If you want the forest to flourish, don’t rip up the trees: the people factor in project management
June 26, 2023 |
8 min read
Who needs to think and care about people when you have best practices to run projects with?
When looking at commentary on LinkedIn, Harvard Business Review or attending industry conferences, people certainly seem to be both the key issue and the core enabler of a successful project. The difficulty comes in applying these ideas to your project and organization.
Everything that happens in projects is based on the relationships between people, both positive and toxic. People are messy, complex and ever-changing – and there is no rulebook for how to handle this; you can’t put “how to do it” in a nice, neat box.
Living and working through the Covid-19 pandemic made us see the system we live in and really highlighted things we took for granted: for example, what happens simply by sitting next to someone, reading the person and building trust when running a project.
Today, there’s an increased rate of change happening which means ever-shorter periods of “business as usual” and the increasing need to evolve continuously.
This demands a different mindset and, in our hybrid working world, we need to be a lot more deliberate about how we interact with others in change initiatives.
The value – and limitations – of best practice
Best practice methods, while fundamental to and a brilliant springboard for managing projects and programmes, are only part of delivering successful change.
Learning from previous projects and adopting best practice is important to successful projects, but understanding the people involved is critical. Managers need to know the people they’re working with their skills, organizational relationships, and team dynamics. Without this, and relying solely on processes, you risk expending unnecessary energy trying to move people into places they don’t fit.
Instead, process should follow people: when you pay attention to how people work and modify processes to match them, they’re more likely to follow. This is not negating the role of best practice but recognizes the need to contextualize it for your project and organization.
This is about ensuring processes make sense to everyone and developing the mindset that processes can change. Although it is tempting to see non-conformance as bad behaviour that needs fixing, often it is a reflection that the system isn’t working. In fact, it’s probably a reason why the organization wants and needs to work differently.
So, leaders should cultivate a deep curiosity – operating more like anthropologists and ecologists than ‘command and control’ militarists – to put their energy in the right place. But how do they do that?
Understanding the roots of the organization and how they work together
The model of ‘command and control’ leadership often used by organizations stems from the military and needs of the industrial age. Its associated mechanistic and sometimes warlike language tends to view people as interchangeable cogs in a wheel.
If we think about change projects and programmes as forests, this traditional approach of seeing people as interchangeable is the equivalent of ripping trees up and transplanting them without regard to the deeply interconnected roots and mycelium which exist beneath the surface, leaving leaders to wonder why they aren’t flourishing.
In a business context this equates to the shadow organization – described by William Tate as the “often disagreeable, messy, crazy and opaque aspects of your organization’s personality”.
In the shadow organization, over time, a complex ecosystem of fluctuating relationships evolves independent of the formal structures. Delivering a successful project relies on recognizing these relationships and ensuring that new ways of working remain aligned with how people are working.
Therefore, the leader becomes more of a forester than a commander: seeking to understand how things work below what’s visible on the surface, building a shared understanding, and minimizing how much they interfere with how people want to work. This has the added benefit of expending less energy and investment to get a better result.
Essentially, this is about minimizing the gap between what leaders and managers formally believe and what is happening in reality to achieve more effective change.
How to harness the people factor for successful change initiatives
The change advisory business Innovisor cites the 3% rule, which says that 3% of people in an organization are the key to influencing, on average, 85% of all employees.
They are key stakeholders who sit across boundaries and can often be found communicating at the water cooler, creating connectivity and shaping the perception of the majority by being knowledgeable in their areas and trusted by their peers.
A good leader needs to know who the 3% are at any given time and to co-create change with them: being curious about their feedback, responding to it and ensuring that the way the project is established supports relationship building through regular, purposeful meetings. This way, there is a shared understanding of the project which is supported by the majority.
This is where a listening/learning culture works over command and control. With the latter, you may think you’re controlling through dictatorial edicts from the top; but they tend not to filter down and people hold on to their own ways of working.
When change is imposed without respect for or listening to people, it’s more likely to fail.
This doesn’t means it should be unstructured and chaotic, but it must be people-led.
The benefits of people-led change
Developing a people-led approach focused on key relationships improves the adoption of a project’s products and the validity of the benefits achieved.
In turn, co-creation enables and empowers people to evolve their own processes incrementally, which is preferable to conducting huge transformation programmes that affect well-being.
And this takes a lot of pressure off the leadership: rather than constantly micromanaging change and putting people in boxes which leads to disengagement or people leaving the organization, it frees up leaders to focus on the macro landscape and issues.
Empowering the “mycelium” of the organization means leaders move into a different role which is a much nicer place to be: metaphorically “walking through the forest” talking to people rather than “ripping up trees”.
 Working with the shadow side of organisations – Developing HR Strategy, William Tate (Croner, May 2005).