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Surviving project change

Neil Timmins
April 29, 2011

A significant organisational change event such as a merger, acquisition or change in CEO can have a dramatic impact on existing business projects, especially those tagged ‘discretionary spend’. These types of changes present numerous professional and personal challenges to the project manager.

When anyone asks me how long I’ve been in project management, I tell them that when I started 20-odd years ago there was no such thing as a project, just schemes. While not entirely true, my first PM-related role was in a Railway Schemes Development Office, where all initiatives in the pipeline, in plan or in train (excuse the pun) were called ‘schemes’.

Industry-wide recognition of project management has improved markedly since then and I have practised project management in a variety of different industries on a number of challenging integration and business transformation projects.

More recent experiences, however, have prompted me to question whether the core professional values—adherence to professional standards, fierce objectivity and ethics—of project managers as individuals need to be more aggressively promoted if we are to survive and thrive in today’s dynamic and heavily regulated business environment, which is increasingly susceptible to the unavoidable, destabilising impacts of significant organisational change events.

Change happens

The last three major ‘discretionary spend’ projects I have managed all transpired to deliver radically different outcomes from those initially defined as a direct consequence of turbulence caused by a major organisational change event: the first a re-structure (imposed by change of CEO); the second a merger (from small independent into a larger corporate entity); and the third a de-merger accompanied by a swift acquisition.

These experiences may seem negative but the application of professional project management standards and ethics in unsettling and unpredictable situations such as these—where both organisations and projects can experience uncertainty for an indefinite period—serves to amplify and differentiate the true value of experienced professionally recognised project practitioners, versus those that are not.

For those who haven’t had firsthand exposure to the impacts of significant organisational change events upon your projects, you may experience:

  • Having to lead scenario re-plan exercises with little or zero notice to determine whether or not your project will adversely impact the organisation’s ability to deliver business continuity focused projects primarily to determine system interdependencies and demand on quality human resources.
  • Bonding with key planning instruments and control tools (ie PMP, schedule, cost plan, resource profile, benefits plan), the vehicles that allow reactive, yet structured, change control to be achieved.
  • Rework. If time and cost thresholds look likely to be breached as a result of re-plan, a full business case re-submission, rather than a standard change request proposal may be required, which will increase your workload substantially.
  • Project team disbandment as a result of re-plan activity and the uncertainty that ensues. Without guaranteed assurances, the best of your project team will be ruthlessly pilfered by higher priority, mandatory initiatives.
  • A request to pause or even close the project. Either can be incredibly complex and challenging, commensurate with the stage of project delivery. As well as internal staff, there may also be third parties and associated contract conditions to be managed.
  • Pressure to navigate the political landscape and influence stakeholder action in order to retain the loyalty and confidence of your team, without which any project will fail.
  • A test of your ability to remain resolute, assured and openly optimistic if a formal decision on the project’s immediate future is overly delayed.
  • A feeling of irrelevance as key project stakeholders turn their attention towards more pressing operational matters.
  • A feeling of being cheated if your project is paused or closed, as the product of your team’s blood, sweat and tears is dutifully boxed up and bound for the knowledge management netherworld.
Neil Timmins
Neil Timmins is a project management professional with 20+ years of program and project management experience across industries as diverse as banking and finance, communications, biotech, IT, transport and events in both the private and public sector. He holds a Master of Science in Management and an Advanced Diploma in Project Management, is a member of the Australian Institute of Project Management and a Certified Practising Project Director (CPPD).
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