Shifting the status quo

In Project Management circles there is an increasing awareness that some projects aren’t just about producing deliverables, they are about delivering “change”.  Project’s in today’s business world are often changing the way business is done and the failure to recognize how hard it can be to change work habits, or organizational structures, is one of the contributing factors seen in a number of the projects in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe“.

Many of the better Project Management courses in the market talk about how we need to be sensitive to the impacts a project will have on people and the need for “Change Management”, but often there is no framework put forth to help people think about how a project might impact the stakeholders. With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about the dimensions within which a project could impact its stakeholders.

Based on observation of the project’s I’ve been involved in, and analysis of the projects in the catalogue, there are common themes that offer up the hope of developing a more comprehensive framework for analyzing the impact a project may have. The goal of any such framework would be to help organizations understand the potential sources of resistance to change in their projects so that they are better able to engage with their stakeholders.

At the most basic level resistance to change can occur whenever the status quo is challenged or disrupted. The status quo is the baseline against which change takes place and many people feel discomfort or anguish when pushed too far out of the “comfort zone” that is created by familiarity. To understand where resistance to change may come from I think we need to understand the dimensions that could be considered part of the status quo.

Obviously different things are important to different people, but observation of people’s behaviours in real life projects illustrate how there are often common elements, that if changed, can be a source of problems. Dimensions that may be considered as being a part of the status quo might include elements such as:

  1. Familiar living or working conditions and environment
  2. Our sense of belonging to something (being part of a team, a work unit, an organization, a family, etc)
  3. Our sense of security (financial, job, relationships, etc) arising from the status quo
  4. Our sense of self worth arising from our part in the world around us or the contributions we feel we are making

If a project changes anything related to those dimensions we have a potential for resistance. If the changes are clearly beneficial to the stakeholder, and they see and accept those benefits, then there is unlikely to be resistance to change. If however there are no benefits for the stakeholder or they don’t see the benefits for some reason, resistance can occur. To make those dimensions a little more tangible, here is a set of questions that can help deepen the level of stakeholder analysis in a project:

  1. Does the project have any structural impacts?
    1. Changes in a person’s level of autonomy in the workplace
    2. Changes in power or authority (e.g. a change that results in someone being in a different level in the hierarchy or feeling they are being marginalized)
    3. Changes in working relationships (e.g. breaking up people who have worked together for a long time)
    4. Changes to job security
  2. Does the project have any environmental impacts?
    1. Changes in working or living conditions
    2. Changes in the workplace that will have some form of impact on a person’s personal life (e.g. some form of change that affects work/life balance).
  3. Does the project impact anyone financially?
    1. Changes in income
    2. Changes in the way in which people earn or are paid
    3. Changes in the relative income of one group or individual versus another
  4. Does the project impact they people perform their work?
    1. Changes in processes used to perform work functions
    2. New tools
    3. Changes in workload

Stakeholder analysis is a weak spot in many projects and in part it is because people are not thinking about the different dimensions in which a project may impact someone. In large part the problem arises from the training people receiving. Most Project Management training says you need to analyze stakeholders, but then stops short of identifying the dimensions you should be considering. Hopefully the above list can act as a catalyst that gets people thinking about stakeholder analysis at a deeper level.

Robert Goatham – Editor