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Times They Are A-Changin’! Put Vision And Strong Leadership First

Last week, the Project Management Institute (PMI) released Pulse of the Profession In-Depth Report: Enabling Organizational Change Through Strategic Initiatives. Okay, it’s not quite a page-turner, but the report does offer some sobering perspective about managing change.

PMI found that “48 percent of strategic initiatives are unsuccessful”, with as much as 15 percent of every dollar spent on these initiatives wasted because of poor project performance. To improve, PMI recommended four things (presented here verbatim):

  • Using standardized project and program management practices
  • Creating an effective communication plan; thoroughly executing that plan; and identifying, measuring and communicating the expected benefits of change
  • Engaging sponsors who actively rally senior management to actively support the change
  • Creating a vision and leading stakeholders through organizational change

It’s a good list, one that you’d expect from an organization with “Project Management” on the front door. Unfortunately, the order of its recommendations is upside down.

Successful change efforts require a vision and effective, informed leadership, or everything else falls apart. This is true for any significant initiative, doubly so if the change is strategic, a core shift in how or where a business chooses to compete.

This isn’t an attempt to diminish the value of sponsors, plans and best practices in project management. Every one of the change management projects I’ve worked on had those in place. That said, the successful ones were distinguished by senior-level commitment to making the change happen with everyone on board.

This point was made well by Robert Wheaton, SVP-Digital with Penguin Random House Canada, in “The new publishing skillset: Change management in a creative industry“, a thoughtful and challenging talk he gave at Booknet Canada’s Tech Forum earlier this month. At the center of his talk, Wheaton reminded the audience that “the hard problems are the ones we are supposed to solve;” that’s the ante for maintaining a competitive position in a changing world.

Throughout his presentation, Wheaton returned to a simple pyramid with “artifacts” at the top, “espoused values” in the middle and “underlying assumptions” at the base. Our change efforts too often try to alter artifacts without exposing and testing underlying assumptions, some of which are deeply held and never challenged.

To build the new publishing skillset, Wheaton offered five ideas:

  1. “Find the breakpoints”; risk letting some things fail rather than guarantee that they remain unchanged
  2. “Examine unexamined workflows” (I’d add “underlying assumptions” to this mix)
  3. “Tell stories about adapting”, to accompany and stand alongside tales of things like great sales or highly efficient supply chains
  4. “Show the designers how to use Tumblr”, a call that I understood to serve as a challenge to the status quo
  5. “Find allies by disagreement”

This is far from the expected list, and I think we’re better for it. In closing, Wheaton described the work of those in the room as “cultivating a public.” That has long been true of publishing, but cultivation is no longer dependent solely on the creation and sale of artifacts.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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