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How to Stop the Change Project Saboteurs

Bob Little 

May 27, 2016

In March 1921, Warren Gamaliel Harding became president of the U.S. Not the most memorable of presidents, Harding’s main claim to any lasting fame comes from the Teapot Dome scandal.

This scandal involved Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall. Fall did a secret leasing deal for federal oil reserves and got kickbacks from Sinclair Oil.

True to his (middle) namesake, Harding was reluctant to take action and, instead, let Congress do most of the investigation. After Fall was convicted, Harding reportedly remarked, “I have no trouble with my enemies – but my damned friends, they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!”

Anyone who’s been involved in a project – especially an important one – can appreciate Harding’s sentiment.

Projects are all about change – and, as Confucius is reported to have said, “they must often change who would be constant in happiness.” Yet change impacts on different people differently. Some will “win,” while others will “lose.” Consequently, change routinely causes fear and uncertainty – and, so, can easily prompt “project saboteurs.”

These are people who – as Harding would have said of Fall – you’d expect to be on your side but who, for various reasons, attempt to sabotage your project for their own benefit. You can approach this issue from the personal and the corporate standpoint.

Sometimes, we’re our own worst enemies. We know we need to change our behavior but things prevent us from doing so. People, events and circumstances have the potential to change us. Their effects on us can be major or minor, productive or counterproductive, a challenge to our competitive instincts or a drain on us emotionally.

All of this combines to prevent us from being the person we want to be. So, not even we are on our own side when it comes to implementing change.

According to Marshall Goldsmith, in his book “Triggers – sparking positive change and making it last“, “It’s hard to initiate behavioral change, even harder to stay the course and hardest of all to make the change stick.”

In his view, we can’t admit that we need to change, we don’t appreciate inertia’s power over us, and we don’t know how to execute change effectively. Searching for ways to overcome this, Goldsmith delves into the world of situational leadership – developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard.

Hersey and Blanchard believe that effective leaders should:

  • Keep track of the changing levels of “readiness” among their followers.
  • Remain highly attuned to each situation.
  • Acknowledge that situations change constantly.
  • Fine-tune their leadership style to fit their followers’ “readiness.”

This results in four distinct relationships between leaders and their followers:

  • Directing – for workers requiring high levels of specific guidance to complete a task.
  • Coaching – for workers who need more than average guidance to complete a task but with above-average amounts of two-way dialogue. Coaching is for people who both want and need to learn.
  • Supporting – for workers with the skills to complete the task but who lack the confidence to do it all on their own. This approach features below-average amounts of direction.
  • Delegating – for workers who score high on motivation, ability and confidence. They know what to do and how to do it, and can do it on their own.

Applying this approach to explain why we don’t change to become the person we want to be, Goldsmith argues that, “Within each of us, is a leader/planner/manager who plans to change his or her ways. And there’s the follower/doer/employee who must execute the plan. We think they are the same because we unwittingly function as one or the other throughout the day. They are both part of who we are.

“In fact, we start each day as a bifurcated individual, one part leader, the other part follower – and, as the day progresses, the two grow further apart.

“When has your day ever worked out note for note as you planned it? … It rarely happens. So why would you expect it to happen when you are simultaneously both leader and follower, manager and worker?

“Whether you’re leading others or leading the ‘follower inside you,’ you still have to deal with the environment, and with other people who can tempt you away from your objectives. You have to take account of the fact that, as the day progresses, your energy levels, motivation and self-discipline will diminish.”

Goldsmith advocates a regime of self-directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating in our constant project to help us become the person we want to be – and stop us from constantly sabotaging our best intentions.

In the corporate sense, every project has opponents. The Standish Group’s Chaos Report 2015 reveals that, in the IT world alone, “in 2015 only 29 percent of software development projects were considered to be successful, meaning that these projects delivered on time, on budget, with a satisfactory result.”

With some $665bn spent annually worldwide on IT projects, this equates to $126bn being wasted due to project failure.

Dion Kotteman, a former chief information officer for the Dutch government who is now an information security expert for banks including ING and ABN AMRO, and project management specialist Jeroen Gietema offer their views on “The Project Saboteur… and how to kill him.” This guide offers guidance on securing your project, keeping it on time and budget, and stopping the internal politics that lead to sabotage.

Kotteman and Gietema believe that every project has opponents who’ll try to manipulate it so that the result suits them. They state that everyone can adjust truth to serve their own interests – to get more power, more income, and/or more respect. Their book explains how to sabotage a project, the motivations that guide the project saboteur, the alliances the project saboteur might make, and, most importantly, how to stop the saboteur.

Having identified this saboteur, you must manage him or her without hurting the project or your career. Reading Kotteman and Gietema’s book might make you more cynical but you’ll be more aware and better armed in the struggle against the project saboteur.

It might prevent you from having to “walk the floor nights” – unless, maybe, you conclude that the real project saboteur, preventing change, is you.

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