Saturday, September 5, 2009

Internal roadblocks to change

As difficult as it is for an organization to achieve project success based on conditions in the field there are also difficulties inherent within organizations that are roadblocks to change.

When considering a hypothetical organization - at home or overseas - various factors influence its ability to achieve what it sets out to do. Management styles, internal structure, organizational values / perspective, and ability to plan can all hinder the progress or "success" of a project before workers even hit the ground.

For a moment consider the idea of different “management styles” (which is a very broad term). It is important to look at who holds decision making authority. Is this person a complete autocrat with a glorious vision of the way things "are" or "should be", or are they an open minded individual more concerned with both the project and those working on it reaching their potential? Does the manager actively try to understand the strengths and weaknesses in the team and work to make sure that the right people are doing the right job? Does the manager try to motivate people to achieve the goals of the project by understanding why or how they are motivated? Does the manager take into account the needs of the team? Ect. . . Does the manager connect the dots or dictate?

Organizational values can sway the definition of "success" of a project away from one that actually conflates with "change" for the intended beneficiaries to one that is merely justification to continue whatever the project is for the organization. Essentially, if the organization's values are not in line with the heart of the matter / the reality of the situation then there is the potential for the organization to justify its work as "good" without considering what "good" is actually being achieved. When the desired change is quantified in terms of organization's perspective, as opposed to that of the beneficiary, there is a great potential for projects to roll forward - full steam ahead - in a way that pleases the organization or maybe the donors, but not necessarily the intended beneficiaries. Does the organization put value on planning ahead of time? Does the organization put value on personal or professional development of its staff? Does it value the input of all stake holders? Is it concerned with the impacts its work will have on the communities? Does the organization value new idea generation and innovation? Does it value the thoughts and lessons learned from its staff who are in the front line, or only the desires of the upper echelons of the organization’s structure? Is the organization committed to driving change through deep impacts? Does the organization’s culture put value on critical thinking? The motivations and abilities of those within an organization can be directly impacted by its values, perspective, and motivation.

What about hierarchy? Does the internal structure of an organization make decision making a slow and cumbersome process? Who is responsible for decision making on important matters? For example, should the big bwana / person at the top of the pyramid be able to make unchecked decisions about all programmes without consultation from those who are actually informed about the issues? Are team leaders able to make programme critical decisions without having to ask higher authorities and wait for a “timely decision”? The hierarchy of an organization can drastically cripple the ability for meaningful decision making. Will the hierarchy be an intuitive map of shared authority and decision making power or a synthetic “power grab” division of responsibility that hinders change from occurring? Streamlined decision making vs. confusion? Can an organization structure themselves in such a way that those involved feel ownership over their role, empowered in their decision making, and able to drive the change they want to see, while at the same time having an organization that is accountable and effective?

Plan, plan, plan. Part of planning is to establish a realistic metric for success (a working definition for the change the project is trying to create). As obvious as it sounds - before moving forward the team should know exactly what it is they want to accomplish or change. What's a reasonable way to determine a definition of "success"? It all depends on the context. Ideally all the stakeholders will play a role in determining what success might mean. (example - in Canada if the city is going to commission a major road they'd speak with the communities that will be affected. If a NGO is going to work in a community hopefully they'd involve that community in planning, problem identification, ect . . . as opposed to: HERE'S OUR SOLUTION.) Gathering information about whatever it is the project desires to change or achieve would be a logical starting point. What is the cause of the ‘problem’ – what indicates there is a problem? (the problem being a situation or condition within a community that could or should be changed?) What are the indicators related to this issue? Indicators of the base problem or issue that is trying to be resolved are essential. It’s not enough to say “there’s bad water” or “the traffic piles up” – actually indicators, qualitative and quantitative, for the problem need to established. A realistic definition of success seems to be contingent on gathering accurate information about the present situation as well including all stakeholders in definition generation.

In a project management course I once took, a prof talked about risk and how risk can never be completely removed from any project, but through proper planning it could be mitigated. Inside and outside of the classroom this statement seems to draw water - there is risk in everything we do, whether it is designing a water provision development project in Zambia or a roadway system in Canada. Smaller scale activities in day to day life - such as buying a cup of tea - too have their associated risks. Risk in this sense is the potential for an internal or external event or change to hinder the project from reaching its defined success.

When risks are simplified there is potential for disaster - the risk of failure is an accumulation of various other risks which need to be planned for carefully. Contingency plans need to be developed. Failure to succeed - is it a risk of supply line failure? Oops we're no longer able to have access to an all necessary part. Is there a risk of low adoption rate of whatever the project is? That's probably not the end of the story. Why is there a risk of low adoption rate? Do the intended beneficiaries not desire the project? Not understand the benefits? What about changes within the community - what risk do they present for project success? ect . . . On top of managing risks that may be apparent or possible it is also essential to not make a project plan too rigid so that it cannot adapt to unimaginable risks. What seems impossible today may be a cruel reality four months down the line when the project is in full swing. This "unlikely possibility" or "unimaginable situation" might derail the whole project if the original planning is too rigid to adapt to changing circumstances. Essentially a project is an attempt to work within an ever changing system (ie a community. A community may be composed of households. Think about all the changes that occur in your household on a day to basis. Multiply that by four months. Multiply that by hundreds or thousands of households. Now think about environmental changes. Political changes. (both likely and unlikely) - communities are very dynamic) .

Planning also needs to take into account how to determine if the desired change is actually occurring. Meaningful indicators relating to the change should be established and a way to gather the pertinent information related to said indicators needs to be developed. If a project is designed to have some success or drive some change what reflects this change or success? What about the indicators mentioned earlier (the ones for “how do we know this issue / problem exists?”) – can they be used as correlation? If the same indicators for identifying the problem are used to identify successes or change will that create a more accurate picture?

So those are a few thoughts on "planning" - the key idea is that any project, complex or simple, needs to be well thought out. Understanding what change is desired and how to measure it along with what might hinder that success is important. Of course this post is an over simplification of “planning” but I just wanted to highlight a few drops in the bucked that contribute to an organization’s ability to create their desired change.

Not a comprehensive look at roadblocks to change that can occur within an organization, but rather a few thoughts I wanted to jot down at 3:22 AM . I figured in the very least it’d make a new blog post. I’ll try to come back and update this one as more comes to mind.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks a lot Patrick. It's always good to get the mind ticking on planning, critical thinking and how we should go about getting over roadblocks to change.