Delivering business change outcomes is tough work. The Emergent Change approach can help us to make sense of us make sense of a fluid, messy, unpredictable change environment.
In my project management community, it’s always comforting to talk to others about things we have in common. Through my conversations every day, I am reminded that regardless of where we come from and what language we speak, there are things that bind us together. Our foundation principles, terminology, practices, funding pressures, deadlines, test defects, scope creep and demanding stakeholders are all great examples of these.
Even though we all share the same foundations, there is always one topic that fire up a conversation – the argument that projects are NOT the only way to deliver transformational change outcomes.
The idea that projects deliver change is a universal maxim. Temporary endeavour. Creates a unique outcome. Definite beginning and end. Yes, you’ve heard these all before. They’re comforting and easy to grasp.
So let’s play with this idea and see if we can shake it up a little.
How is Change Delivered?
When we say that projects deliver change, we imply that change is somehow “lumpy” – that the organisation rolls along in some sort of steady state, undergoes a periodic change episode, before moving on again in a “new normal”.
But what if we turn the idea around and look at it from another direction?
Instead of saying “projects deliver change”, let’s say “change is delivered by projects”.
It’s only a small change, but it makes a big difference to how we see approach our project management practice.
When we say that “change is delivered by projects”, we change the object of our statement. Now, we are challenged to shift our focus away from the project and to think about the source of change.
Is change delivered by projects? Yes, of course.
BUT is change delivered by any other means? Yes.
Here’s the thing. We often think about our projects in isolation, as if they are the only way to drive organisational change when in fact, it may well be that change is bubbling along around us from a range of other sources.
Our challenge as project managers is to look around our environment and understand the change that is happening all around us. Where is it coming from? What is driving it? How does our project fit within this wider change context?
Emergent Change Approach
The Emergent Change approach is a useful framework for understanding the impacts of continual, incremental changes that emerge from within the organisation.
The framework is based around two key assumptions, grounded in organisational complexity theory:
- The environment within which the organisation operates is constantly changing.
- The organisation must constantly change in response to the changing environment.
If we take these assumptions further, they break down into 5 key ideas:
- Things change. Organisations change how they decide to allocate resources over time, as circumstances evolve.
- Decisions are influenced by culture and politics within an organisation.
- Organisational change is not a linear process or one-off event; it is continuous, open ended, messy, unpredictable and cumulative.
- Change is best achieved through interwoven small/medium continuous changes, that add up to transformative outcomes over time.
- The role of managers is not to plan or implement change but to shape the environment so that teams are able to implement bottom-up change initiatives.
When we think about change in this way, it quickly becomes clear that our change environment is fluid and that organisations are continuously changing, in both intended and unintended ways, with multiple changes occurring at various speeds.
Emergent change processes are a useful way to think about project delivery in a fluid change environment, particularly where we cannot anticipate and assess all change variables in advance.
How Can Your Project Management Office Help?
Project Managers often fall into the trap of thinking of our projects in isolation, without looking at the wider organisational context. Our challenge is to think more broadly – to understand the wider economic, political and organisational influences that are shaping our change environment.
This is where the Project Management Office has a critical role to play.
The PMO has the unique authority to go beyond aligning and prioritising projects and programs across portfolios, to understand the wider change environment and identify those critical bottom-up change drivers.
To begin with, the PMO might consider these questions:
- What are the current and emerging change drivers across the company, industry and marketplace? Look beyond your own back yard and consider the critical issues that influence your environment at a local, national and international level.
- How does this project/program align with those drivers? Does it influence the wider environment or does it respond to those change drivers?
- Is the Project/Program Manager empowered to respond to these change drivers? Does the PM have sufficient autonomy or authority to identify change opportunities and respond quickly?
- What are the themes coming out of industry conferences and competitor briefing sessions? What are the emerging industry trends, threats and opportunities?
- What are the geopolitical and cultural issues that affect the way you interact with your competitors, suppliers and clients? Do any of them have the potential to change the way you deliver your project?
Bringing It All Back Home
It’s easy to get caught up in our projects and lose sight of the “bigger picture”. Don’t get caught up in that trap.
Work with your Project Management Office to understand the wider environment that you are working in – identify the constant, messy, iterative, unplanned bottom-up change drivers that create so much uncertainty – changes in government policy, market threats/opportunities/trends, emerging competitors or products.
Take the time to blend these environmental considerations into your project plan and check in with it regularly, to make sure that you understand how your project fits within the fluid, messy, unpredictable, environment that you are delivering into.
Bushe, G. R., PhD., & Marshak, R. J., PhD. (2016). The dialogic mindset: Leading emergent change in a complex world. Organization Development Journal, 34(1), 37-65.
Burnes, B. (2017). Managing Change (7th ed.). Pearson Education Limited, Harlow.
Hatch, M. J. and Cunliffe, A. L. (2006). Organization Theory (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press, New York City.