A Path to Evolutionary Change Through the Use of Skilled Project PMs and Adaptive Project Management

July 7, 2021 | By Donna Fitzgerald

Project Management has had a long, strange journey since I managed my first project — 16 years before the 1996 edition of the PMBoK Guide was published. In those days, the only thing that mattered was results. The primary tools of the trade were instinctive risk management, systems thinking, and pure dumb luck (PDL).

Today, I believe we can recapture some of the opportunities we had back then to deliver change creatively and effectively. After all, that was a large part of what made the profession so rewarding.

To create this opportunity, we need to focus on two things.

Agility and organizational change

The first is to remember that the heart of project management has always been situational leadership. Even though most project managers have been stripped of their responsibility for managing the people who work on projects, informal leadership is still possible.

I once spoke with a CEO who was complaining about things not getting done in his organization. I suggested that he might want to hire some PMs since he would immediately have people who came equipped with the skill of real-time decision-making. Upon hearing this, he excitedly turned to his CIO and said: “can you get me some of those people?”

At the time of the conversation above, this CEO was in the minority. Now, most CEOs put agility as one of their top goals.

There are two ways of gaining agility. First, you can build it into the culture (which takes a while). Second, you can sprinkle people throughout the organization with the mandate of making change.

When I started my career in Silicon Valley, each organization identified and cultivated its own change agents. We’d temporarily step away from our day jobs (finance, in my case), manage or work on a project, and then return to our day jobs. One of the reasons this solution was so prevalent was that it was an excellent way of training future leaders.

If that sounds like a strange suggestion, let me fire up Mr. Peabody’s Wayback machine and describe when a senior manager’s path usually included managing a project and/or a large program as part of a standard promotional path. If you think about it, it was a brilliant way to test drive managers. Rather than inflict a potentially bad manager on a department or division staff, the project could serve as a safe trial run. If the person failed to deliver the result management wanted, or, more importantly, proved to be difficult to work for, they simply returned to their day job when they were done. If they excelled at the assignment, they were promoted.

If this was such a great system, why did it fade away? Business Process Reengineering (BPR) and the rise of IT (Y2K) changed the nature of project management. As the number of IT projects increased, the job requirements changed from being good at making difficult decisions to being able to follow a process.

So why should we care about the past? Because it offers a proven roadmap for making organizational change where and when it’s needed without a lot of overhead. It also gives today’s project managers some new opportunities.

The power of solving problems

The second way to increase agility is to understand that Agile DevOps (ADO) will never replace or eliminate the need for good project leadership. Does ADO produce software faster? From all reports, it does. But does it solve complex organizational problems? No — we still need people with the right mindset to make the required organizational change.

Since the start of modern project management, it has evolved to a point where we no longer have a group of people with a single motivation (solving tough problems quickly). Luckily, the Agile software development (ASD) transformation has delivered several good career alternatives to being a project manager, such as scrum master, product manager, or release train engineer. At the same time, ASD has freed the remaining project leaders from the stigma of being hide-bound bureaucrats (google images).

If you are a builder of human systems or a natural change agent who has felt limited by today’s project management processes, the future should appeal to you. It’s a little riskier than the job you have now, but most people are not planning on lifetime employment at a single company.

So what should you do if you want to become known as a successful change agent without giving up your current PM job? I recommend volunteering your skills to small efforts in other areas of your company. Yes, you will have to find a way to fit this into your current day, but consider it an investment in your future. Your goal is to become known as an individual who works well with others and knows how to get something done.

Intel (where I managed my first project) had a policy that encouraged us to pick a problem and get 3 to 4 other people (who were also affected by that problem) to work with us to solve it. It was officially part of our MBOs (now known as OKRs), and it solved two problems. First, it increased our network and reputation (if we succeeded), and second, it solved small, annoying issues for the company.

How strong project leadership paves the way to change

Strong networking skills are not something every good project manager possesses. Luckily, there’s a solution available today that didn’t exist in the past, and that is either LinkedIn OR a working resource management system that includes the majority of employees.

I know we aren’t there yet. Companies still manage “resources” on spreadsheets instead of managing people’s assignments in a system that supports not only work assignments, but also skill development, learning, and career development.

If you want to solve the highest leverage “small problem” possible, consider choosing resource management. Why? Because when it’s done right, the business practices built around this tool can be the solution to oh-so-many problems. For example:

  1. The right people can be assigned to the right work for the right amount of time.
  2. People can truly be seen. Right now, the only way to know someone’s background is to go to LinkedIn. We, as management, continuously overlook the expertise we have in our own company. This is not only wasteful, but also causes unnecessary turnover.
  3. Reskilling and upskilling is actually fairly easy when you work with people and can plan career development as part of their job.
  4. When people are engaged, productivity goes up. This makes it possible to get strategy executed by sequencing the necessary work to match the people available to do the work.

With natural project leadership skills and the right people, revolutionary change is possible. And it can be done without triggering the change resistance we most often see associated with a BIG change. There’s an old saying about “never wasting a good crisis.” Covid-19 provided the crisis; adaptive project leadership and the right tools can deliver the change in a quiet, non-disruptive manner.

The best change leadership advice I have ever read was written in 400 BC and still pertains today:

“People take the great ruler for granted and are oblivious to their presence.
The good ruler is loved and acclaimed by their subjects.
The mediocre ruler is universally feared.
The bad ruler is generally despised;
Because they lack credibility, their subjects do not trust them.

On the other hand, the great ruler seldom issues orders.
Yet they appear to accomplish everything effortlessly.
To their subjects everything they accomplish is just a natural occurrence.”

Tao Te Ching-  Translated by Hang Hiong Tan, (with slight updates)

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