Interview: Christine Spira, PMP

A talk with a project management and change management guru

Interview: Christine Spira, PMP

As digital technologies have come to dominate the means of distribution and most day-to-day work, the complexity of infrastructure, processes, and organizational interactions has increased. What you used to be able to change by rearranging some shelves or a file folder system has suddenly become an intricate wiring diagram of interrelated juggling acts. The stakes also feel higher, as projects can unexpectedly balloon in scope and cost, with the risk of a major, budget-busting misfire around every corner.

It’s no wonder project management and change management have become high priorities in most publishing organizations.

Christine Spira, PMP, is Founder and Principal of Partnering Consultants. She has over 25 years of experience in consulting, managing change, and implementing projects for clients across North and South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and South Africa. Her company’s focus has been on working with companies to deliver business results. Christine is a DDI certified facilitator, and has her Project Management Professional (PMP) certification through the Project Management Institute (PMI).

Christine’s former role as a Senior Consultant at ICS Group included working with international marketing teams to define strategy, partnering with clients to achieve business goals through project work, coaching project teams, implementing project offices, and facilitating project management workshops.

There’s too often a gap in appreciation for the increasingly important roles project managers play in organizational effectiveness. The same can be said for change management. So I thought it might be worthwhile to talk a bit about all of this with an expert. The following interview was conducted via a mix of email and phone conversations.

Q: Project management seems to have become increasingly important. Is that true? Why do you think that is?

Spira: What I find is that the amount of money organizations spend on implementing projects is staggering. I see companies implement the right projects, the wrong projects, the right projects run the wrong way. No matter the decision, a misstep can throw an organization into a tailspin and the right play can make them a fortune. That’s why having a process mapped out beforehand is so important. Otherwise, you’re always taking time to measure your next step. You can easily get tripped up, and you spend a lot of time and energy talking about the process each week. My mantra about planning ahead of time is: “If it is not about the process, then it is always about the process.”

It’s critical that projects support an organization’s overall business strategies and objectives, utilize a common project management process, and have measures in place for each project. Given resource constraints, tough decisions — like a go/no-go decision — must be made on which projects happen and how they should be implemented. To continually assess a portfolio of projects, organizations must support the effort to scope, plan, and identify resources required at inception and throughout the project’s lifecycle.

Q: What do most project and change management engagements deal with? What instigates a call to you?

Spira: Most of our engagements deal with facilitation of kick-off or strategy meetings, coaching/transferring of project and change skills to the project lead, or leading the change work stream or project management role.

According to the Gartner Group’s 2019 HR Survey, 47% of HR leaders are focusing on change management. This focus is due to organizations experiencing challenges in areas of financial constraints and demands, turnover, global teams, digital disruptions, and ineffective execution of projects. Companies reach out to me when they realize that they have to do something different and do not have the internal resources or in-house capabilities to achieve their goals.

My focus is on managing the program or project, the people and follow up. I also encourage strong sponsoring of the project, stakeholder identification and managing the project in a structured way. I have found although people fear structure, what they realize at the conclusion is the process facilitated its success.

Q: How do project management and change management compare, overlap, and differ?

Spira: Project management is the application of processes, methods, skills, knowledge, and experience to achieve specific project objectives always balancing time, scope, and resources.

Change management is the process of managing the human aspects of implementing major complex change. Companies need to ensure they are driving change while managing communications and training.

Both processes are integral to successfully managing work and change. I always kid around saying, “projects would be so easy if it were not for the people.” People on projects come from different mindsets, beliefs, and behaviors. This is where change management is critical. Yet, they can find ways to work together, use their different skillsets, and manage through conflict and changes in scope. Human Resource theorists Herzberg, Maslow, and Tuckman use different theories to describe what motivates and enables people or teams to work together more efficiently, even though we do not learn, think or process information the same way or at the same speed.

From a project management point of view, teams need to determine each step of the process and areas where change may be difficult for different stakeholder groups. Using different tools and techniques from a project management perspective can move a low-performing team to a high-performing team much more quickly.

Q: What are some of the major obstacles people and organizations face when dealing with change?

Spira: I find there’s a major fear of change in every organization, and in almost every individual. An acronym I have heard to describe this is FEAR — False Evidence Appearing Real.

People want to know what is going to be different in their work, what is the benefit to them, what actions they will have to take, and what help they will get to implement the change. Organizations need to understand that at the beginning of any change they may not have all of the answers. They need a change management strategy that tell them when and how and who to involve.

Change is transitioning from the current state to the future state. People move through change at different speeds. I remember hearing a senior leader in a SAP implementation workshop saying once, “I love change.” After he thought a moment, he said, “Well, not if it impacts me personally.” Change agents need to use different involvement techniques to uncover both covert and overt resistance to the change and address it accordingly.

Q: Talk about project managers vs. product managers. How can they complement each other? What causes tension or dysfunction?

I have found that roles and responsibilities are very important on projects. A responsibility assignment matrix (RAM) is a good way to understand who is accountable, responsible, consulted, or informed when it comes to various deliverables and decisions.

Some projects have both a product manager and a project manager. In these cases, a simplified explanation can be the product manager owns the brand and the project manager owns the process. Without clear roles, dysfunction often occurs.

In my work designing new product development processes, the product managers are subject matter experts who own the content of the project, including features and functions, understating the life cycle of the project, and working closely with the project manager. Project managers have the responsibility of initiating, planning, execution, monitoring, controlling, and closing a phase or a project. Project managers seldom participates directly in the activities that produce the end result, but rather work to maintain progress and interactions between the team members so that they reduce the risk of failure, maximize benefits, and minimize costs.

A critical role in projects is the sponsor. The sponsor is accountable for initiating the project, providing funding, busting through barrier, getting resources and support, and communicating the project within the organization. A sponsor should help to resolve any conflicts in project roles.

I’ve found that many organizations struggle with getting the right skill sets and the right people into the role of project manager. Just because someone has been a good employee doesn’t mean they should be promoted into the role of project manager.

Q: How have project and change management evolved over the years?

Spira: Project and change management 20-25 years ago were consistently related to IT projects, engineering, and construction projects. Organizations would have project management offices (PMOs) mostly for their IT projects. When you heard the words, “change control,” it would indicate the change log that you kept primarily as it related to defects and bugs in a system or process.

Today, you see many organizations that have PMO structures that include consistency of processes, templates, training, project managers, coaches, and portfolio management for more and more types of projects. These are managed as a portfolio including but not limited to new product development, commercialization, operations, and human resources. Change management has evolved to include how to support, involve, and engage the stakeholders inside and outside of your organization.

Q: How do things like emotions, culture, and so-called “soft skills” factor into change and project management?

Spira: “Reengineering the Corporation,” an oldie but goodie written by Michael Hammer, had a video related to change and project management. In it he said, “The hard stuff is the soft stuff.” As a project manager, you need to understand your team, how they think, learn, and interact, and determine how to integrate the process, when to push, and when to step away. In change management, this is referred to as “resiliency.”

Imagine everyone is a glass, and with each interaction this glass is being filled with water. Sometimes the person is ready to drink, and other times that final pour will cause the glass to overflow. It’s the same thing with the person’s emotions or ability to take on one more task. Your job is to know the difference, before it overflows.

Q: What marks success in change management? In project management?

Spira: Successful change for any organization must include the accomplishment of the project goals including schedule, cost, and budget. For the success of my projects, an equal measure is the satisfaction of the people involved. When a project is complete, I want them to say they did it themselves, gained new skills, and are prepared to implement new changes in the future without fear.

Final thought: Trust the process, it works!

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