A project plan isn’t enough

I was introduced to a new friend this week. She works in the new media and so we got to talking about this blog series on change. I laid out my desire to have us all manage calendar data in a way that makes them publish-able and subscribe-able. She was familiar with the notion and uses Google Calendar to manage her calendar and her boyfriend’s calendar.

She asked the obvious question. “Do you have a plan, or are you just figuring it out as you go along?”

My answer is that I have a plan and the plan involves figuring it out as I go along. Let me explain.

Plan: A scheme, program, or method worked out beforehand for the accomplishment of an objective.

Classically-trained project managers are taught to put together a project plan, often using Microsoft Project or some such software showing milestones and requisite tasks for accomplishing the objective. The plan presents itself hierarchically, resources get assigned to each task. Each task can be marked complete. Tasks have dependencies to other tasks that indicate order of operations.

In past projects, I’ve found this approach alone wasn’t helping me navigate complex landscapes in the workplace. Here’s why.

Creating this kind of project plan assumes the plan can be known in advance – complete with tasks, milestones and resources. In my experience, this is seldom the case. We are not clear about what needs to be done until after we’ve started the project in earnest and begun to make commitments. The vision — and commitments to bring it to fruition — is revealed as part of a collaborative process.

But, most Plans have a single owner. All updates to the plan need to be channeled through the project manager. The project manager becomes a slave to the updates, gets sick of making them, and the plan quickly becomes out of sync. Updating the plan is tedious and, generally, thankless since its viewed by only a few persons at most. So, what typically happens is that the plan is almost immediately out of touch with the realities of the change initiative. Controlled by a single individual, the file can’t keep up with the dynamics of dialog, commitments and task completion.

Another problem is that the Plan presents itself in a linear, step-wise fashion. But, the people’s reality of a project is as a wave form with emotional highs as we make progress and lows as we struggle to let go. We establish a shared vision, agree on a course of action and then revise it. We collect key stakeholders, begin work, then realize the need for more stakeholders. Always, this forward and back motion between the steps.

The plan is also thought of as a completed entity. But, what is required to engage others is for them to have a share of the planning and visioning throughout the process. We need others to make commitments to tasks, make mistakes, and then course correct. Agility, adaptability must be modeled throughout. It’s not a phase we do and then stop doing. It’s a mindset we’re after — that the collaboration comes first.

Since the Plan is complete, we don’t need to consider it anymore. Whoever didn’t provide input is just out of luck. This in turn produces a lack of ownership among those that feel left out. The plan creates an arbitrary attachment between milestones and dates where the ebb and flow of dialog makes it difficult to really know when a milestone is actually reached.

Stale, cold, lifeless. The Plan isn’t connected to the process. The action is happening in dialog, questioning, imagining, learning, letting go.

What we need is something that can keep up with the activity stream and inform next actions. Something that connects moments of the project and strengthens the bonds of thought over time. Next post, we’ll look at how we can plan to be agile using a framework that expands our collaborative capacity.

Identifying key collaborators

When looking for collaborators on a change initiative, I like to use mind mapping software to create a web of influence. Actually, I like to use mind mapping software for lots of things. The inset image shows the mind map I created using the free mind mapping software XMind. You can click on it to make it larger if you like.

Note that I’m not trying to get anything perfect at this stage — just thinking through who are the people that will need to change with me to make this a success. I started by adding event producers; folks that put on events. Then I added others, like my family members and other parents. In the map, I look for those that might provide assistance and those who may need to provide permission to proceed.

Mind mapping is a great visual tool. I add things as they come to me and then look for patterns. In this case, I soon realize that it might be convenient for me to group people into three roles with respect to event management: event producersevent promotersevent subscribers. I realize I need technology mavens, too. These are folks that understand what technologies are in play and can explain them to others. This grouping into roles will be helpful later on as we build benefit statements for these stakeholders. The benefit statements will be nearly identical for people in these four roles.

If this were a change initiative inside an organization as is my usual gig, I’d be using this map to help find an executive sponsor, build a steering committee and a core implementation team. For this change, I’ll essentially be the executive sponsor which I like because then I only need to talk myself into spending time on it! A steering committee can be great for accountability, establishing a budget and serving as a tie-breaker if the core team can’t come to a decision. And, the core team does the early prototyping à la Roger Martin’s book The Design of Business where he talks about “producing a prototype and observing whether it operates as desired.” In our case, we’ll pick up core team participants as we go along.

The creation of the map is an emergent process. It is important not to think of it as a deliverable or an output. I’m careful not to get too attached to it in any given state. I allow it to morph and take a new shape as we learn throughout the collaboration.

Since we eventually want everyone to adopt this new way of handling their calendar, we’ll look for leverage points in the system — places where getting a few people to work differently will have a network effect. No matter where we begin, we can recognize that any push will create a ripple effect, a cascading effect that impacts more people than those we first encounter. We’ll take greatest advantage of this network effect by dialoging first with those we think have the greatest chance to affect others in the process.

In looking at the map, it’s clear to me that there are two places I can start that will have the greatest potential for network effects and where I have the strongest relationships to get the ball rolling: the kids’ school and our local community theater.

My kid’s go to a very fine institution called the Grosse Pointe Academy. Schools have a great challenge coordinating their event calendar since they put on hundreds of events each semester. They have a couple hundred kids enrolled and perhaps that many parents. A change here could mean 1000 affected people.

I could march straight into the principal’s office. He’d have to see me since my kids are enrolled there. But, since he likely doesn’t manage the calendars and I have no real personal relationship with him, I decide to start elsewhere. My kids are both involved with forensics at the school, and I’ve been helping out as an acting coach. So, I figure I’ll approach the teacher that heads up that program. I happen to know that she manages the kids that help out with refreshments at home games, too. That puts her at the mercy of all of the other coach’s schedules. So, I’m guessing she’ll be open to ideas for making calendar management easier. Plus, she’s smart and approachable. It’s key to find the right kinds of persons as we begin a collaboration — those that keep us energized and are sympathetic to the cause.

Once she’s enrolled, the two of us can go together to see the principal about enrolling others. That way, we’ll have a working model in place first. And, my guess is that she has more influence over the principal than I would. Remember, the name of the change game is leverage.

I’m anticipating that, once parents experience the ability to subscribe to a calendar, they’ll start requesting it from other event producers that are in their kids’ sphere of influence.

It dawns on me as I’m drawing up the map that, while these new techniques will be very simple, there will still be a lot of people that need to be shown the new behavior. For that, we’ll need more technology mavens. Kids are quick to pick up new technology. Wouldn’t it be great to use the kids to manage the calendars? That would give them an education in a key aspect of information literacy — the publish and subscribe model — and create some technology mavens in the process.

So, once I’ve created a model with the teacher, I’m hoping the school’s change initiative will go down something like this…

Use the prototype to get agreement from the Principal to roll out the calendar technique school-wide. So as not to give teachers extra work, we’ll have each event producer assign one kid as the official keeper of the calendar for that sports team, activity, whatever. In homeroom, we’ll teach the kids how to publish the calendar and how to subscribe to a published calendar. The kids will be responsible for managing the calendar and showing their parents how to subscribe. The principal will put something in the newsletter about the project, and we’ll publish the events and instructions for subscribing on the school web site for other parents’ use.

First things first

I ran this by my two girls to gauge their level of interest and to see if they think other kids will participate. They are excited about it and agree to help. Perfect! Now I can add people from their sphere of influence into the map. At 11 and 13, they already have strong relationships we can use. And, I have some confidence that I can explain it to their teacher. If the kids get it, the teachers will be easy.

I’ll get in touch with the teacher and report back next time on what happens when you disturb the status quo. Plus, we’ll explore a road map for change that Dr. Carol Mase calls Adaptive Change. I’ll use the good doctor’s framework as the basis for moving forward on this change initiative.

Enrolling others to our quest

Last post, we planted our seeds of change with a manifest: we desire that everyone who puts on events, publish them on the internet in a way that we can subscribe to them.

OK, so everyone seems like a whole lot of people. Let’s agree to start with everyone within my sphere of influence. (Please indulge my use of the acronym SoI.) I’ll leave to trust that the effort will turn into a movement. The movement will create a tipping point. And at some point, the technique will become our new default behavior. I’ll look forward to the day when we won’t even recall how we used to do this back when we didn’t know better.

Even limited to “everyone in my sphere of influence,” we’re talking about a lot of people. One of the first orders of business will be to identify and engage them. Engaging them will require language I can use to attract them to the mission — magic words that will enlist them as part of our volunteer army. Since it’ll be more than just a few folks, I’ll want to consider the web of influence among them to prioritize the order of conversations.

Some folks will have more influence over others and would be good to connect with in the early stages. Others might be open minded, non-critical thinkers who would be good to help shape the vision. Still others are hard-wired to help distribute the mission and teachings. In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell eloquently refers to these archetypes as connectors, mavens and salesmen.

In the next post, we’ll create a mind map for the sphere of influence. For now, we’ll continue creating the key messages.

For clues with the language for attracting others, I look for leverage points in the system. Initially, I puzzle over the following notion.

If this is such a great idea, why aren’t we doing it this way already?

Lots of people are. If I had more time, I could probably make some inferences about how many. [C'mon research geeks, your chops are hereby requested. Post the answer in the comments.] I fully expect to find at least one person in my SoI managing their calendar data in a way that’s consistent with our dream.

But, the number of folks NOT publishing their calendar this way far exceed the ones that are, at least in my SoI which is really all that matters for my change initiative to be considered my change intiative. So, the question is still interesting in this context, and even more interesting when we consider the question more generally.

Why don’t people just do things the way we want them to all the time?

One answer may lie at the very heart of this ego-centric statement. As humans, we tend to think in terms of my effort and your effort. The event producers might be thinking to themselves, “hey, I’m taking the trouble to put on this event and I’ve distributed the paper fliers, and I don’t want to take any longer to do that than I already am.” But, their event audience is thinking, “Why do I have to enter this event into my calendar when it’s already in somebody else’s calendar somewhere. I have too many important things to do than to do data entry.”

It dawns on me that another reason the solution to this problem hasn’t yet taken hold is one of scope. Is it possible that most of us are just managing our own calendars, just entering one event at a time? In that case, it’s not a big deal to us. But when coordinating the travel schedule for four, the problem is amplified.

When thinking about cooperative change, we need to reframe the effort as our effort. Thinking in terms of both/and, we need to ask how it’s possible for event producers to provide calender information in a way that is easy for them to do AND enables us to put it in our calendars without re-typing.

This us/them divergent thinking also leads to an awareness gap. I don’t know what you need, and I am not aware that what I am doing is causing a problem for you. We’re not thinking in terms of the downstream consumption of the information we produce.

What’s more, we just may not know that a better way is possible. We might name this the knowledge gap. Collaborations are a great way to solve the we-don’t-know-what-we-don’t-know problem. Simply getting the right people in the room and having dialog is a great place to start.

So, we have these four interacting insights: We think in terms of “me.” We are not aware there is a problem. The problem has not sufficient importance to gain our attention. The solution has not become apparent. As I write these I find it curious that each of these insights has within it the element of awareness. Perhaps that’s why so many great thinkers use meditation as a way to heighten their levels of awareness and increase their connectedness to the Whole.

Let me point out that, as is typical of questions related to complex social behavior, the answer to our focusing question is not known and in fact may not be knowable. What is knowable is that we must hold steadfast to the belief that change is possible. People, in accordance with our natural environment, are changing all the time.

Based on our exploration of human nature, let’s apply some of that learning to our statement of attraction.

First, I’ll think about their needs, remembering that each collaborator comes from a different place and is uniquely human. Summoning all my powers of empathy, I’ll make some inferences about what might be true for them and use that as the basis to form some possible benefit statements. This must not be a substitute for actually asking them about their particular situation, but it’s a good place to start.

When I approach them, I’ll courageously share our big hairy audacious goal. Let me add emphasis to the sharing part. It will be important to allow each collaborator to color and shape our vision.

Next, I’ll explain how the change is possible. I’ll explain the benefits to them and the people in their sphere of influence and ask if those sound valid based on their experience. Having identified the ego and awareness problem, I know to use dialog to share my point of view and ask them to share theirs. I’ll ask them if they’d like to participate in the change process and if they know more people that would like to collaborate with us.

Next time, we’ll identify some key collaborators to approach with an intent to further our mission.

The change journey begins

Everybody seems to be talking about change these days. I’m adding my voice to the mix with personal stories of change. These stories will describe how its possible to transform our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world into one characterized by vision, understanding, clarity and agility. We’ll talk about concepts and then apply them immediately on a running project.

The change we’ll be discussing will not be of the “change your mind” kind. And, not change as in “No way you are leaving this house until you change out of that outfit.” (I’ll save that one for my 13 year old daughter!) We’ll focus our attention on change that requires the expertise or involvement of more than just one person. The kind of change that starts out with a nagging intuition that says something isn’t quite right — that says things should be different somehow.

The change also should be something that seems reasonably inside of our control. Lofty, but accessible stretch goals. While I in no way want to discourage any of you to have as your change initiative to bring about world peace or transform global warming into global healing, we’ll focus our attention on much more plebian ventures. Morphing corporate culture, achieving goals set forth in our strategic plan, or organizational restructuring are all fair game. A hospital that is implementing an electronic medical records system or starting up a new company are a good fit as well.

With these kinds of change intiatives, participants are faced with significant complexity, collaboration will be required, and the exact post-collaboration future state would be difficult to accurately predict. It will be necessary to use our imaginations to envision the future. The successful outcome will depend on our ability to attract others to the task, see the surrounding system clearly, understand its moving parts, find the leverage points and let loose interventions that guide the flock toward our vision. We could agree to call it cooperative change.

My friends at Knowesys have agreed to help guide me through a change that I’d like to see in the world. I’ll apply their adaptive change framework and write about the experience here.

Desire is the seed of change

I expect each of us stumble upon things that we desire to change in our own way, based upon our experience through life. Some of us are big picture idealists and see opportunity at every turn. Others see problems and strive for solutions. I’ve noticed my yearnings for change can come from either camp.

In the scenario I’ll be documenting in this blog series, my desire for change began with a constant annoyance — keeping track of my kids. Mind you, it’s not my kids that are annoying. They are a delight; fun and talented and smart. But all of this education and entertainment comes with a price. My wife and I share the responsibility for carting the kids around from place to place. I know what you are thinking, and yes, my wife does more of it than me. She collects the calendar and stores it in a big binder. I never can remember the when’s and where’s, so I’m always having to ask my wife. Or, more accurately, my wife is always having to tell me when it’s my turn, where I have to be to pick up which kids and at what time. The now debunked myth that we retain 30% of what we hear and 10% of what we read, doesn’t hold true for me. While I’ve not subjected myself to rigorous experimentation, I am relatively certain I retain more of what I read. Or, it might just be that that, as my wife says, I can’t hear the frequency of her voice. Or maybe it’s the disease commonly referred to as CRS. In any case, I generally need to hear it multiple times.

If I want to know for myself where the kids need to be and when without having to ask, I need to consult the binder. It contains every printed page of calendar that the kids collect — forensics, theater, dance, violin lessons, volleyball, soccer, school events — they are all in there.

I don’t like the binder. Maybe its that I never know where it is. Maybe its that I know from my career as an information architect that its contents are never 100% accurate. Event times and locations are very dynamic while her paper based system has no good way to stay current. Not my wife’s fault, but the paper doesn’t help. It gives the illusion of up-to-date information. It’s the deceit that bugs me, maybe. What’s more, the publishers of each calendar do not print a new calendar for every change. Rather, the changes are usually in a series of email blasts or voice mail from a phone tree.

Also, it’s neither searchable nor filterable. I can’t ask the binder to show me the events containing the word “ballet.” And, I can’t get a list of events only for today. The list of events that are happening today are represented across multiple calendars. I have to aggregate them by day in my head while flipping through the pages.

This problem for me is like that mosquito in the dark. No potential to really do me harm, but damn if I could just make it go away.

I probably would have let this open sore fester but for a recent workshop session on observable work where the presenter, the esteemed Jon Udell, related to us his latest project teaching others to be virtual curators for community calendars based on syndication. We share frustration with the way event producers present their calendar information. In the information age, we need event data presented in way that we can consume more easily, taking advantage of the tools at hand. Turns out that the tools are readily available for someone to share their calendar in such a way where we can subscribe to it, making those events appear in our personal calendars while the publisher maintains control over the event information.

It strikes me that my desire for this change is owned jointly by my desire to have an easier solution for managing calendar data and by the knowledge that a solution is readily available save for a change in human behavior. Just that (sarcasm included).

Perhaps that’s a critical ingredient for change — knowledge that the change is possible. For my part, I think that’s true. I find myself looking for precedent as permission to proceed. I know others who are able to just believe. Belief is the strongest motivator.

So, with my belief that this improvement is possible, I set out to form the collaborations necessary to bring about this change. Let’s call it a lesson in adaptive change with a civic lesson in information literacy thrown in for good measure.

Where do we begin?

I like Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth where he suggests we “begin anywhere.” The entire path to successful change need not be known. We need simply next action. Still, it’s helpful to have a framework and a guide. So, to begin, we’ll take a closer look at some concepts around how change happens.

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