautious in its approach, rather than risk-taking. Interviewees
also gave high scores to loyalty as a value in their working environment. All
of these markers led me to conclude that overall the organization had more
traits of a closed model than an open model.
Closed organizations organize
from within rather than being driven mostly by outside factors, and the
financial and cost considerations reinforced this assessment. Rules,
risk-aversion, hierarchy and chain-of-command are also hallmarks of a closed
organization and the feedback I got highlighted all of them.
Interestingly enough as I
drilled down into how the IT team members perceived their own team culture I
also came across some of the characteristics of more open organizations. People
felt that priorities did not stay stable but could change very quickly. Most
participants agreed that their workplace was a highly political environment, to
the extent that it affected performance. Interviewees also highlighted that
their way of working was customer-driven to a very high extent, that the
organization was quite idealistic and that they would always go the extra mile
to help hospital staff do their jobs and save patients’ lives. They also preferred
consensus building when faced with the need to make a decision.
Generally one can find
conflicting leadership directives, jostling for power and influence and the value
of consensus over unilateral decisions in more open organizations. The same is
true for a focus on customer needs, because this is an outside determinant,
unlike the more internal financial considerations.
Overall the survey presented the picture of a large
organization with a slight tendency towards a closed culture that managed to
rally people behind it and inspired loyalty, but which for their IT teams
failed to provide the associated focus, clear accountability, leadership and
swift decision-making they needed in order to provide the best service they
could to their customers.
If I placed this dynamic against the proposed change: the
implementation of an overall IT PMO my analysis alerted me to several mistakes
I would need to avoid and some powerful change drivers I needed to maximize if
I wanted my stakeholders to believe that the PMO would be a win for them and
not a threat.
My team had to tread carefully so they would not be seen as
introducing yet another layer of bureaucracy. Instead we needed to sell the PMO
as a way to shorten decision times, keep directives and requirements stable
over time so people could do their jobs and establish clear lines of
It was important to stress that a PMO would help everyone to
be able serve their customers better. We set up a structure of standardized
customer surveys and customer feedback that we used to report on projects and
evaluate project success.
We also decided to make speed of decision making a Service
Level Agreement between IT customers, project managers, hospital leadership and
Establishing a clearly documented governance process and
empowering IT project managers as well as the PMO director to request that
everyone followed it reduced some of the politics and behind-the-scenes
strong-arming that people had used before to get their pet projects implemented
or prioritized over other needed work.
This also became a strong selling point of the PMO to
hospital leadership. Because of their focus on financial performance we could
show them how in the past IT initiatives had worked against each other and
resulted in either only partial results or had even actively reduced the value
of other projects. The gate-keeper function of the PMO would largely eliminate
this since all projects would be assessed and their impact understood and they could
no longer fly under the radar.
The PMO became an important tool to increase accountability
and acknowledge and reward the appropriate people behind project success.
In line with the habit of the organization to maintain very
clearly defined job roles for doctors and nurses including mandatory training,
qualifications and levels of authority we generated a similar structure for our
IT project staff which helped project managers to get the appropriate training,
eliminated the phenomenon of the “accidental” project manager,
allowed HR to make better hiring decisions and attracted better project
management talent to the organization.
Overall we tapped into the elements of a closed organization
that were already in place to build a robust structure while avoiding to be
perceived as yet another layer of useless red tape. We also could use this
rigor to remove some of the dysfunction of the more open environment that the
IT staff inhabited while using their strength of customer focus as the rallying
point behind the new processes that we put in place.
One of the lessons I have learned by working with this model
over the years is that organizational models usually attract and retain the
kinds of people that enjoy them: closed organizations are sustained by people
who like clear boundaries and the stabilizing effects of following processes
and routines. They want to understand their own role and responsibilities and
have clearly defined relationships with their team-mates, managers and
Open organizations will also attract their own set of
employees – they enjoy more of a free-form way to organize themselves, the
ability to try out new things, to have a more fluid role and to collaborate
spontaneously rather than follow a pre-defined way of working. I sometimes
think of it as the start-up mindset, because I have seen these kinds of people
leave once an organization reaches a certain level of maturity and needs to
introduce more clearly defined processes and standards just to remain
manageable. You’ll happily find them joining the next start-up.
In this there is also a lesson for change managers: shifting
an organization from open to closed or from closed to open can be done, but
client leaders must be aware that if the transition is extreme there will be a
price to pay in increased attrition.
It would be quite disruptive to change a relatively closed
organization into an open organization over night. Employees would feel
insecure, overwhelmed by choices and responsibilities, swamped by the amount of
delegation they are facing, and unable to cope with the plurality and conflict
of their new environment.
In the opposite situation, stakeholders would resent the
loss of freedom, the need to suddenly follow orders, the amount of control
that’s taken away from them, and the loss of their individual voice and
uniqueness. This is particularly true if the change is following in the tracks
of a transition from one company to another during a merger or acquisition.
Change managers need to be aware of these dynamics and talk
openly with their clients about some of the people risk involved during
far-reaching transformations, such as losing valuable talent.
The architect Louis Henry Sullivan who taught Frank Lloyd
Wright and developed the concept of the tall steel skyscraper in 19th century
Chicago famously coined the phrase “Form follows Function”. He tried
to break free of the old school approach of making skyscrapers look like French
chateaus or gothic cathedrals and believed that the design of a building should
reflect its purpose and not try and pretend to be something else.
In Change Management, and particularly its discipline of
Organizational Design this tenet is still eminently valuable and important. A
hospital emergency room has to be structured differently from a technology
company’s research and development department; a start-up will have processes
and leadership practices that will distinguish it from a legacy company that
has been in a specific market for half a century.
A concept that will help a Change Manager to analyze the
kind of organization they find themselves in and then determine how it may need
to be shifted in order to optimally serve its function is based on one of the
concepts developed by the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper. In The Open Society and Its Enemies he laid
out the concept of an open vs. a closed society.
Popper developed this approach for the realm of political
philosophy and as a strong defense of a free and democratic society, but
sociologists have since taken the concept into smaller units of human
interaction, such as religious communities, organizations and companies and
have developed it into a very helpful analysis tool. I came across it several
years ago during a seminar in Germany held by Prof. Diether Gebert of the
Technische Universitaet Berlin and have found it to be a great concept in
Change Management ever since.
While Popper’s original thoughts gave the open society model
superiority over the closed model the approach I have been using provides even
weight to either form of organization, because in their tempered version we
encounter them both every day and they each have their own advantages and
The analysis tool postulates that human beings organize
themselves along a continuum with two very extreme end states. On the one side
we find the open model with its extreme end state of complete anarchy where all
rule of law fails, everyone looks out for themselves and we have no guiding
principles that would put any curb on what people can and cannot do. On the
other side we find the closed model with its own rather unlivable extreme of
absolute totalitarianism where everything, including people’s thoughts is
prescribed and the slightest deviation from the norm is punishable by death.
Obviously most organizations that would require the services
of a Change Manager will not be stuck in these dystopian scenarios, but anyone
who has worked as a consultant has sometimes shaken their head at the chaos and
dysfunction of one of their clients or groaned in frustration at the complexity
and tedium of some red tape they have encountered somewhere else. They have seen
examples of the kinds of open and closed systems we are surrounded by every
If we return to our Louis Sullivan quote of “Form follows Function” we can see that each organizational model has its own strengths and weaknesses and depending on the function an organization wishes to fulfill it may have to adjust its current state from open to closed or vice versa.
In general open organizations are characterized by fairly
democratic and participatory processes. Hierarchies tend to be flat, everyone
is encouraged to weigh in and to a certain extent define their own job role and
the work force tends to be fairly diverse. Organizations like this may also be
pretty invested in encouraging flexible work hours or work by remote teams.
Often “younger” or smaller organizations fit this profile.
Closed organizations value clarity of direction and clear
objectives, and strong leaders or a single visionary CEO will be setting the
agenda rather than all of the employees participating in this process. Roles
and responsibilities are clearly defined and there are rules and processes for
how to do things. Efficiency is valued above exploration. These organizations
can be “older” and are generally large enough to have established
hierarchies. People are encouraged to identify strongly with the organization,
spend time at the office and cultivate a sense of corporate identity.
While these two ways of organization convey very specific
strengths to a company they also have some down-sides – remember at their
extremes they promise anarchy or total supervision and conformity. An open
organization can descend into chaos. Individuals may pursue selfish goals
rather than act for the good of their team members or the good of the company
and it may take forever to come to consensus to make a binding decision.
Closed organizations can become very rigid and if their
leadership pursues unsound goals and ideas they can fail without anyone daring
to question increasingly toxic decisions. Since leaders are also unlikely to
fly in the face of their own success they tend to be more focused on the status
quo rather than try something new. Because of their focus on protocol and
process and asking for permission rather than forgiveness they can also evolve
elaborate bureaucracies that slow people down.
To complicate matters some organizations also have
“micro-climates”, for example a fairly open organization in a heavily
unionized market may have a very closed HR division due to the many rules and
regulations that need to be observed. A fairly closed organization may still
have a very open marketing department,
because they want to encourage innovation and a collaborative work style rather
than top-down leadership.
What is important for a Change Manager is to try out the model to get their bearings when they start analyzing and interacting with an organization or part of a transformation. Depending on their findings they will be able to both put problems into context as well as understand an organization’s strengths. This will allow them to define levers as they begin to implement strengths and to anticipate risks or issues.
In my next article I will talk about some case studies and
show how the model worked on some of my own projects by helping me first to
understand my clients and then to successfully shift their “form” so
it would fit their new “function”.
No matter what your political persuasion, I believe everyone
right now is frustrated about the government shutdown. For some the fall-out is
tangible and frightening, such as the government workers who worry about paying
their rent or mortgage and putting food on the table for their families. For
others it is merely annoying, such as airline travelers held up in long lines
before understaffed TSA checkpoints. In any case, this is a clear demonstration
what happens when people are digging their heels in and refuse to compromise
and move forward: in the end everyone suffers.
A few weeks ago I talked to a good friend at a party, and
eventually our conversation turned to our jobs. My friend works as a home-help
nurse and had recently changed her employer.
She mentioned that she had to renew her CPR certification as
part of the job move and jokingly said to me: “I hope none of my patients
decides to die on me, because, frankly, after completing the e-learning module
on my computer I don’t think I really have a clue what to do.”
I stared at her in disbelief: “You renewed online? No
practice sessions, no dummy, no instructor to correct you if you did something
The other day I came across an interesting article in the
Wall Street Journal.
The author, Rachel Feintzeig describes a new development
where companies tend to move from the big (and often dreaded) annual or
semi-annual performance review to a series of smaller and more informal
discussions about goals and performance that are uncoupled from compensation
reviews and rely on input from managers, peers and direct reports. She calls it
the “never-ending performance review” and it’s being taken up by
companies who have been at the forefront of new developments in HR for many
years, such as Adobe Systems Inc., General Electric Co. or Deloitte LLP.
During a project planning session last week we were
reviewing a vendor’s project plan with the team and looking at activities that
would impact our own timeline and team-plan, and as usually happens during
these discussion, a lot of questions and concerns came up that we needed to
record in order to keep track of them and in some cases find answers and
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