Managing Complex Change Applied to Projects

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Mel shared the Managing Complex Change model with me a couple years ago and it’s something that’s stayed in the back of my mind. I had trouble recalling all of its components, so I decided to make my own graphic version to help me remember it better.

I like this model because it breaks collaborative change into five distinct elements: Vision, Skills, Incentives, Resources, and Action Plan. I also like it because I think it applies as much to projects as it does to big organizational initiatives. At Barrel, our projects can be quite complex and involve various stakeholders on the client side as well as different team members and contractors on our side. When I think about projects that have gone off the rails, this model can be helpful in pinpointing the missing element or elements that contributed to poor outcomes.

Here’s a project-based look at each of the outcomes in the model and what I’ve observed:

Confusion: No Vision

Managing Complex Change: Confusion

When it’s not clear why we’re doing something for a client, the project can quickly spin out of control. I’ve written before that not being clear on the goals of a project can lead to team members focusing instead on effort and on activities that may or may not be of value to the client. The poor outcome in this case is not only confusion but a work product that may completely miss the client’s expectations while the team may have poured a lot of energy into producing something they thought was great.

Anxiety: No Skills

Managing Complex Change: Anxiety

Tasking a team with little or no experience on a certain type of assignment and not providing the time or the training guidance to quickly ramp up on the skills can put a stressful strain that causes anxiety. I struggle with this from time to time because a part of me wants to challenge team members and put them in new situations. Sometimes they step up to the challenge and exceed expectations, but there are also times when they really struggle. I don’t know if there is a clear cut way to avoid this and it’s often a case-by-case situation, but having a culture of continuous growth and learning (a core value at Barrel) that is supported by on-going skills training and professional development along with paired project experiences, where someone with prior experience on a certain assignment can model for the inexperienced team member, may help us avoid too many anxiety-inducing situations.

Gradual Change: No Incentives

Managing Complex Change: Gradual Change

I wonder if “slow change” might be a better fit for this particular scenario. Incentives can be a number of things, but it really boils down to what’s in it for each of the involved team members. I think alignment of incentives starts with having the right people in the right roles, which provides inherent motivation for the team member to excel at whatever is assigned to them. At a project level, it may be worthwhile as the project lead to highlight for each team member what the opportunities are at an individual level. For example, for a designer at Barrel, the opportunity might be something like “this is a really great chance to know the ins and outs of this e-commerce business and to design something eye-catching for your portfolio” while for a developer, the opportunity might be something along the lines of “you can sharpen your skills with this particular technology and also take lessons you learned from the last project and push yourself to do this a lot faster.” Of course, it’s important to have a good understanding of and relationship with the team member in order to highlight the opportunities that truly get them excited and for them to view such as incentives.

Frustration: No Resources

Managing Complex Change: Frustration

The lack of resources is a recurring challenge for a people-intensive business like Barrel. We sometimes have too many projects and not enough people to get them done. People may get double-booked or a contractor might become unavailable at the last minute. One way we’ve gotten around this is by being as diligent about resourcing as possible. We try to look out weeks or months at a time to see if there are potential resourcing issues looming and we also try to stock up on various freelancer contacts in order to have them available for hire when the time comes. In our business, resources can be managed well by smart and consistent planning. At a project level, the lack of budget can be another source of frustration, especially if the client expects more. This problem can be avoided if we take the time to detail what’s possible for a limited budget and set expectations. Big problems emerge when we’ve failed to lay out what’s possible (and what isn’t) and instead have to react to client requests. It’s not that they’re trying to annoy or unfairly get more. More times than not, we just haven’t done a good job of communicating and providing guidance on what resources it takes to get something done.

False Start: No Action Plan

Managing Complex Change: False Start

I used to be a big perpetrator of false starts: good vision, some skills, got people excited (incentives), and put resources in place, but not enough time spent putting together a plan. These days, I try my best to write out a vision and action plan first before going out to put a team together. When you fail to have an action plan, you’re pretty much “winging it” and while this might work from time to time, it exposes you to breakdowns and sloppy decision-making. I find the act of putting together an action plan extremely valuable because it forces me to think about potential risks and roadblocks and pushes me to address these in a proactive manner. It also makes me prioritize tasks and think hard about the sequence of the project, thereby also acting as a filter on what we shouldn’t do. Without an action plan, a project can quickly get derailed, especially if resources are allocated towards non-critical tasks that suck up time and don’t move things forward. I’ve accepted action plans as a default for all projects. The on-going challenge is figuring out the right balance between an action plan that is super detailed / overly prescriptive and one that is too loose / flexible. Creating an action plan that has enough structure and details to serve as a foundation while giving some slack for improvised problem-solving doesn’t come easy. It’s a practice that I hope to continue to fine-tune and get better at as I work on initiatives and projects of all kinds.

1 Comment

  1. Jerome Alteyrac says

    When two or three components of the model are missing, what a mess it must be !
    This model is helpful to be well prepared before starting a project. Thanks for sharing.

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