Association for Project Management
Three tips for adapting to cultural change projects
Blog posted by: James Elliott, 02 Sep 2021.
When the world was plunged into lockdown last year, project professionals had to adapt instantly to support a whole host of technical changes. Overnight, thousands of pieces of IT equipment needed to be shipped, remote collaboration tools needed configuring and cloud infrastructure had to be scaled at pace.
But, as businesses emerge from the pandemic, project professionals are being asked to deliver a whole different change agenda. With the widescale adoption of hybrid working, organisations are reassessing their ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ to fundamentally change their culture.
Managing this sort of change is an entirely different beast compared to traditional IT projects. Here are some of the key differences between cultural change and IT projects and how you can adapt to overcome them.
Gather consensus to define requirements
There is a wide range of different frameworks for eliciting technical requirements. Whether you head down the MoSCoW or Kano route, in the IT space, it’s easy to land on exactly what a change should or shouldn’t deliver and, crucially, how it will be done.
With cultural change projects, the route to defining and delivering a requirement isn’t as straightforward. Depending on whom you ask, the way to be ‘more flexible’ or ‘better engaged’ will be completely different – there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
The way to get closer to a defined cultural change requirement is to gather consensus. While it’s not practical to ask thousands of employees for their individual opinions, getting as many different points of view as possible creates a balanced view of how to meet the objectives.
For your project, this means an extended design phase with lots of workshops, surveys and focus groups. Remember to include employees at all levels of the organisation and factor in extra time to really understand their points of view.
Overcome resistance to change
Change theory should be on any good project professional’s reading list, allowing you to understand the journey employees need to go on. With cultural change projects, expect to see the ‘resistance to change’ dial cranked up to 1,000 as new ways of working are slowly adopted.
Depending on the scale of the cultural change, you’re shaking up the fundamental ways people do their work, engage with their colleagues and achieve success in their roles. Remember that, for some people, that’s pretty scary stuff, especially those who have enjoyed a fixed pattern of working for a long time.
Two-way communication is your best friend when working to break that resistance. Share as much as you can to bring all of your stakeholders along on that journey. Create a mechanism for everyone to ask questions, no matter how big or small. Doing this will make employees feel valued as you’ll be hearing their concerns, taking them on board and answering them respectfully.
For your project, this means doubling down on your communication workstream. Bring comms specialists into the project team to ensure the key messages, milestones and successes are communicated effectively.
Test and learn (but be firm)
Cultural change doesn’t happen overnight. You also don’t get it right first time because no one really knows the right solutions until you test and learn.
While the same can be true in the technology world, most of the work on a cultural change project actually starts after you’ve first gone live. Changing a fundamental part of your DNA takes time to bed in as people find their feet with a new way of working.
But as you test and learn, avoid the temptation to revert to past behaviours. Frustration and depression are well-documented phases of the change curve, and during those times, it’s so important to be firm and consistent with the changes you’ve made.
For me, this has been the most challenging part of working on cultural change projects in the past. As a project manager, stakeholders expect you to have all the answers and know precisely how to deliver the objectives. You have to be confident in the process of test and learn, striking a balance between committing to the change while being open to learning and adapting further in the future.
Many organisations across the world are reviewing the way they work following the pandemic. For many project professionals, supporting cultural change is an entirely different challenge compared to technology projects.
As a project professional, it’s important to remember that cultural change is a longer, less defined and highly emotional journey. It’s a more challenging change to manage, where you’ll need to lean heavily on your stakeholder management skills and get comfortable adopting a test-and-learn mindset.
- What is change management and organisational change?
- Changing culture to maximise enterprise value
- Introduction to Managing Change
About the Author
James Elliott is a project manager and writer from London, UK. When not working to deliver projects, James writes on a variety of business and project management topics with a focus on content that enables readers to take action and improve their ways of working. You can check out James’ work on his website or by connecting on LinkedIn. All opinions, comments and content represent James’ own personal views and not those of any other organisations he’s associated with.
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