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How change projects go wrong and why a Masters in People and Organisations could help

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How change projects go wrong, the three interconnected and universal reasons and why a Masters in People and Organisations could help.
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By James Traeger Programme Director, Mayvin Masters in People and Organisation Development

Why do we need such a thing as a Masters in People and Organisation Development? Well, perhaps this type of learning could be worth as much as $6.5 billion dollars. To back up this seemingly ludicrous proposition, I am supported by the excellent podcast from the Science Journalist, Matthew Syed (Sideways BBC Sounds no. 11 ‘Too Big to Succeed’)

According to Syed there are three interconnected and universal reasons why any project, but particularly ‘grand’ projects, tend to go significantly over time and budget. And these reasons are not a failure of project management technique, know-how or change management skill. They are relational and interpersonal, psychologically driven mechanisms that the wherewithal of organisation development (OD), the core practice of our new Masters programme (see: this link), aims to address. 

Let’s look at the argument Syed makes in more detail. He suggests that big projects are set up to go over budget and over time because of three interconnected mental habits, common in human systems. And with each of these habits, we can see how OD might help. 

  1. The ‘Everything Goes According to Plan’ (EGAP) assumption

The term ‘EGAP’, which stands for ‘Everything Goes According to Plan’, was coined by the World Bank to explain a universal problem with project and change management. According to Syed, the reason why the EGAP assumption makes things go awry is because project planning fails to plan for what it can’t envisage, as well as what it can. When planning rationally, which is the fundamental mental model behind typical project planning, the habit is to think that the world is controllable and predictable. But as we know, particularly from recent experience, it is far from it. So-called ‘Black Swan’ events (named by the economist Nicholas Taleb), that is, unpredictable events that blow the project plan apart, are just as likely as predictable ones. A highly skilled Organisation Development Practitioner is more equipped to use their intuition, their relational skill and their understanding of complex systems to help change projects work with this unpredictability. The core of the work of such practice is to foster a more resilient and interconnected network of relationships that can learn and adapt more quickly to unforeseen events. So, for example, when we supported a government department in the midst of Brexit, facing the cliff edge of ‘no deal’ three times through a turbulent year, we created a department-wide network of collaborative learning partners who were able to provide just in time learning, close to the grain of the work to front line staff and managers. It was noted by senior leadership that this network was instrumental in helping the department deal with the unpredictable nature of this environment more effectively. The unique difference organisation development practice offers is this wise, flexible, systemic insight.  

2. The worst plan survives 

The second error behind the failure of many grand projects according to Syed is what he calls the ‘deceptive optimism’. In short, it is a tendency of both those commissioning and those pitching for projects to be over optimistic about what can be achieved and at what cost.  My Dad used to say that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is, but in the face of this, in the world of grand projects, Syed cites what he calls the ‘inverse Darwinian law’: the survival of the worst project plan. Honest bidders who are realistic about how to meet the requirement lose out, in favour of those who give over-optimistic estimates of what can be achieved for how much and by when. And once the project is underway, the recognised psychological mechanism of ‘completion bias’ kicks in. This is how people are cognitively primed to finish what they start. It is too painful to stop and change course.  We tend to press on doggedly on a path, ignoring all evidence that there may be a better option. 

How can organisation development practice help here? At the core of OD; since some of the founders (such as Kurt Lewin) began the adventure in the early twentieth century, is the notion of both speaking truth to power and of enabling power to hear the truth. In this way, OD Practitioners are imbued with the differentiating craft of enabling these cognitive errors to be skilfully challenged. It is at the heart of our practice to foster an environment where the truths of a situation are enabled to be spoken. Our OD practice, to use an ancient saying, is about ‘confronting the difficult whilst it is still easy’. As a case in point, we recently supported a surgical pathway within a large NHS Trust to perform much more effectively by helping all staff have a voice in the hierarchy, where before, Nurses and support staff in theatres were made to feel insignificant and frightened to speak up. This was identified not only as enhancing well-being across the working environment but also as important to diminishing the risk to patient safety. 

  1. More haste less speed 

The third problem that exacerbates the first two is the timeline problem. The longer a project goes over its allotted time, the more likely the Black Swan events are to happen that will throw it further out of kilter. The shorter the timeline, the smaller the variance. So the longer a great project goes on, the more expensive it becomes and the longer it takes. In our OD practice, we talk about ‘going slow to go fast’. This is about establishing trust, clarity and quality of relationships before we dive into the task. For example, when we coached the senior team of a brewery, we enabled them to overcome significant internal differences, for example between the sales and infrastructure teams, so that the planned multi-million pound investment in new plant and machinery had a much wider base of support. Had the project gone full steam ahead, in the previous atmosphere of mistrust, no doubt recriminations would have swiftly followed the start of the project, and contributed to breakdowns and delays which, as it was, went ahead relatively smoothly and with joined up support

The example Syed draws upon is the rebuild of the San Francisco Bay Bridge after the earthquake of 1989. The project was originally due to cost $250million and eventually cost over $6.5billion. It was due to be finished in 2007 and was finally opened in 2013. To claim that organisation development practice could solve this is bold, to say the least. It is in our DNA to be modest about what we can achieve, and to err on the side of not knowing and inquiry rather than certainty and advocacy. It is also harder to make claims about ‘what didn’t go wrong’ than see the breakdowns in hindsight. But we do envisage that people who undertake our Masters programme will have very useful, unique skills and capabilities which have the potential to offer fantastic value to organisations and individuals alike.  

To find out more, go to: 

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