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Managing Change Programs: Apply Candid Communication, Conflict Resolution and Collaboration

When organizational change is treated like a program, it is more likely that there will be effective communication and collaboration.

Fail to communicate and collaborate and you will probably fail at whatever you are trying to accomplish.

Amazon’s recent pullout from the NYC campus deal is a wonderful case in point for how not to manage communication, conflict and collaboration. A deal that had the potential to add thousands of jobs and improve the health of NYC’s economy for decades to come fell apart because Amazon was unwilling to deal with the push back from vocal opponents to the plan and because the city and state leadership failed to engage critics in a dialogue that could have resolved the differences before the issue burst into street protests.

Both sides, the political leadership favoring the program and the local neighborhood anti-Amazon forces, have strong arguments supporting their positions. The error on the pro-deal side was to by-pass the local public and their political allies. The ‘antis’’ error was to dig their heels in and close off negotiations. All parties failed to identify common objectives.

Consider the Alternatives

This is no surprise in our era of black and white thinking fueled by hubris and ideology. We see similar issues unfolding on the national level and in projects and programs in all kinds of organizations. There are multiple interacting causes of this phenomena: a sense that communication and collaboration will take too much time and effort, overconfidence, lack of respect for the staff/public, inflexible ideology, and reliance on rhetoric instead of rational win-win decision making.

In the Amazon case, imagine if the deal makers considered the arguments on all sides and worked to create a deal that included accommodations for infrastructure and the disruption of the local neighborhood residents. What if the ‘antis’ looked out twenty years to assess the impact of bringing in industry to balance the city’s reliance on financial firms and to create long lasting jobs for the region?

Project Management Lesson: Open-minded, Inclusive Process

Lesson to be learned: when it comes to making meaningful change in complex environments, it takes open-minded, inclusive process to make significant decisions and win the support of as many people as possible. Avoid closed door deal making by bosses, designers and others who think they know best and that everyone will go along. Sell don’t tell. Shoot for consensus.

In a more positive example, a large organization was undergoing a significant reorganization driven by the CEO. The directive from the top was to centralize IT services for relatively autonomous business units, each of which had their own application development, tech support, and infrastructure & operations groups.

In this case, the people put in charge of the change by the CEO had the good sense to engage the people who would live with the change and make it work in the business and IT units. The leadership asked the staff for recommendations, engaged them in risk analysis and kept them in the loop by explaining the criteria they used to make the decisions and providing a time line. Phased implementations and focus groups were used to test the practicality of the new design and get more buy-in from the staff.

In this way a consensus was built. The result was a hybrid solution in which each business unit would retain a core team of project managers and business analysts (BAs) under the leadership of a Chief Process Officer. The BAs would have the skills to create workflow and BI applications using high-level codeless programming tools and application builders like SharePoint, Power BI and Tableau.

The central IT organization would be responsible for providing certified data, running computer operations, doing research and development, developing and/or acquiring software applications, providing support services and establishing security and other protocols. The business unit would be empowered to negotiate regarding priorities and strategies with the IT group leadership, thereby avoiding technology solutions that did not satisfy business needs and moderating the work so as not to overburden the IT groups. Enterprise level project management office (PMO) and steering groups were established above the IT and business units to ensure that decisions would be in the best interest of the enterprise.

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Skillful Communications and the Courage to Clarify Objectives

Coming to this hybrid approach took skillful, candid and courageous communication, with an emphasis on expectations and conflict management. Leadership at the top wanted centralization to save money, increase control, and simplify the organization structure. While ensuring that the business units were able to operate optimally was clearly an objective, it was not stated.

This initial ambiguity made it necessary to clarify what the CEO meant by centralization. One interpretation was that all IT related functions would be under the direction of the Chief Information Officer. Another was that the CEO was open to a solution that made good business sense, even though it was not fully centralized

It took courage for the change managers to step up and make it clear that the goal was not simply centralization. The overriding goal was to optimize business operations using IT capabilities in the most effective way. Once confronted, the top executives saw the need to go beyond overly simplified directives and to allow the change management team to paint a more accurate picture of the goal. This opened the organization to a practical solution.

Managing Conflict

Each major player had his/her own objectives. The leadership of the central IT group wanted control to prioritize and simplify the IT work, ensure technologically sound and cost effective solutions and to avoid an unmanageable array of different tools that all performed the same function. The business units wanted autonomy and the ability to optimize their performance with minimal reliance on a central group that they feared would be mired in bureaucracy. Senior executives wanted to maximize sustainable profits and minimize risks.

With clarity about goals and a willingness to find a win-win solution, it was easier to negotiate a solution that would satisfy all the stakeholders.

Make it a Program

From the start, the change management team made it clear that the effort was a program with several interlocking projects and ongoing operational activities. Making the change process a program and managing it professionally made it more likely that there would be clear and mutually agreed upon goals and objectives, effective planning, communications, control, collaboration and realistic expectations.

Combining candid communications and effective conflict management with a win-win collaborative approach and well managed expectations is critical to success. However, the change process would still be complex and subject to the changes and uncertainty that are natural in any project. Because this was recognized and acknowledged, expectations were rational and the change makers were in a position to adapt to reality as needed during the transition and afterwards during ongoing business operations.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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