Managing Change – Making the Unknown, Known

By Bob McGannon

Change is the one constant element that must be faced by anyone with the responsibility to manage a project. It is the most exciting and most terrifying item that a project manager must handle. How one approaches this challenge will determine the quality of the product produced, and the project managers perception as a leader.

Changing approaches, procedures, organizations, tactical and/or strategic directions are a pivotal part of the work the project manager must handle in today’s marketplace. Whether or not you’re creating those transformations, or reacting to them, your success as a PM depends on your ability to process, communicate and handle the questions and doubts that come with change. Taking a structured approach to thinking through change will help you and your project team navigate swiftly.

The successful project manager articulates understandable objectives and delineates them through clear, succinct and measurable plans and goals. The astute PM also understands not only what the actual change itself implies, but the long term ramifications to the project team, as well as all of the stakeholders within the business. The implications and feelings the change will create in the hearts and minds of the team must be understood if the project manager is to successfully communicate, and be able to empathetically listen to the affected employees. Lastly, the project manager who consistently navigates through change understands what will follow the current change in process; what does it enable or restrict in future opportunities. We will explore the three elements of change management we have discussed thus far in greater detail. The key to all of these elements of change is to seek to make the unknown – the puzzlement and doubt that accompanies something new – known.

A Goal to Describe the Results – “Why?” is the first question each project manager must answer for himself and his/her team. “Why?” is a person’s ultimate expression that something is not known or understood. Without the answer or answers to this, any change will flounder and the scrutiny of team members and stakeholders will inevitably follow. Your team will reflect your attitude about the change; your buy-in and ability to make the unknown known is fundamental. Fully understanding the motivations behind any change encountered, or creating and communicating the motivations behind the change you are sponsoring, in a supportive (and if appropriate collaborative) way, is paramount.

Closely tied to this is the ability to establish and communicate goals. Well-articulated goals will describe the direction and objectives of the project you are managing; change as part of a pathway to those goals will most likely not require extensive additional selling. Well-described goals will bring the action steps toward those goals into the “known” quickly and easily. Team members who understand that their actions and efforts to facilitate change will lead to a positive result will embrace them much more quickly. If the result is known, the actions proposed to get there will become known in the minds of your team members. The dreaded realm of the unknown will be avoided!

The Meaning of the Change – “What will I have to do?” will quickly follow “Why?” into the minds of team members. Understanding your team’s strengths and weaknesses, both in actuality and in their self perception, is critical here. The question “What will I have to do?” is what is usually expressed verbally; the real question underneath that outward expression is “Will I be able to do this?” and/or “Will I enjoy doing this?” A project manager that can lead their team on the pathway out of this unknown quickly and directly will get buy-in and true action from their team members sooner, leading to a more sound and timely implementation. In fact, when dealing with the known in this way, team member to the change can surface, enhancing the overall result.

Project managers need to be mindful of both the immediate and ongoing meaning of the proposed change from the team’s point of view. What may be perceived as a simple change today – one that the PM brings into the realm of the known – may still contain unknown elements. “Does this mean thatÖ?” questions are the key to a team members expression that there remain elements of the change that are “unknown”. These questions should also trigger a review of the organizations goals by the project manager. Are they clear? Have they been described in sufficient detail to the employees? Does this particular employee understand the direction of the department? A project manager needs to assess each affected team members ability to handle the change, both short and long term, and guide and support them into the realm of the known.

What’s Next – When a PM starts hearing questions from his/her team about what change is coming up next, this is an indication that the change is “catching on”. However, this can be the most difficult part of managing change. First and foremost, can you as a project manager answer this question? If you cannot, then you need to be brought out from the dungeon of the unknown! Without this, you cannot guide and nurture the success of your team. On the other hand, if you do know the answer to the “What’s next?” question, maybe this stage in the journey from the unknown to the known is best addressed with questions, rather than answers. Questions like, “What do you think we should do next?”, “Do you have any ideas as to how we can reach our goals more quickly?” or “Can you lead us through the next part of our change journey?” can have a profound affect. Soliciting this input from your team can alter the nature of where change originates.

This type of situation is the greatest way to manage the journey from the unknown to the known. Project teams with a detailed understanding of the goals at hand, empowered with the capability to think for themselves, working together in a cohesive fashion, can nearly assure the success of the project manager in implementing change. In this environment, the journey to the known is designed by the very folks that need to reach this promised land. In fact, they become the “Creators of the known”!

Bob McGannon is a Founder and Principal of MINDAVATION, a motivational speaking, team building and leadership coaching company. MINDAVATION can be reached via the web at WWW.MINDAVATION.COM or by calling 877-544-MIND.

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