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From the Sponsor’s Desk – A Moment of Truth

In my last post, The Four Pillars of Successful Change Management, we witnessed the repercussions a retailer experienced when it decided to move its administrative staff from the downtown headquarters to a suburban setting to provide more retail space and reduce costs. Unfortunately, management failed to include three of the four change pillars in the cost/benefit analysis. They reaped the consequences.

In this post, we’ll look at a chance personal encounter (I call it a moment of truth) that changed the lives of two people for the better. The post isn’t about a project, or a major change. It’s about how individuals react when faced with change. As targets of a change, most often we find out as much as we can, collaborate with colleagues who are similarly affected, revise our practices accordingly and get on with our lives. However, in some situations, for any number of reasons, we ignore the change or fight against it and often suffer for our ignorance or intransigence. Sometimes, as in this case, all we need to move forward is the help and support from another person, to offer a different frame of reference for our consideration.

Thanks to M.D. for the details on this story.

The Situation

A manager at a wholesale business products company located in the mid-town of a large city was heading out for lunch this particular day. The area where the company was located had declined somewhat over the last decade and was now populated with charities and services catering to the down and out. Pan handlers were often seen sleeping, begging or haranguing passers-by.

As the manager headed down the stairs from his office building and onto the sidewalk, an individual sitting on the sidewalk (let’s call him the sidewalk guy, SG for short) reached out with his foot, tapped the manager on the ankle and asked him for a dollar for a coffee. That tap on the ankle caused the manager to stumble so he wasn’t feeling very charitable towards SG. He told him to get a job and walked past.

But then the manager paused. SG was young, late teens perhaps. What a waste. If the manager gave him money, he’d probably use it for booze or drugs. He might have some psychological or emotional problems. What could have caused this young man to be in this sorry situation? The manager turned around and approached SG. He told the SG he couldn’t give him any money but he’d be willing to buy him lunch. SG accepted the offer.

The Goal

It seems neither the manager nor SG had any specific goals in mind. The manager’s reaction was driven mostly by his values and his belief in a sharing, civil society. SG motives were perhaps a little simpler. He was being offered a free meal and he was hungry. Neither of them had any expectations beyond having lunch.

The Project (Lunch)

After SG accepted the lunch invitation, they walked side by side for a couple of blocks to a local burger place, entered and ordered burgers, fries and soft drinks. They took their trays to a vacant table for two, sat down and proceeded to eat. A couple of minutes in, SG said “Thanks man.” They started chatting.

The manager asked SG how he managed to get himself into this situation. SG retorted that the manager wouldn’t understand. From SG’s perspective, the manager had a good job, nice clothes, money to spend. The manager said “Try me”. So SG went into his life’s story. He partied too much, didn’t do well at school, wasn’t great at sports and didn’t have a lot of friends. The ones he did have liked to party too. He dropped out of high school in grade eleven, didn’t try very hard to get a job and just hung out. He stole from his parents to buy cigarettes, dope and alcohol.

Apparently SG’s parents tried everything they could think of to help him turn his life around but according to SG they were just meddling in his affairs. Finally, his parents gave him an ultimatum: clean up his act and go back to school or get a job. When he didn’t do either, they set a one week deadline – clean up or leave. Of course SG thought they were just bluffing. They wouldn’t kick him out. Unfortunately for SG, they weren’t bluffing. The week came and went with no change in SG’s behaviour so they helped him pack, gave him $100, wished him luck and showed him the door.

He’d been on the street ever since, more than six months. During that time, he’d stayed with friends until he’d outlived his welcome. He’d used up his cash long ago so pan handled on the street to pay his way. He slept in alleyways, in parks, in the local homeless shelter. He’d been attacked by thugs, had a tooth broken, visited the emergency department a couple of times. SG finished his story by stating again that the manager wouldn’t understand.

The manager paused to finish his meal and then told SG his story. The stories were eerily similar. The manager had done too much partying, messed up in high school and dropped out. Eventually he had been asked to leave his parents’ house. The key difference in the stories – the manager had managed to get a job. It was a low level job stocking shelves but it gave him the money he needed to support himself, pay his rent and regain his self-esteem.

When the manager and SG had finished their lunches, they exited the restaurant, shook hands and wished each other well. The manager gave SG a little pep talk and they parted company.

The Results

Over the next several months the manager kept an eye out for SG but he didn’t see him on the street again and eventually forgot about him. Five months after the lunch, the manager was in his office when he received a call from reception on the main floor. A gentleman was asking for him. He didn’t recognize the name. The manager asked the receptionist to show him up.

The receptionist ushered a well-dressed young man into the manager’s office. The manager got up from behind the desk, shook his hand and asked the visitor to sit. The manager asked the young man about the purpose for the meeting. The young man replied “You don’t remember me, do you”.

The young man was SG, transformed. SG told the manager that their discussion over lunch that day got him thinking about the future. He realized that his then current situation offered only misery. Although he didn’t really know how he was going to proceed, he made up his mind that he had to do things differently. He called his parents and asked for their help. He didn’t really know what to expect from them. He had put them through a lot of grief but they agreed to meet. He was welcomed with open arms and a few tears. He told his parents about the lunch and how that had been an awakening for him. SG and his parents chatted about his desires, his options and opportunities.

The bottom line: SG’s parents welcomed him home. He got a job at a local fast food restaurant. He enrolled in school and planned to graduate. His parents hired a tutor to help him improve his learning and study habits. He stayed away from drugs and had only an occasional beer. He reconnected with some old friends, ones that didn’t party to excess, and had a girlfriend, his first. He had become a new SG.

How a Great Leader Helped Change the World

I’m sure you’ve heard of the butterfly effect, where one small change in one place can result in large differences in a later state. That one act by the manager, an invitation to lunch, was the catalyst for SG’s transformation. It had a significant and beneficial impact on his life, and on his parents and friends. We don’t know what ultimately became of the new SG but we do know that his potential for success, enjoyment and influence improved immeasurably because of the manager’s action.

So, what does this all have to do with guiding projects and managing major change? Invariably, there are some folks who are negatively affected and have difficulty making the transition to a new, changed state. Change management disciplines aim to identify the change targets and develop strategies to help them make a successful transition. But still, some folks fall by the wayside. That can negatively influence the success of the change and the lives of those so affected. The manager in our story led by example. He took a chance. He saw an individual struggling. He invited that individual, who he did not know and would not normally have invited, to have lunch with him. In the end, the lunch was a vital opening for SG to change his ways. It also encouraged the manager to continue helping the troubled and down trodden.

So, if you find yourself in a similar situation, don’t hesitate to reach out. Don’t let anyone fall through the cracks. Regardless of whether you’re the sponsor, a change agent, a champion or another target of the change, keep your eyes and ears open and, if necessary, act. Start a dialogue. Listen. Try to help others make the transition to the new state. And, if you feel so inclined, offer to buy them lunch. The project will benefit and the world might be a better place.

In the interim, if you have a project experience, either good or bad, past or present, that you’d like to have examined through the Project Pre-Check lens and published in this blog, send me the details and we’ll present it for others to learn from and comment on. Thanks

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Drew Davison

Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, the author of Project Pre-Check - The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath - The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. He works with organizations that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at [email protected].

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