A number of years ago I had a boss who was so focused on staying on schedule during meetings that he forgot we were actually gathered to accomplish something. He thought nothing of interrupting a productive dialog to remind everyone that we needed to move to the next agenda item. The poor fellow thought “accomplishment” was the same as placing a check mark next to everything on our list. He equated completing an activity with achieving a result.
I actually think his obsession with the agenda was his way of dealing with the emotional discomfort he felt in conversations where others expressed different points of view. He just didn’t like to listen. In his mind, it was better to avoid direct conflict, leave issues unresolved and objectives unclear, push forward and implement his own solutions when needed.
Unfortunately, I think this way of managing is all too common, especially when it comes to change initiatives.
Companies regularly make the mistake of placing too much emphasis on the time it will take to implement change programs, believing that shorter is better. They set aggressive schedules that require herculean efforts on the part of technical teams, and like my former boss, ignore the “extraneous” tasks required to manage human components well. As a result they rush through the planning and implementation of projects and then wonder why they struggle to achieve success. They assume that the longer the initiative, the more likely it is to fail.
I understand the concerns. In this day of impatient leadership and knee-jerk decision-making, organizations are concerned that interest and enthusiasm will wane, key supporters will leave, objectives will be replaced by a new flavor of the month, or challenges will accumulate and put the wrong kind of spotlight on project supporters. Quick implementation seems logical and like it will improve the chances that an initiative will be completed.
Contrary to this perception, however, research conducted by Harold Sirkin, Perry Kennan and Alan Jackson found that the length of a project is not as critical to success as . . . guess what? . . . review meetings. More specifically, they found that a long project reviewed frequently is more likely to succeed than a shorter project that is not reviewed frequently enough. They suggest that organizations should formally review transformation projects at least bimonthly since the probability that change initiatives will run into trouble rises exponentially when the time between reviews exceeds eight weeks.
My own research and work with clients agrees with this finding. That’s why regular meetings are a critical component of Change Science in Solleva Group’s Architecture of Change.
Regular meetings are the best way project teams can engage executives in the process of scheduling and assessing the impact milestones, review the execution of projects, identify gaps, and spot new risks. The most effective milestones are those that describe major actions or achievements rather than day-to-day activities. These keep senior executives and project sponsors out of the weeds and enable them to confirm that the project has made progress since the last review took place.
Frequent reviews not only help drive the completion of technical tasks, but they also create a foundation that strengthens change management. A dialog centered around actions and results leads to better discussions about the needs of stakeholders and other risks. When a milestone looks as though it won’t be reached on time, the review meeting pushes project teams to understand why and to identify corrective actions.
Sirkin et al refer to these milestones as “learning milestones.” They are more than impromptu assessments of what could be done better. They are a formal occasion where senior managers and the project team work collaboratively toward improving performance. They determine whether achieving the milestone has had the desired effect on the company and they discuss the problems the team faced in reaching the milestone. They also determine how the process will affect future phases of the project. They evaluate process, capacity and capability of resources, alternative directions, team dynamics as well as the organization’s perceptions about the initiative.
Regular meetings. Clearly identified results. Listening. Learning. Collaborative problem solving. That’s not just good project and change management. That’s good leadership.