For such a complex process, change management can be modeled mathematically using basic and remarkably simple assumptions, or rules. The Nobel prize winner, Thomas Schelling as done so.
The sequence below shows segregation occurring where each red and blue dot is a “person” and they each want to live next to at least 2 neighboring dots of the same color out of their 4 total neighbors, the result of the simple and apparently moderate rule is total segregation after a period of time. What’s fascinating is that an apparently minor rule or constraint leads to this level of change.
Number of neighbors that need to be of the same color:
- 1 neighbor – no segregation
- 2 neighbors – complete segregation
- 3 neighbors – complete segregation
- 4 neighbor – complete segregation
Fine. So what does this mean for change management? The lesson is that very small changes in people’s behaviors and preferences can drive enormous differences in outcome.
You can see the animated sequence here (note: if it doesn’t work you need to have Quicktime installed.)
See the full article from Atlantic Magazine here.
The Dead Hand is a wonderful historical narrative of the weapons of the Cold War and the negotiations to limit them. The term Dead Hand comes from the Soviet system to potentially automatically launch nuclear weapons in the event of attack. The book covers biological, nuclear and chemical weapons and is most interesting aspect is peeling back the layers of the Cold War negotiations, especially between Reagan and Gorbachev, demonstrating each sides’ perception of the other and what the reality was. The result is very interesting, showing how hard it is to read a negotiating partner accurately and how your own side’s actions and perspectives inevitably color your judgment. Recommended for anyone with an interest in recent history, though learning more about these weapons will likely result in you feeling worse rather than better about them.
Some really insightful data backed research on project management comes from Bent Flyvbjerg. He’s originally from Denmark, but now at Oxford University’s business school. You can see a good summary of his research here, and he has a name that’s pretty easy to find on Google.
His recent article in Harvard Business review explains why projects can be subject to the black swan problem.
And a number of his publications discuss the problems of inaccurate cost estimates, especially in public projects, but here is a good summary of reference class forecasting.
Project management is often a fairly practical subject, and so it’s interesting to see the level of deep, theoretical rigor that Flyvbjerg brings to the topic.
Walter Kiechel III in the Lords of Strategy writes about two topics one narrow and uninteresting the second engaging. The first topic is a history of management consulting and the people involved in it. It’s not terribly interesting. Firstly the people aren’t explored in much depth beyond their educational backgrounds and mentors and the history of McKinsey, Bain and BCG is a rather esoteric subject anyway, unless perhaps you happen to work for one of those firms. The goal is to paint consultants as pioneering thought leaders in crafting the discipline of strategy, but it feels forced and the case is hard to defend anyway, as the formative years of BCG seem the only evidence of a consultancy truly advancing academic thought around business, and in fact, later in the book those ideas are shown to be fairly simplistic, bankrupting many of the clients who used them.
Fortunately the second topic the salvages the book. It is a history of the evolution of thinking on corporate strategy and this is interesting, obejctive and well charted. Starting with the experience curve and the portfolio strategy and moving on through Porter’s models, core competencies and change management. Also, fortunately, though the focus on management consultants is overdone, the ideas they propose are analyzed objectively. Even here the premise of the book is little off – the claim is corporate strategy originated with the rise of management consultants, yet the ideas of Adam Smith (late 1700s) , Frederick Winslow Taylor (late 1800s), Peter Drucker (1940s) Alfred Chandler (1960s) are all identified as key tenets of the thinking so the claim is hard to defend even with the book’s own reasoning.
Net if you’re looking for a good summary of the history of thinking on corporate strategy, this is not a bad place to look, especially since, as the book itself argues, academic synthesis on the topic is uncommon. You do have to put up with the repeated and painful insertion of the history of McKinsey, Bain and BCG throughout which takes up space rather than contributing, but seeing the progression of thinking on corporate strategy will likely further your understanding of the overall topic.
“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Harry S. Truman
What do you care more about: getting results or retaining ownership?
Innovations throughout history are sometimes viewed as literally impossible by the people who didn’t create them and have most to lose from their success:
In 1830 when the French King sent an engineering expert to observe the fast British steam train the Rocket, he declared it impossible, not understanding the developments in boiler design. (source Tony Judt’s book Memory Chalet)
According to Electronista the makers of the Blackberry thought “The iPhone “couldn’t do what [Apple was] demonstrating without an insanely power hungry processor, it must have terrible battery life,” … “Imagine their surprise [at RIM] when they disassembled an iPhone for the first time and found that the phone was battery with a tiny logic board strapped to it.”
Just as we have trouble assessing risk, we also have problems assessing what is within the realm of possibility, especially when it conflicts with our own interests.
As much as the world is shrinking, timezones still matter. The chart below shows what proportion of the world lives in which time zone (with 0 as GMT/London). It’s a view of the world I wasn’t able to find, so I created it.
Old, but still relevant analysis of government IT project failure here on HBR. The six themes are familiar:
- Poor governance
- Lump sum funding
- Waterfall development
- Scope creep
- Automating too early
- Doing data cleanup too late.
It’s not a bad list, although I’m surprised to see waterfall development on there. There’s nothing inherently wrong with waterfall, and I suspect the issues relate more to scope creep rather than the methodology choice.
Listen More – As a project manager, you don’t “know” the status of the project, you merely hear it from all those working it, record and playback a snapshot. If you’re not listening you won’t understand if anything important has changed. Any opportunity to communicate, is an opportunity to listen.
Talk Less – If your status report is over a page, it’s probably too long. Your goal is to know the detail of the project, but only so that you can simply it to its key components for your audience.
Know Your Audience – Everyone’s needs are unique. If you find you’re giving the same presentation to more than one group of people, then you’re probably not tailoring it enough.
A study in the Journal of Applied Psychology showed much lower willingness to share negative information on a project as it got closer to completion. The study was done on undergraduate students with reference to a fictional project. If the project was only 10% complete then at least 6 out of 10 people would share negative information on the project. However at 90% completion fewer than 2 out of 10 people were willing to share bad news on the project.
- Supports the idea that many people are not comfortable sharing bad news.
- If people are going to share bad news, they will be more likely to do it earlier in a project, than when it’s closer to completion.
Actions You Can Take In Light Of This
- Do everything you can to encourage sharing of all information, not just the positive. This may take more time and prompting, but it will improve project success.
- Knowing that as projects progress, people will be reluctant to share bad news, probe on potential problems and risks early in the life of the project, and then set up ways to monitor them.