Why Projects Fail – Kotter Step 1/8 – Establishing A Sense Of Urgency

Perhaps unlike at any other point in history, today’s fact-paced global society is obsessed with change and the demands on organizations to change are great.  Now more than ever, your projects need to be successful and it seems everyone is talking about Why Projects Fail.  In Our Iceberg Is Melting, Kotter and Rathegeber use Penguins very effectively to convey how critical it is for “change” to be embraced and managed, as compared to the fear or apprehensive approach that many have when confronted with the need for change.   You need to avoid failure and being savvy about Change Management is a great way to improve your odds!

Change Management - Kotter Step 1

Establishing A Sense Of Urgency

Building on my previous post, we start this 8 part series where we will be looking at the Kotter Change Model and common pitfalls people run into throught each phase of the change manqagement process – important to understand that we are talking about “people change” and not ITSM from an ITIL perspective.  In the video above,  Kotter says that in over 70% of the cases where organizations needed to change, that they either did not try, tried and failed, or tried and succeeeded, but with results that did not meet expectations.  This poor track record of change cascades right down beyond a company’s vision and strategy, to large programs, projects, initiatives and activities – if you stop and think about it, that’s an extremely striking statistic.

When you look at those failures, quite often the wheels start falling off right at the beginning of the change activity.  An anology is often made to a burning bridge – and the need to convey, whether it be to a management team, an organization, a project team, a distinct group of stakeholders or key decision makers, that the time for action is now and that the moment must be seized! 

This means you have to figure out, who it is you need to communicate to for support — that support could refer to finances, resources or stature/power they hold in the organization that will be key if this project is to be successful.  Common catalysts for organizational change are things like declining market share, drop in profits or revenue.  Within projects, and quite often with IT Projects, that burning bridge could be the need for increased productivity, reduction of cycle times, obsolescence of legacy or non-supported application platforms or just a new version of something.

So what’s so hard? You communicate the reason why and people will accept it and just do it. Not that easy you say? You’re right — in fact over 50% of companies are said to fail in this first phase.  The reason why? Well, you may already know the reason. People.  People generally don’t like change.  They become very comfortable and complacent with what they are used to, and in particular if they have been using the system for a while, they may well have built up significant expertise and proficiency with those systems and processes.  People are fearful of change.  And you, the messenger of that change, may be seen as someone who is championing an outcome that is not to their benefit – that makes you the enemy.

Establishing A Sense Of Urgency

A fundamental characteristic of the human character is a tendancy towards procrasination.  Coupled with the element of fear of change mentioned above, what do you need to do to overcome it? Three Things.

1. Communicate     2. Communicate    3. Communicate

Sound easy? Well it actually can be, but you need to (as Nike would say) Just Do It!  The interesting thing about change however, you can’t necessarily expect people to change because of logic – that’s right – just because it makes sense, may not be enough.  There needs to be a connection with feelings and emotion too.

So what does this look like? Well, let’s say you’re trying to implement a project that will improve productivity by 30% but involves the rollout of a new software package, and automating key processes that, up to now, have been largely offline/manual in nature.  The group that will be impacted has a mix of backgrounds, but you know some will be more challenged to adopt to the new system than others.  What’s your approach?

It could start by talking about the customer, and the positive impact it will have on them if we are able to successfully implement this project – how you might delight them!  You would want to talk about the impact if this project were not executedwhat it would mean if we disappointed them.  That your competitors would be in a position to steal market share, as they would be able to service the customer more effectively, which would decrease revenue and put the company in a position where they either could not afford or would not have time to adapt systems, and utlimately might mean a reduction in workforce.  These emotional connections are important.

Whatever the reasons happen to be in your situation, your job is to ensure the messaging is clear. Hold a townhall type of meeting – 1:1’s with key individuals if required.  Be clear to articulate as much what is not the reason for the project, as you do with what they are – in many cases, people are fearful of having their job replaced.  If that is not the intent, be sure to state it!  And of course, if success may involve headcount changes, you don’t want to communicate the opposite.  What you can say, may be limited, but at all costs, you have to maintain the atmosphere of trust, respect and integrity so that future change efforts are not compromised.   

Regardless of the scope of the change activity, and if you consider the typical project - you want to make sure your stakeholders are honestly convinced that business-as-usual is totally unacceptable.  Techrepublic has some Stakeholder Assessment resources that might help you with identifying all relevant individuals.  For those Six Sigma practitioners, Stakeholder Analysis is a fundamental tool and step used in the initial stages of project scoping and initiation.  I recommend this link where the blog author does a good job going through the background around this activity.  Here also, is a Video, Our Iceberg Is Melting where John Kotter explains the “penguin metaphor” in detail, as it relates to his framework for Change Management.  It should set you up for the next installments nicely…

Tomorrow we move to Step 2 – Forming A Powerful Guiding Coalition in our journey.  Come back and visit me then – in the meantime, really interested to hear about your experiences, successes, failures or things you would have done better.  What worked for you? Tell us about it…

Liked this post? Browse through all my posts here. Thanks…Pedro

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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