Thursday, March 29, 2007

Band-Aids and Merry-go-rounds

As I child I had a lot of experience with both of these. I assume everyone is familiar with band-aids, the merry-go-round I’m referring to is the kind you find on a playground. These are basically a large dish parallel to the ground mounted on a central axis with some handle bars to hold on to - here is a picture of one. Aside from a trip down memory lane, what do these two things have to do with managing a PMO or even project management or even work?

I’m glad you asked – both of these items and their lessons from childhood give us insight into change. First, I want to look at each type of change and then talk about which is better (or not)?

Band-aids are good at covering up and protecting a cut, but that is not where I want to go with that, nor am I alluding to a band-aid fix for something. The change I want to discuss is the change that happens when the band-aid comes off.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I dreaded having the band-aid off more that the cut. If you are a guy with a lot of hair – it is even worse! Now there are many techniques for removing a band-aid. You could soak them in water, wait until they fell off, or go for the slow excruciating teeth gritting pull. However, as mom always told us, the best way is the quick pull or yank. One short burst of pain, a heartfelt OUCH and it’s all over – we have changed from with a band-aid to without a band-aid and we can run off to play and get more cuts.

This is a type of change – more formally we often call this a revolutionary change. We move from one state to another with a lurch. Revolutionary change usually involves some sharp pains, but we quickly settle into the new status-quo. Revolutionary changes often take the form of management directives – “we will now have full project schedules for all our projects.” Presto, all projects have schedules. We have all been through this in one form or another, one day you do it this way, then next you do it that way. Fast is good – sometimes, what about slow?

Seems like a lot of hyphens in today’s piece. The merry-go-round uses centrifugal force to basically spin kids around, make them dizzy and fall down. Oddly, this used to be a lot of fun. The thing about merry-go-rounds is that you always needed someone strong to get them going, and it seemed to take forever.

Here is an example of slow change or evolutionary change. The merry-go-round spin begins from a full stop. Usually the next step is for everyone riding to grab a bar and start walking, then running around the outside to build up speed. As the speed builds up, some run harder and some jump on for the ride. Once things are really going, you need only one person standing on the outside giving a light but fast push. Here we went from full stop to head-spinning speed through constant every increasing speed, yet ever decreasing effort.

In a strange twist, it takes less effort to keep the merry-go-round spinning than it did to get it there in the first place. This is often a characteristic of revolutionary change. So which is better, and how do we apply this to working in a PMO?

Evolution v. Revolution
I think that each of these types of changes has their place; it is the incorrect application of the type of change that causes the problem. Revolutionary change is fast, deliberate and often brutal where evolution is slow, smooth and palatable. We move through and evolution and we experience a revolution. The answer to which is better lies in the analogy.

Revolutions, like band-aids, are powerful when a change creates pain or must be done immediately. The revolution is best in lay-offs, or killing projects, or organization changes. You move immediately from one state to another and get on with life.

Evolutions are like pushing the merry-go-round; it is almost impossible at first, but as you keep pushing the changes come faster and faster with less and less effort – and everyone jumps on board. Evolutions work for cultural or procedural changes on a large scale, exactly like creating a culture of project management.

Certainly there are exceptions, and one could argue that an evolutionary change is nothing but a series of revolutionary changes all in the same direction – good point. I also think that revolutionary changes are more suited to making small scale changes. To get an organization of 20 people to use project management does not require a long slow push. Getting 200 to use PM is another story.

When you think about how you will make a change – which is the job of the PMO, think about the best way to do it. I think that you’ll find some changes are best treated like merry-go-rounds starting with lots of effort while other times all you need is one good yank – OUCH

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