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Managing projects in times of change

Revolutions and counter revolutions are a central and often repeated part of history. They stretch into the current times, and will no doubt continue to happen in future. Revolutions pitch one group with existing powers, against another group who want to seize power. The stakes are usually high for both sides.

However, let’s not spend too much time thinking of the revolutionaries or those currently in power, but about the rest of society. Those trying to maintain their grasp on power and the revolutionaries are often relatively small groups of people. The majority making up the rest of society is made up of nervous onlookers with their own hopes and fears. The onlookers are deciding if and when to get actively involved. Too early and too obvious support for a nascent new regime can be fatal – but so can too slow or too long obedience to the old. The general public risk being labelled as betraying revolutionaries or traitorous reactionaries by either side. Most people just want to get on with their lives.

So what has this to do with projects? Well thankfully, projects are usually not the scene of real revolutions with firing squads and literal battles. But organisations are inherently political, and with any political situation there are ongoing tussles over power and there can be regime change – albeit just management regime change. One group of senior managers tries to replace another. And the analogy of the revolution is apt, not because one side replaces the other, but because revolutions are typified by a period of uncertainty when it is unclear which side is going to win out.

Such periods of uncertainty can be a nightmare for projects and project managers. The most obvious impacts can be in terms of assessing direction and whether the project is still aligned it, and getting decisions made. Who makes key decisions when the management hierarchy is in flux? Will the new regime continue to support the project? Worse, the situation can create a sense of malaise in project teams – when people take their foot off the pedal whilst the uncertainty is ongoing. At best projects slow down, at worst they effectively stop.

So what can you do as a project manager? I do not think there is a fixed set of rules or standard set of foolproof instructions that will cover every situation. These are often times for careful and nimble footwork from the project manager. Being impacted by company politics is usually unavoidable – but there are some things you can do.

I find the most important thing is start by focussing in on the project team. Try to keep everyone focussed on the job in hand. Try to avoid long gossip sessions when people predict who are going to be the management winners and losers. The work still needs to be done, the plan still needs to be followed, deliverables should be produced and outcomes achieved. Most people’s daily job on the project can complete. Keep reminding the team of this, and keep managing them so they keep working. For most people, giving some certainty and direction in a time of flux is calming and motivational.

The next thing you should try to do is to avoid your project being at the very heart of the revolution. I have been involved in projects which are at the centre of management revolutions and it is normally a very unpleasant and non-productive place to be. This is, of course, not usually in your control. But the way you position or talk about your project certainly influences the level of management focus on a project. In a revolution, being an unobserved and yet essential part of society is often the best place to be.

Thirdly, let your stakeholders know that the management turbulence is having an impact on delivery. This won’t necessarily stop the politics going on, but by stressing to your leaders that whatever is happening needs to be brought to a close helps them to realise that things need to progress to a conclusion quickly. There is a cost to disruption. Leaders need to take responsibility for that cost. Projects thrive in environments of certainty and stability. We never have perfect certainty and stability – but the closer we can get to it the better.

Finally, try to avoid getting directly involved in the politics yourself, unless you really know what you are doing. Most of us cannot predict, reliably, the outcome of management power struggles -whatever we may think. In real revolutions people are often forced to choose sides. In organisations life is easier, and it is normally possible to sit on the sidelines and wait for the outcome. If you play politics and get it wrong, it can be bad news for you and your project. Try and present the project as something that is good for the organisation irrespective of who is in charge. Provide clear and consistent information to anyone who asks for it, and try and keep your project team independent of any one group of managers.

One colleague of mine, in a particularly political situation, compared managing the project in this situation to playing poker. You have to decide when to play, when to hold, and when to fold. At times you have to become a poker player observing what is going on in the management battles - deciding when to actively engage, when to keep out of the politics, and hopefully, very occasionally, when to fold. Tread with care!

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