Overcoming the culture of learned helplessness! Question of the Month – August 2015

published on 10/08/2015 by John Edmonds

The head of a Global Change Management Office writes…

“For some time now we have been witnessing an explosion of change across our business with projects still the main vehicle for delivery. In theory, our change managers are recognising and addressing subsequent communications and engagement challenges around the initiatives that are driving this change but in practice I’m not so sure! What can I do to address what I see as relationship issues?”

Yes, when it comes to actual practice there can often be a widespread culture of “learned helplessness”, where managers show a growing lack of confidence in their plans being met, and where failing to meet the business case is seen as usual.

Ask yourself: Is something missing? Perhaps you have been looking for answers in the wrong places. All too often the treatment of relationships with people within and around a change project is sporadic and marginal, a sort of afterthought from the ‘core’ issues of network diagrams, Gantt charts, work breakdown structures, user requirement specifications, and the like.

Many managers still seem to see the business of leading people, at best, as marginal to the challenge of driving change through. Engaging and influencing people is seen as a sort of sideshow to the ‘real’ practice of managing a project. At worst, it is dismissed as being too ‘soft’, an embarrassing subject to ‘proper’ business people, definitely not something to get in the way of ‘hard’ technical execution.

So what really happens if you ignore relationships on a project? What would happen if you didn’t do any significant engagement with people outside of formal progress meetings? You don’t need to look far for the answer. As a consequence many people who should be involved feel neglected. This encourages fear, and sometimes anger. Non-cooperation and resistance grows. The project may well be completed, the project manager moves on, feeling that they have delivered to contract. But what of the expected positive outcomes set out in the business case? These are usually absent and there is often a wave of resentment and poor performance in the wake of the project. Without attention to the people issues you can expect a host of problems to ensue.

You are not alone! A client once told us that his organisation decided to replace an internal stock fulfilment system that had become redundant to needs. So he went to one independently minded operations manager to explain the plan, how he would be impacted, how he would benefit and so on.  Not long into the conversation, he was interrupted with: “Oh well, we never did use the old system anyway!” I’m not sure which is more shocking; that this had only just come to light, or that the previous project never engaged with this manager. The result was that, although the previous system had been delivered, it had never been exploited in this area of the organisation, benefits had not been realised and the business case had not been met. But no one seemed aware of this.

Perhaps this is an extreme example but we have come across many other examples of poor engagement leading to delay, frustration, additional cost, and poor benefit realisation. Maybe the problem is less to do with core project management, but more to do with a lack of commitment around the project after it delivers, largely attributable to poor relationship management with key people.

Fortunately, the exact opposite also happens, when an organisation engages people early, ably and continuously – well before delivery in fact – when the best outcome is more likely. More than that, we have seen projects and their related operational changes exceed planned benefit realisation, particularly where key people around the project have worked creatively to identify and realise additional, unforeseen benefits.

These positive cases are where leaders engage people well, involving them appropriately and in a timely manner. Every one of these change leaders has clear idea of what they need from each person, during and beyond the project. They have a plan for taking people through the journey of the change. Those affected are treated with consideration and dignity, led to better places and supported along the way.

(If this resonates within your organisation and you would like to learn more about leading change or need some practical help and support with stakeholder engagement, get in touch!).

About The Author

John 2John Edmonds is our Director of Strategy and Marketing and Head of Training within the company, looking after the development of course materials and our team of excellent trainers. John has won himself many fans among delegates in the UK and internationally when delivering pearcemayfield courses such as PRINCE2, MSP and Change Management. He has helped a number of organisations to improve their project and programme management practices, and was a member of the team that authored the latest version of PRINCE2.

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