Projects are not the only fruit

Talking with a client recently he told me that, for his organization at least, change wasn’t an issue. He explained that they understood change now, they had a common method and process, and their projects were all progressing well.

Great. So I moved on to ask what he was worried about. He mentioned lack of growth in key markets, increased competition in some product lines, and how the pressure was causing conflict between some of his team leaders.

So I asked how the change projects they had underway would help with these key issues. He just looked at me quizzically.

What followed next, over a cup of coffee, was a discussion about how not all things that need changing are best handled as projects.

Organizations used to be seen as predictable systems that could be controlled and managed, with occasional periods of discomfort as various components got changed. Now, organizations are much more fluid, and so is what we are expected to cope with. Definitions, plans and procedures are interesting one week, and can be irrelevant the next.

The key things we need to handle now are uncertainty and disagreement. Uncertainty freaks us out a little, not least because our brains have a protective bias towards certainty, and tend to assume uncertainty is a risk. It’s safer. When the solution to something is unclear, we get nervous. Some people argue, some avoid the conflict, and so disagreement and uncertainty feed on each other.

A project makes everyone feel better, because at least we have some certainty now – there is a plan after all – and we can stop disagreeing, because there is a plan. Plans are great when there is predictability in the system, a clear definable end point, and a one-size solution will fit all. Write down the list of challenges in your life that fit those criteria. It won’t take long.

Let’s keep projects for the times they help. But when we face real uncertainty and disagreement, let’s do more exploring and experimenting, adjusting and adapting, as we learn what actually makes a difference to the challenges we face.

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