Managing change: Why is the people element so often ignored in project management?

By Sandra Sheppard | 12 December 2014

An organisation’s strategy is first and foremost influenced by the external context and environment. Internally, structure, processes and also culture play a key role in effectively delivering what the business aims to achieve. Of these factors, culture is often the least understood and typically less well managed. Since culture is driven by the collective behaviour of individuals, it is hard to "enforce” or quantify.

Project elements that aim to influence individuals and align culture with organisational strategy regularly fail. Sometimes poor execution can be blamed, but often the problem is the misconception that human decision making is mainly influenced by facts and therefore rational. That, unfortunately, is not the case. We form opinions on people we meet within seconds, without having assessed their credentials, and use similar biases for pretty much every decision, from choosing what socks to wear to which car to buy.

Rather than being the sum of our accumulated knowledge, we are the sum of our accumulated experiences. These are stored in the subconscious, non-rational part of our brain to which we have no direct access.

The good news is that advances in neurological mapping are helping social science and psychology researchers to better understand what shapes our perceptions, opinions and decision making. Disciplines such as behavioural economics are translating these findings into an easier to understand catalogue of biases, which can be used to improve project performance in estimating, risk management, communication and change.

Embedding this knowledge as soon as possible is critical. As an inherently technical profession, project management mostly focuses on the technical aspect of work. Recent attempts to get to the bottom of the astounding failure rate of projects have likewise focused on the quantifiable aspects of project methodologies and almost totally ignored the people factor.

Yet a project is delivered by, and for the benefit of, people. So improving our understanding of biases, buy-in, decision making and culture needs to be treated with the same priority as quantitative project methods. Fact-based decision making is less factual than we might think if the people element is ignored.

Take attracting buy-in for projects. Improving buy-in and involvement from the business can often be influenced by what are known as “external primers”. An external primer can be something like a physical event, verbal cues or environmental conditions – all of which can change the way we judge an idea or relate to a person.

Warmth, for instance, can influence people’s perceptions and whether or not they consider someone likeable. Research by John Bargh of Yale University showed that people judged others to be more generous and caring after briefly holding a warm cup of coffee rather than a cold drink. Similarly, sitting on hard chairs made for rather uncompromising behaviour during price negotiations. Another interesting piece of research, by Inbar et al. (2012), used external primers to influence how conservatively a test group responded to moral concepts or social groups.

Conducted at a time when the mass media were full of reports of swine flu, the researchers used visual prompts (hand sanitisers next to where participants filled in their questionnaires) and verbal cues to remind people to wash their hands. The aim was to create a subconscious “danger/disgust” response in the participants’ amygdala – the part of the brain that plays a primary role in decision making and emotional reaction – leading them to judge other social groups or moral concepts more harshly.

Naturally, not everybody starts from the same conservative viewpoint and equally not everybody has the same propensity to accept change. This paradigm of conservatism towards change and new ideas is explained in Roger’s (1969) ‘Diffusion of Innovation’ theory. The model uses a scale to understand the percentage of a given sample group that will adopt an innovation and therefore embrace change. Some of us are inventors and early adopters (16 per cent); at the other end of the spectrum are the laggards. But the biggest two groups, each with 34 per cent, are the early and late majority. In order for a change project to reach critical mass (the moment when change momentum becomes a force of its own), about 20 per cent of the population need to have been converted. For groups that have a positive propensity to change, external primers might not be as relevant. But if the aim is to create more momentum among the late majority, external primers may help create a more favourable perception. So project managers and change professionals should bear these variables in mind when it comes to getting buy-in for a project from the wider organisation.

Nothing can replace the need for careful planning, but communicating at the right time, with the right verbal cues and in a deliberately chosen setting, can greatly increase your chances of being heard and accepted. So next time you walk past a hand sanitiser on your way to a planning session, take note. Remember when getting buy-in for an unconventional change initiative that news reports focused on an economic calamity will make your audience more conservative, so ensure that people are comfortable, provide coffee and turn off the TVs!

By Sandra Sheppard, senior project manager, Certeco


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