Skip to main content

Resilience – Thriving in Change

Everything is subject to change. Nothing stays the same. To expect that it will is a delusion that leads to much suffering.

The ability to thrive in the face of change, particularly organizational change, and the uncertainty that comes with it, is critical to success in project management.

Managing Change

There are many types of projects across many organizations. The example here is one slice. The more you bring to mind your own situation, the more you will be able to see how you can improve the way you manage change.

Marv is the manager of a large process improvement program. Its goal is to improve the performance of an organization. He works with Jane, the senior executive responsible for the “target” organization. As the program began, Marv and Jane understood that they were going off into unchartered territory. No organization-wide major process change had been attempted for decades. They also understood that the current operation must continue uninterrupted and that substantial changes in policy, regulations, economic conditions, budgets can arise at any time to cause changes to their project’s goals and constraints.

They recognized the need to manage the change in business units and the need to manage changes at the program and project level.

Marv and Jane assessed the capacity of the people who would be implementing the process change and those who will be living with the results – several thousand people in line operations, middle management, project management and at executive levels. They concluded that a few key people were open to change and rational in their expectations. Many were “uncertainty averse.” They liked or needed things to be stable, definitive and predictable. Some had expectations of Nirvana by the target date of the program.

Change Management Strategy

A change management strategy was formulated:

  • Stakeholders would be eased into an acceptance of uncertainty and an understanding of their responsibility to adapt
  • Incremental planning and control would minimize the probability and impact of the disruptive change in operations using risk management, project control, pilot projects, focus groups, and incremental implementation. It would also set rational expectations about the outcome
  • Training, procedures development, and regular communication would give stakeholders a sense of what they can expect and what is expected of them
  • There would be transparency regarding changes and their impact
  • There would be recognition that the change, to be truly effective, would have to become institutionalized after several years of effort

The leadership team budgeted and planned for putting their change strategy into action. They made it an integral part of the program. Jasmine was assigned as Organizational Change Management Lead. Her role was to work with project managers, training, QA, communications, IT and others to create communication channels and content, discussion forums, training programs, procedures management, and the other components of a change management process.

Degree and Frequency of Change

Marv and Jane were wise to give change management the attention it deserves.

There are varying degrees and frequency of change in a project. Some changes are small or have been anticipated and have little impact. For example, a simple change in requirements. A few of these every so often are easy to manage. When allot of them come quickly, one after another, then things become more challenging. Other changes are more profound. They may cause you to radically change your plan or cancel the project. For example, major loss of budget, policy changes, changed key stakeholders, etc. When these are frequent, you are pretty much rudderless in the rapids of a fast-moving river.

In addition to changes that impact the project or program, there is organizational change, the change that impacts people when their roles, processes, values and environment change. Individuals have varying degrees of ability to accept and work with change.

As project managers, you are responsible for both keeping your boat, the project, afloat and minimizing undesirable change and disruption. To do this, you need resilience coupled with the leadership abilities required to keep all the stakeholders (including yourself) calm and able to respond rather than react.

How Do You Do That?

There is no simple answer, no off-the-shelf methodology or magical 10 step program you can follow. Though, there are capabilities, understandings, and guidelines that you can apply.

These begin with cognitive readiness and resilience.

“Cognitive readiness is the mental preparation (including skills, knowledge, abilities, motivations, and personal dispositions) an individual needs to establish and sustain competent performance in the complex and unpredictable environment of modern military [project/business] operations.” John E. Morrison J. D. Fletcher, INSTITUTE FOR DEFENSE ANALYSES (IDA), Paper P-3735 Cognitive Readiness, p ES-1]

Competent performance in the midst of change is resilience – able to adapt gracefully to change. It is a quality needed by any person or group “who must adapt quickly to rapidly emerging, unforeseen challenges.” 

Researchers have identified the capabilities that enable cognitive readiness and resilience. They boil down to:

  • a systems and process perspective to promote objectivity and awareness of the big picture and the details
  • the ability to manage emotions and work well with others
  • an open mind
  • the intention and capability to facilitate collaborative problem solving and decision making to drive appropriate situation action.

These capabilities are founded on mindful awareness.

As I point out in my new book, Managing Expectations, there is the possibility to set rational expectations in a planning process that includes the acceptance of uncertainty and change.

Putting these elements together we have guidelines for resiliently managing change:

  • Set rational expectations (especially the expectation that everything is subject to change) and manage them as the project unfolds.
  • Acknowledge that an effective plan with its tasks, schedules, resource assignments and budget, is subject to change
  • Manage the plan as the project unfolds – refine estimates based on a review of assumptions and actual results.
  • Continuously manage risk to identify, assess, plan for and control the change events that can be predicted and to remember that there are risks that will not be identified until they appear, usually at the most inconvenient time.
  • Communicate frequently to inform stakeholders about the organizational changes they can expect and how those changes will be facilitated.
  • Take a step back regularly to assess and report on how the project “looks and feels” – where you are, where you are likely to be going, the health of relationships, budget, etc.
  • Cultivate cognitive readiness and resilience in the entire organization through training and regular dialog that addresses process and systems thinking, attitudes, mindfulness, emotional issues, change management, problem-solving and decision-making process.
  • Have the courage to ‘let go’ of fear when you are faced with disruptive change so you can apply your skills, experience, and intelligence most effectively.

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.

Comments (2)