CQU Project Management education

The people challenge in mega projects

Catherine Smithson
August 16, 2011

Change management is also a key success factor. Most change management activities focus on stakeholders, but project teams also need change management.

First, a project team needs to share the same vision and goal and understand how each sub-team contributes to these. This requires active involvement from the executive sponsor and project leader.

They also need to work effectively as sub-teams and one big team. Project teams do not become effective by accident—they need to work on their teamwork in a conscious and planned manner.

Third, if project teams are involved in planning and implementing change management activities as part of their role, which is very common, they need to use a consistent methodology and toolkit that integrates with project management.

A common complaint I often hear from managers is that multiple and conflicting change management approaches are time consuming, confusing and result in duplication of effort as well as loss of shared learning. New methodologies like the Prosci Change Management Process overcome this problem.

Recommended solutions include:

  • Induction programs for new project team members.
  • Periodic check-ins and reinforcement of the vision and goals.
  • Continuous recognition of achievements and milestones.
  • Team development programs for sub-teams and the whole team.
  • Team skills training such as communications, managing differences, conflict and giving and receiving feedback.
  • Adopt a consistent, structured approach to change management.

Challenge 3: Sustaining engagement of key stakeholders
In long, complex projects, key people can easily disconnect with the original vision and purpose of the change. A good analogy is home renovation. During the lengthy process of designing and building it’s easy to lose sight of why you inflicted the pain of change on yourself. To keep going and finally enjoy the fruits of your labour, you need to continually remind yourself that it will be worth it.

In organisations, this vision disconnect is especially common with senior and middle managers who must juggle competing priorities between change projects and business as usual.

In one project I worked on, frontline client service staff initiated a major organisational change. They were aware that their clients’ needs had changed in the last few years and were not being met because of outdated processes, policies and roles. Even the service centres were now in the wrong locations. The organisation formed a project team that conducted an extensive review of the service delivery model, consulting clients, staff, managers and external stakeholders. Two years later, the project presented its recommendations for major change to structure and roles, processes, policies and locations.

As the project manager put it: “I spent two years pregnant with this baby, and when I delivered it, they said my baby was ugly”. Key people at all levels resisted the change. They seemed to have forgotten that they had initiated the change and participated fully in the review. The project sponsor worked with the project team and my firm to deliver a series of change management activities that reconnected people with the vision and implementation is now underway.

Recommended solutions include:

  • Re-engaging the project sponsor to lead this stage of the change—participate, facilitate, coach, be involved. This is not the time to delegate.
  • Hold management and staff forums to signal the transition between the design and implementation phases. Revisit why the change started, the vision, use stories, examples and case studies. Identify the implementation challenges ahead and the consequences of failure.
  • Re-prioritise business-as-usual and change activities—resolve competing priorities.
  • Provide change management training for managers, especially in building commitment and managing resistance in their teams.
  • Openly acknowledge people’s tangible and intangible losses. Support people with one-on-one and small group sessions. Communicate what will not change and the shared values that will continue.

Mega projects present major people challenges that can make or break the success of the change. Time invested in change management will give a high return on investment.

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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