As project managers we are operating at the coal-face of change implementation on a daily basis. We are used to seeing the organisation from multiple perspectives and are comfortable with complexity and ambiguity. This is not something that most roles in organisations need to be able to do.
However, when we implement a significant programme of change we expect those involved to suddenly be comfortable working in this state of flux. Bringing together a team from across multiple disciplines in your organisation is a common feature of complex projects. The opportunity for disruption through this group is high. People working in different disciplines usually have very different perspectives, ideas and priorities. A good governance structure will bring together all of the important decision makers whose areas are involved in the change. For decisions to be made and your programme of change to stay on track identifying a shared common purpose is essential. This can be challenging for deep-rooted reasons.
The concept of the Primary Task was developed in the 1960s by A.K. Rice. Rice defines the primary task as the task an organisation must perform in order to survive (Rice, 1963). It drives resource allocation and prioritisation. Different areas of an organisation are likely to have different views of what this primary task is. When you bring together a multi-disciplinary group it is important to be mindful of these different perspectives. It will impact how each person views the change and will inform their decision making. Understanding these different perspectives allows you to analyse:
Disconnect between the perceived primary task from the perspective of different members of the group – these are your hot spots that may lead to disruption and conflict;
Disconnect between the primary task(s) within the business and the primary task of the project – this is likely to lead to high levels of resistance and, if it is a conscious decision on the part of the business to drive this change, will need significant change management resource to support affected teams.
The Project’s Primary Task
As project lead you should (must!) have a clear understanding of why your project exists and to what extent it supports the core purpose of the organisation. You need to be able to clearly communicate this to any stakeholder. It is worth spending time on agreeing this with your multi-disciplinary team. This will allow you to see where the disconnects are and allow you to have an open conversation about that disconnect. If a common purpose cannot be agreed do not progress regardless! You need to ask difficult questions of your leadership team as to whether this is the right project at the right time and/or how you can use their support to build a common view. This upfront investment will pay dividends later in your project. If you ignore these dynamics meetings that bring together these multi-disciplinary teams are likely to end up exacerbating frustration, confusion and bad-feeling (Stokes, 1994), which all serves to get in the way of delivery rather than enabling it.
Change that shifts the organisation’s Primary Task
Some of the complex and challenging aspects of going through change come from the fact that your programme is shifting the primary task of your organisation. Because the primary task drives how resources are allocated and decisions made, shifting this results in significant re-ordering of priorities. This can lead to individuals and/or teams feeling like winners or losers. As a project leader recognition of this fundamental change and the impact it is likely to have on the people effected will allow you to prepare much more thoroughly through your comms and engagement, training and development, and adoption strategies.
Taking the time to understand the perspective of each of the multi-disciplinary teams needed to deliver your project will allow you to build a sophisticated programme that will significantly increase the chances of successful change being delivered.
How easily could you describe the primary task of your project or organisation? Would different disciplines describe it differently? What impact does/could this have on your ability to deliver your project?
Rice, A. K. (1963) The Enterprise and Its Environment, London: Tavistock Publications
Zagier Roberts, V. (1994) The organisation at work: Contributions from open systems theory From: The Unconscious at Work: Individual and Organisational Stress in the Human Services Ed. Obholzer, A. & Zagier Roberts, V. (1994)
Caroline Doran is a project consultant working with busy senior leaders at times of transition and change. She helps organisations turn their strategic ideas into operational realities.