By Tania Melnyczuk and Marius Cloete
When we train Project Management in an organisation, a successful first workshop will leave management and participants with a growing sense of discomfort.
This is typically a good thing. Our experience is that the greater the discomfort and the greater the determination to face it, the greater the probability of meaningful change and financial reward for the organisation.
In this article we explain the origin and significance of this discomfort, and provide advice for leaders in respect of the next steps.
What the discomfort signifies
Assuming that the training was delivered with integrity, the nature of the discomfort experienced by the participants during the aftermath is strongly linked to the loyalty and responsibility they feel towards the organisation. For some, this loyalty may express itself as resitance to change; for others, it may translate to the exact opposite. Change may even be resisted or welcomed based on ulterior motives. Whichever way, there will be turbulence.
Project Management is an organisational discipline, and implementing Project Management is an organisational change project. As such, it is also a systems change project, subject to the principles of systems change.
Although changes should be rolled out incrementally, the overarching process is much bigger than just learning to use a software tool, or introducing a new rule or a step-by-step method for planning. Discomfort at the end of a direction-setting workshop means that the participants have begun to fathom how big the change actually is.
Where the discomfort comes from
In this section, we refer to three concepts:
- Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System
- Turbulence of change
- Cognitive dissonance and cognitive bias
Leverage Points: Why implementing Project Management is a big thing
Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in “leverage points.” These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.
Thus begins Donella Meadows’ seminal essay on leverage points. Meadows lists twelve places to intervene in a system in increasing order of effectiveness:
12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).
11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.
10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).
9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.
6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).
5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
3. The goals of the system.
2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.
1. The power to transcend paradigms.
Changing things at Level 12 is relatively easy; changing things at Level 11 is usually a bit harder, but has a greater impact; changing things at Level 10 is often even more difficult, and so on, all the way to Level 1, where changes are the most difficult, but have the greatest impact.
Implementing Project Management usually requires focused work to start at Level 2 or 3 (the mindset or paradigm, and the goals of the system) before changes are implemented at other levels. This is because the assumptions and the direction that created the status quo should be thoroughly examined to determine whether they take into account the realities of moving forward. If a leader decides to skip this step and make changes at, say, Level 5 (though a new KPI system, for example), the organisation may simply work towards its own demise with greater efficiency.
Turbulence of change: It’s inevitable
The discomfort experienced by participants is a systemic phenomenon. Elisabeth Dostal explains it like this at the Biomatrix Systems Theory Web site:
As soon as change is introduced in a system, the counterclockwise change is activated and resists the intended change. Turbulence arises.
The more radical the change that is introduced in a system, the greater will be the resistance from the current configuration of each force of organisation and the greater will be the turbulence.
Clearly, a change at Level 2 or 3 is going to create greater turbulence in an organisation than a change at Level 12!
The turbulence is aggravated if the introduced change is not coherently designed (i.e. is not a clockwise design involving all seven forces of system organisation). For example, by changing an organisational structure without changing the organisational culture (i.e. ethos) accordingly, the system will become destabilised. The old order is disturbed, but the change is insufficient to allow the system to settle into a new order.
Changing the organisation’s culture doesn’t happen just because someone put a framed print of the organisation’s mission above the reception desk. It takes careful design.
There is no transformation without turbulence.
Knowing this should comfort anyone who experiences the discomfort.
The transformation of a system is complete when the counterclockwise force of change reinforces the clockwise one.
This serves as a message for the organisation’s leaders: it will take focused effort to bring about the change. The leaders themselves will not remain unaffected, as they are part of the system.
Cognitive dissonance and disruption of cognitive bias
The growing sense of discomfort experienced after a direction-setting workshop is typically the result of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the state of psychological discomfort that arises when our minds begin to hold two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time.
Cognitive dissonance happens when we have to face the most brutal facts of our current reality, and we vascilate between denial and acceptance.
In Good to Great, Jim Collins writes:
You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
Managing systems change is often counterintuitive. This doesn’t mean that it is illogical. It just feels that way sometimes, because it requires us to challenge our usual cognitive biases.
Cognitive biases are irrational ways of thinking that help us to feel safe. When faced with cognitive dissonance, cognitive biases provide us with familiar, easier thinking patterns to deal with the pain. Cognitive biases can lead good leaders to make bad decisions.
In particular, false pattern recognition often plays a role in making the wrong choices. False pattern recognition plays out in many ways. For example:
“We did a project like this before, so if we just get in more trained people, we should be able to handle ten of these projects at once.”
“This is similar to when we put in a new organisation-wide financial system, and we got through that OK, so we’ll be fine with this Project Management implementation thing.”
In both examples, the person making the statement has failed to spot key differences between the situations being compared. False pattern recognition causes good leaders to make crucial errors in judgement.
Safeguards to defend against the risk of error
In Think Again, Finkelstein et al. identify four red flags that represent sources of errors in thinking:
- Misleading judgements
- Misleading experiences
- Inappropriate self-interest
- Inappropriate attachments
To conteract these sources of error, four types of safeguard are identified:
- Experience and data
- Group debate and challenge
All four safeguards are important. For example, without group debate and challenge, the other three safeguards are insufficient. In a culture of fear, meaningful group debate and challenge are impossible.
Dealing with the discomfort
The worst way to handle the discomfort is to sweep it under the carpet, i.e. to go back to business as usual after the workshop as though nothing happened. Getting training to bring about change, and then not changing, leads to cynicism within a team, leaving participants worse off than before they caught a glimpse of what might be.
When a leader senses cognitive dissonance after a direction-setting workshop, it’s highly likely that participants have started to feel a disconnect between the feelings and convictions they expressed at the workshop and what they feel now.
At this point, post-workshop discussions may include statements like:
“I know we all said that, but we didn’t really mean it was that bad.”
“The facilitators made it look like we…”
“We actually do work as a team and we do most things right! We just have to…” (followed by a recommended software product, technique or rule representing a low-impact leverage point).
When this happens, leaders have the opportunity to direct and tap into the energy brought about by the turbulence. The goal should not be to downplay or quench what is happening, but rather to keep it in an energising, value-producing state for as long as is needed to provide a thrust towards change. It is in this situation where the resoluteness and positive support of the leader will be most visible, and where the boundaries of the new pursuit are drawn.