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Get real about really managing change

By Brent Sutherland

Thursday 24th April 2003

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In my last column (NBR, April 11) I discussed some questions to ask yourself when you get all excited about the "next big thing." Let us now assume you have answered those to your satisfaction.

So you have then convinced your board that the benefits from the "next big thing" are real, the costs are appropriate, your vendor can actually deliver what you expect and you are about to be off and running. Well, hobbling along, actually, but convinced you will be running once you have it all under control.

This week's first question is: "Who is managing the project to achieve the benefits you have committed to your board that you will achieve?" If your answer is "the vendor," then it may be the correct answer, but more likely it isn't. The vendor will almost certainly be managing to the cost and performance commitments it made, first on its own behalf and only secondly on yours. If the project involves no change to your business practices, including operational IT practices, that probably will be fine; but explain again why you are doing this project. Although there are some projects that enhance your ability to do other things, it is unusual if that enhancement doesn't require you to change something you do.

Question number two therefore is: "If the vendor is managing the project, has it committed to managing and realising the business practice changes?" Hopefully, the answer is "yes," but the supplementary question is: "Do you believe it can achieve that, and in particular, have you empowered it to change your organisation and processes?" Scary stuff this.

You have an organisation structure and clear accountabilities (I hope). Now you have given your vendor power to change that. You may have a steering committee to oversee those changes but the reality is the vendor's project manager needs to make change if the accountability to achieve the benefits is to be exercised. If you constrain that, expect the vendor to renegotiate the benefits that are appropriate.

So, question number three is: "You have put the vendor in the box of just managing putting in the 'next big thing,' so will you, another executive, or a contracted project manager manage achieving the benefits?" If you have answered "yourself or another executive," that is great in terms of understanding of the organisational impact and management commitment to the change but there are a series of supplementary questions associated with it:

  • Does the person have the skills to do this work not just manage a project but manage the business change and has he or she done it successfully before?
  • Does he or she have the time to do the work? Managing significant projects is not usually a part-time activity, so who will do his day jobs while working on this project?
  • If he is going to work part-time on the project (while he continues to meet his other obligations), will any expected time to complete the project and potential increased project risk be acceptable?

If you have answered "a contracted project manager," that may be the best answer but you still have to satisfy yourself that the contention between the project manager needing to deliver the benefits on your behalf and achieving that change within your management and governance structures is genuinely possible.

Regardless of who is going to achieve the change, one of the critical steps is to understand how ready your organisation is to accept that change, and therefore the barriers the change manager will have to overcome. The starting point for this is typically by means of some form of change- readiness assessment, whether by interview or questionnaire. Although each one needs to be tailored for the type of change project, the extent of change, and the experience of the people involved, a change-readiness assessment typically involves :

  • Do people understand the case for change? This is about assessing participants' understanding of why the change is happening, the extent to which they believe there is a genuinely clear vision of what is to be achieved, together with an associated clarity (and realism) for both the expected benefits and how they will be realised. Too often there is understanding but not agreement on achievability.
  • Is there willingness to participate in the change? Do they feel engaged and committed, and do they feel the key players are similarly committed?
  • Do people believe the organisation has the ability to achieve this change, both in terms of native capability and the capacity to apply the necessary resources?
  • What obstacles and impediments to change do people perceive? These may not be real but managing change is managing not just reality but, often more importantly, managing or changing perceptions.
  • What communication has happened to date and what is perceived to be needed in, for example, comprehensiveness, clarity, honesty, and inclusiveness both down from management and up from real people?
  • Is there real project/programme management people can believe in, including realistic plans, dependencies, and impact and risk analyses?

Projects to manage significant change in organisations are simultaneously the most exciting and the scariest things to be involved in. As a sponsor of change, it is up to you to be real about genuinely achieving the change you expect it doesn't happen just because you hope it will be all right.

Brent Sutherland can be emailed at

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