Category Archives: Change Management

The Zen of Cultural Change

It is time to move from creating a more open government to sustaining open government. Yes, there is a lot more work to do in making agencies on all levels of government are releasing their data and becoming transparent. Governments have successfully picked the low-hanging fruit of opening up their datasets. It’s now time to change the culture of government, so openness, transparency, and collaboration are embodied in everything the government does. Ten years from now (if not sooner), government employees shouldn’t even have to wonder if they are open, transparent, and collaborative because the culture of the agency ensures that they are.

Culture is a natural byproduct of humans as social beings. We develop culture so we can get along, survive, and achieve goals. It is only natural we develop cultures at work because a large part of our waking hours is spent at work or thinking about work. A single person cannot have a culture; it takes interactions between each other to create a culture. But what exactly is culture?

There are many academic definitions for culture, but for our purposes, I prefer this simple definition: the way we do things around here. “We” come together in a defined group (e.g., IBM, HUD, Star Trek fans) and in a defined boundary such as a department, office, or online community (“around here”). We develop methods, practices, policies, etc. (“way”) that govern the actions (“do”) members of the culture take in response to “things” (issues, events, etc.) that we face as a culture. Essentially, organizational culture is how we collectively solve the problems we face every day in our work and life.

Thus, the resistance to changing the organizational culture. Problem-solving is hard and takes a lot of resources and effort. Humans are incredible at problem-solving, but they are also good at optimizing. We don’t like having to solve the same problems repeatedly, so we create things like writing, forms, email, databases, etc. These things embody the solutions we have created so that the next time the same problem shows up, we can solve it without having to think about it. We only give up our solutions when a demonstrably better solution comes along. And it better be a good solution if it has a chance of displacing the current solution.

Neon sign that says change.

Cultural change is not only possible, but it is necessary. Groups change, new events confront the group, and new problems face our culture. The reason why many intentional cultural efforts fail is that they don’t recognize the paradoxes of cultural change. This is what I can the Zen of culture because we blend many paradoxical ideas to develop culture. Here are three paradoxes that make cultural change difficult for those who do not first seek to understand the culture:

The culture is not the culture. There is no one culture but many cultures that people belong to. You may have an overall agency culture, but you also belong to the subculture of your department, the subculture of Redskins fans, the subculture of people who eat out for lunch, and so on. Some of these subcultures are easily changed, while others are ingrained in you. And how these subcultures interact to cause the resistance to change. For example, IT folks are often most open to new technologies while the law department would rather stay with the software, they have been using for the last 20 years because they have built many of their processes around how the software works.

We seek the novel and the safety of the familiar. Imagine a playground in an open field without fences. The children will often huddle together in the middle of the playground and are reluctant to wander out in the field. Now, put a fence around the playground. Then the children will often hang around the fence and are more willing to venture out in the open field. The setting of boundaries makes us adventurous. We have the safety of the fence we can run to between our adventures. Culture equals safety.

Culture remains the same by changing. Thanks to the Internet, many ancient religions are now being practiced today. Many Amish businesses use a personal computer in their business dealings with the outside world. Numerous monasteries sustain themselves by creating websites for clients. Cultural groups will often use new technologies or practices to maintain the current culture and its core beliefs. Championing change can be frustrating for a change agent when they see their innovation being used to defeat the intent of the change.

Launching Three Online Courses in the Fall

One free introductory course to project management, a paid course in advanced agile project management, and a paid course in marketing training courses in your organization.

After a successful training at the 2019 Drupal GovCon, I had several emails asking if I could send the training slides and materials to the people who missed the session. It was then that it hit me. And I am surprised why I didn’t think of this before.

Especially after teaching online for four different universities and training other instructors in online teaching for over 15 years. I suppose what led to my hesitation was not finding the appropriate teaching platform.

However, I have recently found a good online teaching platform and am ready to release three courses based on my books, articles, and presentations. Look for the course launches in late August/early September.

Hand pushing pin into a board that has cards connected by strings.

Small Project Management – My gentle introduction to project management. This free course is great for those who want to get into project management but don’t know where to start. This course is based on a free guide that I authored in 2012. Since then, I have given this course to government offices and nonprofits.

Lean Scope Project Management – I created this project management method by combining design thinking with agile project management. This is an extreme project management to create novel products or services quickly and with heavy customer input.

I first designed this method in 2014 and continually update it as I continue to learn from managing projects. Participants will this course useful in helping execute on their world-changing ideas.

New Ways to Market Training – This training is based on my experiences in marketing training courses in organizations. It was surprising to me that there is very little guidance on how to market training courses to internal audiences. What is unique about my training course it deals with using the latest social media and workplace digital collaboration tools for marketing.

More details as we come closer to the course launch dates.

Goaling Too Far – When Following a Goal Destroys Innovation

In my latest column for PA Times Online, I wrote about why innovation in the public sector is challenging. Public sector innovation (and innovation in general) is an emergent process in that new ideas build on previous innovations. However, as research has found, there is not a direct path to change. The indirect and surprising ways invention occurs was the basis for James Burke’s Connections series. I highly recommend watching the episodes available on YouTube.

The typical way that innovation occurs is that a vision of the new product, service, or method is created. Then, a program is launched to achieve an innovative goal. It’s a proven formula that works. Think of the major U.S. government projects like creating the atomic bomb, building the interstate highway system, and landing people on the Moon. There is a mix of moving directly toward the goal while taking advantage of unexpected side routes.

So, how to harness the power of emergence with its sudden leaps in the service of steady progress toward a goal?

One way is to recognize the symptoms of destructive goal pursuit. Dr. Kayes examined Mt. Everest expedition disasters to explore the destruction caused by a single-minded pursuit of goals. He called the intense focus on an objective, goalodicy. There are four limitations to the goal-setting process:

  • Goals are difficult to abandon.
  • Goals limit learning.
  • Goals increase risk-taking.
  • Pursuing goals may lead to unethical behavior (p. 50).

The warning signs of goalodicy are the acceptance of a narrowly-defined goal, high public visibility, pressure for face-saving behavior, an idealized future with few or no problems, pursuing the goal is the goal itself, and that achieving the goal is destiny (p. 76). The best way to overcome goalodicy is for leadership to encourage learning and questioning. Leadership also needs to encourage taking advantage of the unexpected to find new ways to achieve the goal or even modify the goal.

Stanley and Lehman (authors of Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned) wrote that “[b]eing open and flexible to opportunity is sometimes more important than knowing what you’re trying to do.” The goal is essential but allow for feedback and recalibrating the goal when necessary.

It is easy to fall into the goalodicy trap because people, teams, and organizations fear uncertainty. As Patrick Hollingworth wrote: “Kayes suggests that uncertainty prompts us to idealise the future, insisting that we tell ourselves that everything will be OK, just as long as we can reach this projection of the future (italics in original).” In my next posting, I will explore how to manage the effects of uncertainty on innovation.

Why Communicating Understanding Is Vital to Project Managers

As a practicing project manager, I knew that just merely telling my team, stakeholders, and executive sponsor information did not mean I was communicating effectively. Yes, I was technically communicating but just giving information didn’t mean I was an effective communicator. What was needed is another component to transferring information – understanding.

Understanding is a topic in epistemology which is the study of knowledge. Don’t worry; I will keep the philosophy brief and to the point. Even though the study of knowledge is ancient, the study of understanding is relatively new (just like the study of project management communication). According to philosophers, there three main ways of understanding.

There is know-what in which I have an understanding of some concept, physical object, or process. For example, I know what a work-breakdown-structure (WBS) is in the sense of it being a tool in project management. I may have a simple understanding of what a WBS is because I recognize a WBS when I see it. Or my know-what may be that I know WBS exist but, that is all I know. In contrast, I may thoroughly understand WBS including the history of the concept. Know-what is often the first step in creating understanding.

When I can construct a WBS, I have know-how. As you can see, know-how is more involved than know-what. For me to have know-how, I must possess these six attributes:

1. Ability to follow the explanation of the concept, physical object, or process.

2. Ability to explain the concept, physical object, or process.

3. Ability to draw conclusions from the concept, physical object, or process.

4. Ability to conclude opposing conclusions from the opposite of the concept, physical object, or process.

5. Ability to conclude the correct ideas when given the concept, physical object, or process.

6. Ability to conclude the correct opposite ideas when given the opposite of the concept, physical object, or process.

The third way of understanding is know-why. You may know what a WBS is and how to construct the WBS. However, your understanding is incomplete if you don’t know why you need to use a WBS. Know-why may seem the same as know-what, but there is a significant difference. For example, I may be an expert on Monte Carlo simulations in risk management. I can explain the concept and even create a spreadsheet that uses Monte Carlo simulations for risk management. However, I may not be able to explain why you need a Monte Carlo simulation in your project. I just want to use a Monte Carlo simulation in your simple weekend project to build a deck just because I like building Monte Carlo simulations. I know-what and I know-how but I don’t know-why we shouldn’t use the Monte Carlo simulation in your particular project.

It is unnecessary to have three ways of understanding to be effective. For example, your senior sponsor may only need to know why your project needs a risk register but, has only a partial understanding of what a risk register is. The senior sponsor doesn’t need to understand how to create a risk register. And the senior sponsor needs only a cursory understanding of why a risk register is needed. Just enough know-what and know-why to reassure the sponsor that the project’s chances for success will increase if you use a risk register.

An important decision for a communicator is to determine the level of understanding that his or her audience needs for successful communication. That is why communication is more than information transfer. The communicator and the receiver must use feedback to determine how the message was received and if the communicator created the intended level of understanding in the receiver for the communication to succeed.

[This is an excerpt from my recently published book, The Persuasive Project Manager: Communicating for Understanding.]