Through the Eye of a Needle

Sometimes it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a change leader to take on the full responsibility of change . . .

A couple weeks ago I completed an Accelerated Change Readiness workshop with a project team for a Fortune 500 company.  They were preparing for a technology implementation and the workshop was designed to help them think through the change management issues for the initiative.

We spent three very active days understanding the project objectives, assessing the organization’s cultural and political context, and identifying methods and protocols for stakeholder engagement, communication, decision-making, and conflict resolution.

It was intense, but fun, and the group, who was from various functions throughout the company, did a terrific job working through the project risks and creating a roadmap for managing change.

At the end of the workshop I pulled the project leader aside and asked for her thoughts.  I wanted to know whether she thought the project team identified the core issues and risks, gelled as a team, and were ready to manage change on the initiative.

She looked down at her feet, then out the conference room window.  She forced a smile and said, “I understand all that happened over the past three days.  So many of the risks we identified described exactly why these kinds of projects have fallen short of expectations in the past.  I mean, it’s true, we need to address these risks if we want to meet stakeholder expectations.  The problem is that to get there, we will have to take on more than the stated scope.  The team is ready to do it, but I’m not sure that I am.”

“What makes you hesitant?” I asked.

“Listen,” she said.  “I know the best sol . . . no, make that the right solution, the right thing to do for the company, is to add to our scope and complete the other elements of solution design.  But that would mean extra work, and for me, extra risk.  Getting other stakeholders involved to weigh-in on the solution will make this more complicated.  My job is just to get this project done on time.  It’s not to resolve political battles.”

“I can understand your feelings,” I consoled.  “Will you be able to complete the project without navigating around or through a few of those battles?”

“I’m not sure, but isn’t it enough just to focus on the project alone?  That’s doing my job, right?”

This project manager was staring straight into the eye of the needle and confronting the dilemma many project managers must face:  Should she work around the more strategic change challenges and get the project done?  Or should she take on the larger challenges to achieve the more impactful result?

In my mind, as well as the stakeholders interviewed and surveyed prior to the workshop, there is no choice.  Achieving the narrowly focused, “practical” result would be worse than awful.  The end-users would receive the technology with a yawn and the project team would know they compromised.  Executives may well call it a success publicly, but privately confess that the end result was uninspiring.

One of the great fictions of modern business is that the 80% solution is acceptable.  All the talk about moving from “Good to Great” or being “In Search of Excellence” or achieving the “Tipping Point” and too many businesses settle for “good enough.”  Just fly in an airplane, eat at a fast food restaurant, shop at all but a few grocery or retail stores, call into a call center, or ask human resources for anything.  Most change initiatives also fall into the same pattern.

It’s not that any of the above is all that bad, it’s just rare that they are exceptional.

How often in your projects are stakeholders saying, “Wow!  That was really well done.”

So my challenge for change leaders is:

Do you want to put any amount of effort into an uninspired result?  Or are you ready to stay on the straight and narrow path through the eye of the needle to extraordinary.

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