Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Can you resist change?

When you are conducting projects in dynamic environments an obvious way to deal with rapid change is to simply resist it. This could be achieved by:
  • freezing the design, and rejecting change requests;
  • Reject adoption of new (unproven) technologies or techniques; and
  • simply extending the life of existing systems.
In highly dynamic environments, the benefits of this make static approach are countered by challenges which might include:
  • lost opportunities through delayed implementation of new approaches, materials or business objectives that provide significant benefits, despite the challenges;
  • reduced business competitiveness, especially when competing organisations offer, or make use of, new systems that are often more effective;
  • reduced business compatibility when an organisation falls too far behind best practice, and finds it difficult to recruit staff familiar with their environment. Sometimes technology used on a previous project simply does not exist anymore, and new ones have to be use. An example of this is the submarine case.
Indeed, the make static approach can conflict with low material life-spans (low MTTF) and life-cycles (the period before manufacture ceases permanently). Materials, and therefore products, may have to be replaced within three to four years with a next generation material/product. Next generation materials/products may have differing properties to the original, and this has a flow-on effect to dependant products. Here are some comments on the make static approach from my study participants:

We have to be responsive to the external environment at all times. This includes both the technology environment and the investment environment.

The project would fail if we had to stay on the plan. I’ve never gone right through according to plan.

Plans don't survive the first shot

An industry with a strong public safety requirement may be attracted to the ‘make static’ approach. A safety imperative can help justify funds to test and implement strategies, and this can mitigate the reliability disadvantages of early adoption; the medical and the aircraft construction industries are examples. Conversely, the IT industry cannot easily leverage public safety to justify higher costs, so it trades reliability for faster delivery of new functionality at lower costs. Jones argues that technology-product lifecycles are now measured in months, compared to the car industry, which is measured in years (about five), and in the construction industry, where “change in product technology is very limited and products such as steel girders and electrical cable may remain in the mature stage indefinitely” (G. R. Jones, 2004b, p. 406)

A project manager’s willingness to embrace change should be proportional to the advantage/risk trade-offs involved. Some industries may gain relatively small advantages from change, as compared to industries such as the business or IT sectors, which gain larger advantages for a much lower risk. This trade-off may relate to the maturity of the technologies used. For instance, with longer standing and more highly developed technologies in construction, the advantages gained from using a risky new material may be small and make it hard to justify the risks, especially if the end product needs to last decades. In construction, the risk of public harm rightly drives a highly regulated environment that mitigates the effect of change. So, for industries of high risk and low reward, the resisting change strategy using more traditional project management may remain a superior approach until that balance changes.

Simon Collyer

Collyer, S., Warren, C., Hemsley, B., & Stevens, C. (2010). Aim Fire Aim - Project Planning Styles in Dynamic Environments Project Management Journal, 41(4), 108-121. doi: 10.1002/pmj.20199
Collyer, S., Warren, C. M. J. (2009). Project Management Approaches for Dynamic Environments, International Journal of
Jones, G. R. (2004). Organizational Theory Design and Change (4th International ed.). Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.