I think it’s fair to say that organisations are made of people and, projects and programmes run in these organisations are heavily dependent on those people for their success. Yet, in my experience, organisations still do not put enough focus on the human side of project management and not enough is done to formerly equip project and programme managers with the skills they need to manage the ‘people’ side of their job.

I work as an interim Programme Director and have done so for around 16 years. I have managed change in medium to large organisations across industries and transformed every function you can think of. And every time, I deliver a transformation programme in one of these organisations, there is a fair amount of the success that hangs on getting the human side of things right:

  • I have to manage senior stakeholders and the people receiving the change to make sure they are on board and to lessen resistance.
  • I have to lead my programme team to make sure they deliver, are productive and get along.
  • I have to manage the expectations of the sponsor and of the Programme Board and develop enough trust to gain their active support and to get them to front the change.
  • And I have to deal with the cultural issues, the resistance and the bad behaviours amongst other things.

Did I learn how to do any of this via formal training? You bet I did. But I didn’t learn it on any project or programme management courses I took.

To get the skills I needed to do my job well, I first had to realise I needed them then I had to study for an additional postgraduate qualification in Organisational Change Management. I saw so much value in the application of what I was learning that I then went on to lecture for 4 years, studied for a psychology degree and gained qualifications in NLP, Coaching and Hypnotherapy.

Yet, my job title typically is ‘Programme Director’ and it is assumed that my key skills are more on the project side. You know: scoping, planning, managing risks, issues and resources. Extremely important skills to deliver change using a programmatic approach however, in my view, rather lacking when it comes to successfully delivering the change, embedding it and realising the benefits.

If People Change Skills are so Important, How do Project Managers Acquire Them?

The reality is that the human aspect of change is still largely neglected in project and programme management methodologies, training and job specs. See for yourself. Google MSc Project Management and you’ll find that most courses include around 10 modules and the people aspects of the job are covered generally in a single module, two at best. That’s 1 tenth of the studies on average.

Not representative of real-life at all; where the human side is what typically trips you up. Review the latest job postings on the Internet to see a very similar story. Stakeholder management does get a mention but little around vision, leadership, team building, behavioural change or resistance.

On the methodology side, PRINCE2 is still very much about organising tasks and controlling scope and delivery and whilst, Managing Successful Programme does talk about change, I hold the qualification and the course I took didn’t prepare anyone to manage change in the real world. It was all textbooks and multi-choice papers and zero time spent on anything practical. To be honest, I did it to get the qualification rather than to learn something new.

The PMs I know who do well in this space, tend to have a strong interest in what makes people tick and to have gained their own qualifications and experience outside of formal PM training or methodologies.

I find this a bit frustrating. If so much of the job hangs on getting the human side right, why do we expect PMs to develop these skills off their own back or worse even, whilst managing a very important change programme? Mess up a change project and you’ll hear about it for years. Not exactly a clever strategy.

But hang on, is people change really the job of the PM, what about Change Managers?

In my experience, small to medium projects rarely have more than a project manager and a project team focused on the actual tasks. They may get a trainer and some communication support but very rarely anyone with formal change skills.

Some big programmes do get the luxury of a Change Manager but before we get too enthusiastic, let’s first look at what this actually means. To me, a Change Manager should be someone with an HR, psychology, OD or similar background who is experienced at helping an organisation and it’s people through a change in culture, behaviour, etc. using a formal approach for assessing culture, identifying resistance and developing interventions.

For example, using training, communication, coaching or something else. A Change Manager is NOT someone who can model processes and lead workshops on process re-engineering. Google Change Managers and most job specs are around designing processes. Not quite what we’re looking for here.

I may have been unlucky but to date, only once was I given a budget to recruit a true people change manager and I had to fight my corner quite hard.

Then I found a single person with the right skills. That was 10 years ago but I’m not convinced that much has changed.

Typically, the resources I’m provided with are trainers and communications experts. They are good at what they do but I still have to work with them to design the change approach and the interventions. In the same way, as I have to work with the programme team to design and plan the programme.

The reality is that the job of thinking about change typically falls on the PM. This is why if not all project and programme managers can be trained extensively in organisational change management then at least, they should be equipped with the skills they need to work with HR, Trainers and Communication Expert to design a change plan.

In the same way that they design the programme approaches and plans. Maybe the profession doesn’t need to go as far as I have and train everyone in psychology but it should certainly give PMs the skills to know what needs to be done, how it should be done and be able to recruit the right resources to design what is required. They should also get some practical experience as part of their training courses.

Why Should We Care about the Human Side of Project Management?

In my opinion, the key reason organisations still struggle in this area is because of two things:

  1. Changing people is hard. Think of your latest set of New Year Resolutions and how many of them you have achieved by now. Just like changing behaviours at home, changing behaviours in an organisation needs some serious work, focus and commitment. Most organisations like people are short term focused.
  2. The business world is largely rationale and most managers are far more comfortable with rationale skills: planning, controlling and budgeting. And far less comfortable with emotional skills: leading, coaching and managing cultural issues.

This is not to say that change is intangible and cannot be systematised, I design systematic and planned change approaches for my programmes. They are logical and rational. However, to succeed, the people helping lead the interventions have to be willing to get their ‘emotional’ hands dirty and deal with human issues in the same way as they would budget issues.

So What Needs to Change?

I would start with the 5 points below.

  1. Provide anyone who leads change programmes and projects (and that’s the bulk of them, even infrastructure projects have a human element) with formal training in organisational change management as well as project/programme management. Supplement with on the job coaching and practical projects. Emotions live in the real world, classroom training is not enough.
  2. Ensure formal PM qualifications and certifications include a good number of modules on leadership, organisational change, culture, dealing with resistance and conflict, behavioural change, etc. Equip PMs with enough skills to be in a position to design change plans or, to work with change experts to design these plans and manage the risks, issues and interventions that arise.
  3. If the human aspect of change is not to be a key skill of a programme or project manager then I would say the budget has to allow for someone with these skills to be added to the team and to have high enough a role on the programme to design and drive initiatives. We also need to be clear about the definitions of job roles such as Change Managers.
  4. Adopt a systematic approach to managing people to ensure the success of change initiatives. Leaving it to chance or to a PM with few skills is really not going to lead to success.
  5. Stop thinking that communication and training are the only elements required to implement and sustain change. There are many more aspects to consider, for example, the need to align culture and existing work structures and, to deal with politics, conflicts and resistance.

If we want to increase the percentage success rate of change in organisations, we need to put the human back in the project and programmes and consider people change skills as valuable as the ability to plan and control.

Most good PMs know this but ask them how easy it is to justify true change activities in a budget or on a plan or, to openly discuss them at the Programme Board and you’ll get a sense of the challenge. Most organisations want it done without getting their emotional hands dirty but unfortunately, organisations are, after all, made of people.

About Guest Contributor

Brigitte Cobb has been managing major change initiatives for over 16 years. She holds qualifications in Programme Management, Organisational Change Management, Psychology, NLP, Coaching and Hypnotherapy. She lectured in Organisational Change Management at Birkbeck College (University of London) and Kingston University. She currently helps Senior Business Leaders transform their organisations.

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By: Baz Khinda

Baz Khinda
Commercial Director, BA, MBS, MCTS, CertBusM, PRINCE2, Microsoft P-SSP (Partner Solution Sales professional)

Published: 28 July 2014

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