Experienced change leaders know that successful delivery is a bit like riding a wave: They understand the constant state of flux and will adapt to the challenge, assess the risk, and embrace the uncertainty of the ride.
Pro-surfer Laird Hamilton got it right when he said that we’re all equal before the wave: In a time of rapid change, there is a common theme that leaders of change need to embrace in the face of unpredictable environments: Uncertainty.
Project sponsors need to get comfortable with the concepts and realities of uncertainty. It throws up the same questions repeatedly: How will change be accepted; what is the optimal approach; and will change succeed in delivering its promise?
Leaders taking on new projects that are designed to deliver change into the business – be it people, process, or systems – know that this kind of uncertainty never really goes away. But it can be managed and the really good project sponsors and business managers learn how to deal with this uncertainty through their years of experience.
So, what are the ‘qualities’ that experienced project sponsors have that helps them evaluate the challenge, risks, and unexpected shifts that goes into successfully delivering change? What are the traits that keep them calm and focused when faced with a rising tide of uncertainty and unexpected events that can show up on a daily basis in project-land?
Trust Your Instincts
Experience is an amazing teacher when its lessons are learned and it helps to inform one of the key elements of good project sponsors: Your ‘gut’ is rarely wrong.
Project sponsors often have an elevated view of a project’s aims and experience will often nudge your instincts at key decision points. It’s a useful tool to avoid being dragged down into the depths of project minutiae and maintain a certain level of detachment from the day-to-day which enables a good project sponsor to see ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’ from different angles.
This type of instinct-based decision-making is usually more than a hunch: It’s a well-informed perspective formed from gathering information and observation that essentially validates a point of view. Allowing your gut to have a say will lead to better decision making
Manage Risks in Real-Time
One of the advantages of staying above the fray is that it provides perspective and the ability to stay one step ahead of the unexpected. It’s all about the project’s risk profile: What the risks may be, how big they are, and the possible/potential impacts. It’s not enough to gather the project risks at the beginning of the project to satisfy the PMO requirement. These tend to just gather dust.
Experienced sponsors know that that risk management is a real-time pursuit: As the project moves through various phases, risks will ebb and flow in terms of their importance and likelihood. Staying ahead of the wave of uncertainty is about active risk reviews and having contingency plans in place (and up-to-date) where appropriate to guard against an unpleasant surprise.
Plan, Then Plan Some More
Pure and simple: You can never plan too much – especially at the macro level where small decisions can have large impacts downstream. Good sponsors are open to regular planning sessions and not just about driving out a schedule or critical path.
It’s a higher-level pursuit, whereby the overarching approach and assumptions made around projects are regularly reviewed and assessed for weaknesses, risks (old and new), and a better way to do things. It’s this level of planning engagement that will ensure that the unexpected is always in front of mind.
It also gives projects sponsors the ability to counter any negative effects.
Hire Good People
Sounds simple. A project has never suffered from the sponsor hiring people that are smarter than they are. Staying ahead of the wave means having top-notch project delivery people who can signal the unexpected is ahead. Good hires mean people with good insights, which in turn ensures that the project sponsor has the right information to make the best decisions.
Own Your Mistakes
It is not always easy for senior people to accept their mistakes, but the best sponsors are not afraid to put their hand up when an individual or collective decision is wrong. Trial and error are consistent teachers that help project sponsors learn and recognise the wrong calls and then process what and why it went wrong.
Without acknowledgement or self-reflection, as opposed to a witch hunt to find someone to blame, it’s not possible to get to the bottom of an issue. Getting to the core of what caused a project to come unstuck enables good project sponsors to immediately negate the unexpected. A head-in-the-sand approach – or worse, a “nothing to see here” one – will, quite frankly, leave both the project sponsor and the project exposed and more vulnerable to future unexpected surprises.
Accept That no Change is Easy
Projects are always a challenge and ultimately no change is easy. Also whether we like it or not no single person has all of the answers when embarking on a project. It’s how the project’s leaders deal with the unexpected that is very often the difference between its success or failure. And the very best leaders, like the best surfers, are never phased by uncertain or changing conditions.
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