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The people challenge in mega projects

Catherine Smithson
August 16, 2011

Mega projects present major people challenges, which can jeopardise a project’s success. Here’s an outline of the hurdles often faced and some recommendations to conquer them.

The challenge of change is not new. Even Machiavelli, Renaissance politician and scholar, described it in his seminal 1513 book The Prince: “It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

Today’s mega projects come in all shapes and sizes—construction, engineering, business process improvement, mergers, acquisitions and IT—but they have one thing in common with Machiavelli’s era: the importance of managing resistance and getting the people side of change right. Fortunately, modern day change management tactics are less brutal than in the Renaissance.

There are three key change management challenges of mega projects. We’ll look at each of these as well as some recommended solutions to overcoming them.

Challenge 1: Being right doesn’t always get people on board
It’s a common misconception that developing the right technical solution guarantees acceptance and adoption of the change by the key stakeholders. The fact that this isn’t always the case is a major source of frustration and delay in implementing change and invariably reduces benefit realisation.

New evidence-based research has revealed the critical importance of engaging people through effective change management programs, in order for the benefits of projects to be realised.

A 2002 McKinsey & Company study of 40 change projects across a range of industries, internationally, found a strong and direct (0.7) correlation between change management effectiveness and achieving the expected value of the project. Companies with the highest returns had the most effective change management practices. Companies with the lowest return on investment had the lowest levels of change management effectiveness.

Prosci’s Best Practices in Change Management Reports in 2005 and 2007 found a strong positive correlation between change management effectiveness and projects achieving business objectives, and finishing on time.

Challenge 2: Change management must apply to project teams
Mega projects are like running a marathon relay over one, two or even five years. The race involves multiple teams of specialists passing the baton to one other. Winning or finishing the race requires high individual performance and effective teamwork, as well as the smooth handover of the baton.

Effective project management is critical to success in these marathons. It provides common methodologies and deliverables such as project planning, risk logs and reporting.

Catherine Smithson
Catherine Smithson is a leading facilitator, educator and consultant in change and leadership. She has 20 years’ experience as a senior manager and a consultant and has an in-depth understanding of best practices worldwide. She is the managing director of Being Human.
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