Project Initiation and Change

Building a Coalition to Clarify, Ideate, Design, and Implement

I’ve taken a change management course and used some of its tools. I’ve taken project management courses; also a lot of tooling available.

Fundamentally change management and project management are about helping people cope and embrace change as they get things done; not the generation of Gantt Charts, Backlogs, RACIs, etc.

For myself, I don’t use a lot of the processes but instead look to the underlying spirit. And that is strong relationships help people cope with and deliver change. Also, amongst a group of people, there is a variety of expertise and perspectives.

What follows is a process that focuses on connecting people and letting experts be experts.

I’m framing this from operating within an organizational hierarchy. This assumes that some people supervise other people and that there’s a likely pyramid of authority.

What follows has been useful for me, and I hope you can pull pieces of wisdom from this post.

Let’s say you identify a functional need within an organization. And filling that functional need requires a coordination of effort.

Great! You’re in the early stages of a project.

Before You Get To Far

Write up the what and the why of the functional need. This should be your elevator pitch; That quick thing you can use to share your vision. Don’t offer solutions, instead identify what you think is the problem.

Now look at it, and think about this functional change or addition. These changes will impact people. List the people that come to mind.

In all of this, avoid writing in the passive voice. For example “people impacted by this change” is weak. State the truth: “This change impacts the following people.” Don’t let the passive voice obscure the actions and actors.

When you focus on active voice, you may find interesting relationships that are invisible when you use the passive voice. Passive voice is poisonous to all collaborative efforts.

With the what, why, and who, break out your organization’s chart. Find each person on that chart. Highlight them. Then find that one person (or governing body) that oversees everyone you highlighted.

You need to bring your idea to that person; Because they have the authority to activate each person that your “project” impacts.

Going to the Top

I don’t know the dynamics in which you move. Going to the top may require socializing your idea to find support. But be careful, don’t socialize a solution. Focus instead on the functional need and opportunity that you see.

Some organizations will require that you go up through each tier of management to get to that “top-level.” That’s a game you may need to play. However this process applies to each step moving up the hierarchy. Start at the lowest level to which you have access.

Your goal should be coalition building; to create the conditions where the people you’re going to impact are part of the clarification, ideation, design, and implementation of the solution.

When you go to the top, you’ll also need to navigate how that person or committee likes to receive ideas. Hint: ask them.

Dear Human Being(s),

I have an opportunity related to a possible need I’ve perceived in our organization. I’d like to go over that with you. In advance of that conversation, what are the kinds information you need from me?

Sincerely, Another Human Being

Listen to their response, and build your information packet accordingly. Hopefully, you don’t need much. After all, you’re sharing a perceived need, not selling a proposed solution. Focus on the problem and how you’d like to explore solving that problem.

Share the org chart and people you think you might impact. Work to get their buy-in on chasing this project. Also, let them know that to pursue this project, you’ll need their help.

I’m writing this as though it all moves smoothly. It’s possible that the sponsor will say “not today”. Fair enough, but here’s the thing, you’ve only invested energy in identifying a functional need. You haven’t spent too much time solving that need.

Ask the sponsor what would need to be true to pursue this problem further.

Maybe refine the problem or go find a new one. In other words, the less up front time you spend alone working towards the solution, the less likely you’ll have fallen in love with the problem and your current state solution.

Remember, you’ll need them sponsoring the project (or maybe a future project). The sponsor paints the picture of why you’re doing what you’re doing. The sponsor also helps marshall resources and define/enforce the boundaries.

Your job is to equip the sponsor with all of those things. After all, someone higher up the org chart are spinning many plates.

Ask them how you can help them sponsor this? Tell them what you need. And don’t assume they’ll remember to do the things you need them to do. Instead, ask them and request help from them. Put things on their calendar.

With Authority, Comes Responsibility

Now that you’ve established your sponsor, work with them to bring the people you think you’ll impact into the room.

The sponsor will speak to the vision and opportunity. They’ll speak to the boundaries and why they’ve assembled everyone. They should ask “Is there anyone else that may have a stake in this?”

The goal is to create the coalition that will now look at the functional need. Everyone’s aware of it. There may be a lot of cooks in the proverbial kitchen. In this moment, that’s okay.

In all of this, you’re relying on the sponsor to lend their authority to this project.

Get to Work

With the right people assembled, you should go over the functional need and work through the stages of problem solving.

First, everyone should be working to clarify the need. Each one bringing their own context. Do we understand the problem that we’re trying to solve. Write down the clarified problem statement. Resist all talks of solutions or approaches to solving the problem.

After all, you’re going to want your sponsor to see that document and sign off on it.

Next, with sponsor sign-off, start into the ideation. How could we all approach the problem? What are some solutions that might be close? This might involve going back to the clarification point. And that’s okay.

Since you’ve brought onboard everyone the project impacts, you’re going to get a lot of interesting approaches. And I assume ideas you never would have thought of.

With ideas in hand, you’ll need to work through how to move forward. Do it lightly, do not jump to implementation. Instead focus on designing systems; paper, pencils, cardboard, white boards, flow diagrams. And by design I do not mean designing the user interface. I mean penciling in your implementation approaches.

The clarify, ideate, and design are important team building processes. This is the space where everyone can play and explore as you narrow and refine what will hopefully become your agreed upon approach.

A side-effect of this play and work? You’re strengthening relationships and getting buy-in to solve problems. You’re demonstrating that you value each person’s expertise.

You’ll also likely need a more detailed project timeline and resource budget. Don’t shy away from that. It’s what your sponsor will need to help enforce boundaries when things start to drift. Or, it may be a defense mechanism when your sponsor starts to expand the boundaries of the project.

And along the way, look for ways to keep the sponsor informed and involved in this project. Most leaders I know love seeing a team working together, sharing information, and common cause.

Implementation, An Exercise Left to the Team

Yes, it’s fun to make things. But what’s even more fun is doing it together, with a common vision and purpose.

When a project impacts people, the best way to create buy-in from them is to involve them along the way. Not with status updates, but in asking and requiring that they bring their expertise and perspective to the entire problem-solving process.

Implementation is the last step of problem solving. It’s writing up documentation, procedures, and software to support the solution to the clarified problem.

Some process wonks might say “Well actually, this sounds like waterfall!” or “Well actually, this isn’t how you do Agile!” Bugger right off, this is about gathering your experts, securing organizational support and giving space for the experts to breath life into the solution.

Know Thyself

I take a lot of self-assessment tests to better understand myself.

I’m:

  • A Meyers-Briggs INTP
  • An Enneagram 5 with strong 4 and 6 wings
  • A Dominant and Steady person (on the DISC)
  • A solid 5 across each of the Kolbe Assessment index
  • A strong Ideator and Implementer (and trailing on Clarification and Design, but I think I’m more balanced these days, because I’m writing a lot more, which helps clarify and design ideas.)
  • Strongest at Input, Strategy, Activation, Inclusion, and Learning (according to Strengths Finder)
  • Positioned on Emotional Intelligence tests to be a capable leader and change agent
  • Inclined towards assertive conflict resolution (as per conflict resolution style assessments)
  • My top leadership quality is Forgiveness. I took a test and that’s what came up. I’ve since lost the test, but this stuck deep in my core.

The strong wings of Enneagram 4 and 6 name me an “Iconoclast and Problem Solver”. In other words, I’m not one to assume what we have is working, nor am I afraid to raise my voice. Mercifully, my Inclusion strength and Steady DISC score means I’m inclined to build coalitions.

As an Enneagram 5 (e.g. Investigator), my direction of growth is towards an Eight: The Challenger. I know I’m growing when I take my observations, craft some action, and share both action and reason; And I’m at my best when I don’t take up all the space and don’t impose my observations nor actions as inevitable. This might be another reason the name “Take on Rules” resonates within me.

As a Dominant person, I oriented towards quick tasks; details be damned. As a Sustaining person, I’m interested in long-term relationships and the well-being of people. It’s one reason I love running RPGs, I need to be quick on my feet and love establishing relationships with the people at my table.

If you’re familiar with the DISC assessment, you might have though I’m a high Conscientious. Nope! I rely on note taking, writing, automated tests, and active calendar management to track most things. I can fake being a good detail-oriented person, but its not where I’m at my best.

As a 5 across each Kolbe Assessment, I’m comfortable negotiating between deeply disparate approaches and methodologies. I’ve been complimented on many occasions for my ability to craft analogies. I think this comes from frequently translating between two opposed approaches (e.g. lots of detail or no detail, someone that wants to go fast versus someone that wants to gather all the details).

With strong Ideation and Implementation, I tend to rummage through a lot of ideas and fixate on one of them. By writing, I slow down those tendencies to let Clarification and Design have a chance to speak and act. It turns out, this strategy feeds my ideation and implementation capacity. A virtuous cycle.

I add all this because I have so many places that are not my forte. I’m going to struggle to draw things to a close; To dive deep into the details; Or remember to bring a bit of fun. I also know that Forgiveness can morph into negligence.

Lead with Vulnerability

And in working on a team, I can lean on other people’s talents.

If you’re feeling brave, check with the project team to find their talents. Work on establishing an understanding of how each person likes to operate; And how they might manifest stress.

And, if you’ve got it in you, be the first to share. Be vulnerable.

This week, I realized I was letting a project trigger me; I dug into the project and realized that it was cutting against my strengths (e.g. Activation, Inclusion, Strategy, and Input). I chose to challenge (e.g. move towards the Enneagram 8) the situation. I raised my problem and stressors to the team, focusing on my lived experience. I also brought a proposed solution and explanation of what I’m seeing.

I did this because I trust myself and the project team to receive my vulnerability (framed as this is the impact I’m experiencing). I shared my observations, proposed some possible solutions, and steps that the team could take to re-purpose my skills in the way that I know would better serve the project.

All because I know myself pretty well, and take the time to know my team.