Decisions · Idea management · Leading change · Reflection

Would you hire a project manager to plant a tree?

Many great ideas fall on deaf ears. So organisations bring in project managers to make sure we implement good ideas properly.

Good project managers define and clarify the idea, break the idea into features and then deploy the features into production. But quite often, people just don’t make use of the shiny new features they have been given.

Which is another way of saying that the great idea fell on deaf ears. So some organisations bring in change managers (and trainers and technical writers) to make sure people understand the new idea.

Good change managers make sure that the project is visible to stakeholders, supported by the important stakeholders and that the features being deployed are explained properly to the users. But quite often, the users go back to their old ways after a week, or they complain about the new features and the “stupid” projects that created them.

Which is another way of saying that the great idea fell on deaf ears.  So what goes wrong? Why do so many good ideas fail to get adopted?

The first problem is probably that good project managers focus on delivering what they have been told to deliver – So they focus on efficient delivery.

But planting a seed doesn’t mean that a healthy plant will grow from it. And expecting a project to lead to real change and then asking people to focus on the efficient delivery of its features into production is like exactly like wanting a plant to grow, and then optimising the process of putting the seed in the ground.

It may be necessary to plant the seed, but it is not sufficient.  Imagine if your gardener reported that seeds were:

“planted really well, imbedded precisely 1.7234cm under the soil, meeting the budget of 20c per seed and with a turn around time of under 2 seconds per seed”.

Would you really feel confident that your garden would flourish? To get a plant to grow, we need to at least prepare the soil so that it accepts the seed. And this is why some organisations bring in a specialist change manager.

Unfortunately, I think second mistake we make. We often see change management as a process of preparing the organisation for us to deploy a new set of features on a project.

Ask a gardener how to grow, for example, a tomato plant. They know it is necessary to prepare the soil and plant a seed. But their explanation will not focus on these aspects.

A helpful gardener will talk about the need for sunshine (but not too much), or how much water the plants will need. They might talk about different types of tomatoes that grow in different climates or the need to protect the plant from aphids.

In fact very little of what the gardener talks about involves “implementing” the plant (ie putting the seed in the soil). Most of the advice will be about sustaining the plant after it is “implemented”.

OK, I will admit that gardeners have the advantage of being around to monitor and assist the plant as it grows. But most project managers move on when the project ends.

So, can we expect projects to make change when the project team moves onto planting the next idea, just when the current idea is starting to bud in the soil?

Some project managers get around this problem by deciding that “I am responsible for implementing the project plan, but the sponsor is responsible for realising the benefits”. Some project managers even grow cynical after watching their good work go to waste and blame the “stupid users”.  Comfortable conclusions for the PM I guess.  It means the PM can plant the seed in rocky soil and walk away while the seed inevitably dies.

Unfortunately though, in modern organisations even the sponsor of the project often moves on. With so many restructures and shifting organisational needs, there is no guarantee that any of the executives or project team will be in the same role for long after the project is completed.

And since most projects cost more than the price of a tomato plant, it seems strange to me that people are happy to spend all that money without knowing how the benefits will be realised.

Again, we can blame the organisation, or the senior managers. And maybe they should do more in the area of benefit realisation.

But there are concrete things the project team can do to ensure that those seeds that are planted are going to grow.

My last few articles have been about assessing the environment before “planting any seeds”.  So rather than “preparing the soil” we can make a realistic assessment about what elements in the environment will help or hinder the implementation of our projects (by “implementation” I mean real implementation – adoption by the users, not just deployment into production).

This allows us to modify the seed we are planting (say by planting a sapling, or planting the seed in early spring etc) and it also helps us to understand the real factors that will help or hinder the ongoing adoption and growth of the idea over time, even as the seasons change with restructures and new project.

But the final reason why I think great ideas fall on deaf ears is the sheer complexity of the environment into which the idea germinates. As a result, project teams are overwhelmed by the sheer number of possible factors that they might take into account in the short time they have to plant their seeds.

So we must now tackle ways to sort through the information we gather, to really focus on those key areas that will support the adoption and growth of our ideas after we deploy our project into production.


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