Smash your project’s first 90 days: Timeless principles and practical lessons for us
Start strong on a new project. Here are ten principles and practical applications to gain traction and impress stakeholders — fast.
Do you want me to confidently state how you might start on a project?
A journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step, as the saying goes.
Yet when you start on a project-where is your single step? If you are responsible for leading change it can be hard to put your best foot forward. How do you put your best foot forward in the first couple of weeks on a project? By doing so, you can gain considerable traction and respect from your colleagues.
With experience comes pattern recognition. You may find that projects have a particular ebb and flow. They also have a predictable sequence of events. This sequence can vary depending on the scope and nature of the project. Nonetheless, with expertise you can still see a clear pattern.
One thing that has helped me in the face of ambiguity is the idea of principles. Principles are timeless and can serve as an anchor or way to remain balanced when faced with complex problems.
How long has it been since your last interview? Have you ever been asked what would be your approach in the first 90 days on a project? This timeframe could be arbitrary-it could be two weeks, one month or 100 days. How do you feel when you get asked this question? Is it a feeling of exhilaration rather than apprehension?
I have a feeling of exhilaration when asked this question because of my experience. My hard-won expertise gave me pattern recognition — of various project environments. I relish the challenge of diving into the unknown and working out how to structure the problem at hand. If you feel apprehension rather than exhilaration, it’s OK! Let ten guiding principles give you a sense of stability.
Voilà! Your ten principles
These ten guiding principles are from my book The Change Manager’s Companion. Each principle applies to leading change. You might lead or influence various changes. Changes can range from small changes within a team to enterprise-wide changes. These significant changes may alter the employee experience of hundreds or thousands of people.
I chose and studied each principle based on my experience. Change Management (to me) is about the art and science of winning hearts and minds. Five of these principles inform how to win hearts. Winning the hearts is hard work, especially given the range of people to win over. This includes stakeholders, decision-makers and everyone impacted by a given change. The remaining five principles were based on winning minds. Winning minds also need hard work and planning. Your constituents include project boards and anyone looking to see the quantitative impact of your change work.
These ten timeless principles can apply to leading change but also have broader applicability. In this case we can apply the change principles to concrete steps when we start on a project. These concrete steps can help guide your thinking and efforts in the initial stages of your time on a project. The principles and these steps can also help you in another practical way. What happens if you are at an interview and get asked what you intend to do to hit the ground running on a project?
Feel free to take advantage of my experience and these principles. Enjoy working through these concrete steps to help you gain traction.
Hitting the ground running
Let’s apply these ten change principles. We extrapolate each principle into concrete, actionable steps for you.
The first principle -habits- is about choices. What deliberate choices can you make which will help you throughout your entire project? Habits can straddle topics like planning your self-care in advance. This is a smart habit; you remain confident and decisive the matter how difficult the project can get. Habits can also account for regular meetings with key people.
If considering regular meetings as one habit consider another complimentary habit too. Never bore people in your meetings. If those attending your meeting are engaged, heard, well-informed and feel respected, they are likely to keep attending your meetings. This may sound like a fundamental point. Yet I have seen far too many project professionals do most of the talking in the meeting and either bore or in other ways disrespect attendees. To me, one habit is to make each meeting a pleasant and well-structured event for everyone. Even if people can’t make the meetings, ensure you have a clear structure to your meeting.
Systems: our second change principle. Your change on a page needs to start forming early in your project. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or be imprecise with early iterations of your “change on a page”. If anything, take the mindset of an artist or sculptor looking to draw inspiration and direction from their environment. Your environment can include stakeholders who can help shape or sculpt a realistic and pragmatic change. Speaking of pragmatic, every organisation has their version of communication channels. These channels comprise both technology and people. Your job is to find out which channels work to get the message to people who need it. The same can be said for training-what Learning Management Systems (LMS) in your organisation? Do you need an LMS for your training? How will you deliver this training?
The third principle -perspective- is treating your change like a blank sheet of paper. Let your stakeholders draw the picture of your change. To help them draw, they need to trust you and have the space where they can ideate. With this in place, they are likely to be comfortable for your change.
The fourth principle of promotion has many facets. My book delves into the psychology behind organisational change management, and we also touch on advertising principles. For practical purposes, let’s tighten our scope. Crafting your communication sequence is a vital practical step forward. You may not have all the details of your change, yet what can you proactively commit to paper as a draft? You might be starting early in a project and thus your communications will have a strong awareness flavour. As you approach go-live, you may find that readers expect concrete details, including what people need to stop, start, and keep doing. Also consider who in your team can help you review and approve each communication.
Planning is the fifth change principle. Your change on a page can start with your go-live and work backwards from there. Your planning could also include “making change stick”. This component of change is arguably the most important. If you invested incredible effort in helping people through the change but then the change to employee experience does not endure, what is the point?
Planning can also include tactical considerations like properly structuring your stakeholder engagement to make these meetings as engaging as possible for stakeholders. This type of planning may inform doing your homework on each stakeholder so that you can build your credibility as soon as possible.
One of the first questions I ask when starting on a project: “Where is the HR data?”
The underlying principle — clarity — shapes the way you can look at the change. HR data can provide you with a bottom-up perspective of your change. You can start to gain a picture of the number of different employees impacted by your change. The data may help you form personas of the various employee types related to your change too. For example, for the rollout of a system, you may have the main users who enter transactions. Then you may also have managers who approve a user’s transactions. These two broad personas have different interactions with the same system. By using HR data to segment these two broad groups you are in a stronger position. Your analysis may lead to insightful questions like: “Are the two groups mutually exclusive?”
Unconventionality sometimes gets a bad rap. Unconventionality is celebrated in many quarters of society. But on project teams? Most might tolerate and even enjoy out of the box thinking. Only don’t assume — or count on it. Yet unconventionality doesn’t mean that you have to be entirely unconventional. Do you have clever ways to jazz up headlines in your messages? Can you get your hands on impactful images to aid your communications? Bring your clever, unconventional package together under your organisations brand guidelines. This combination means a greater likelihood of traction and respect for your change approach in these early days.
If unconventionality might get a bad rap, failure is almost guaranteed to! Yet the change principle of failure is one of the most powerful ones. Its power comes through overcoming difficulty. Can we conduct a premortem to see what can go wrong with our change? Are we honestly applying our efforts in the right parts of our change? When project timeframes get extended, many people on your project team might head out for coffee and take it easy for a little while. Yet this is an ample opportunity to double your efforts and prepare for the storm ahead. This valuable time may help you minimise failure months ahead of when a crisis may hit.
The world is a political place; it is full of inequity and the spoils often go to those who wield power. Knowing and accepting this reality is essential, and is also a timeless principle. Thus, leverage is our ninth change principle.
Conducting a frank appraisal of the resources on your proverbial chessboard is important. Is your sponsor strong and competent? When examining if they are supportive of your change, take a look at their actions. The same rigour applies to your project team and any change advocates or champions project group. Don’t let emotions sway you; your frank and honest appraisal of their abilities and agenda will help you. You can capitalise on this knowledge and shape your approach to leading change.
Your value lies in how you promote your effectiveness. How can you capture the essence of your effectiveness as a change professional? Quantify the number and nature of your change deliverables where you can. Start thinking about these important metrics early in your project. Quantification as a change principle is about showcasing the value you bring to a project. As a tactical step, prepare to end your project with a flourish. Months or even years from now, prepare to show your value. Quantify your impact through an infographic or other means. This way you can illustrate the outcomes of your efforts as a change professional.
It is up to you how you apply these change principles. At least you can see how we translate each principle into concrete and actionable steps in your initial days on a project. No doubt with energy and creativity you can plan your own steps to start your project with the greatest impact.