NZ’s Covid ‘bubble’ captured the imagination of the world.

Simple, powerful., emotional….different. We need this for management.

The story of how NZ’s bubble and ‘staying safe’ came about makes interesting reading. Dr Tristram Ingham and his whanau wanted something “simple, easy to visualise, inherently beautiful but fragile”.

“Build your bubble” was the answer Ingham pitched to the Ministry of Health. It went alongside messages like “don’t be scared, be prepared” and aligned with the concept of hibernation. The idea was that “you didn’t have to wait for the tidal wave to come, you could do something.”

“Effectively it was a social contract with people, a set of rules you negotiated with family members or housemates.”

While Ingham has transitioned back to his day job now, he hasn’t put Covid behind him; there’s now a lot of interest academically in what lessons can be learnt and what happened to the disability voice during the pandemic. Covid “ripped the Band-Aid off the festering sore of inequity in New Zealand”, he says. How well it will be patched up is another of those million-dollar questions.

All of us brought into jargon-free bubbles. Every one of us talked about our bubbles. It captured our imaginations. It kept us focused. It kept us safe.

Within, and around, our organizations there’s endless debate around topics such as strategic alignment, portfolio and programme management, governance and oversight, investment and benefits management, agile project management, digital transformation, enterprise resource management, working-from-home frameworks, and so much more. The publication of management texts is very big business. Perhaps, as with the concept of a bubble, it’s time to step away from the hubbub of management and consultant speak, and lighten things up. Perhaps it’s time to find a simple concept we can all buy into and which allows us all to be part of richer work conversations.

Looking at the management tenders I’ve responded to over the years, couched in hundreds of requirements, and debated by teams of people, I’d have to say we’ve got it wrong every single time. The tender process, supposedly aimed at promoting innovation, invariably looks to remove anything that looks different and ensures tool-sets and approaches all end up looking the same. It’s hard not to feel that the end result, in many cases, is lowest-price rules, mediocrity reigns, key senior-level decision-makers are excluded from the process, and down-the-track everybody loses. Our attempts to spice up the conversation, and break down the fixation with check-box selection, have inspired a range of reactions from anger to disbelief. Even if you win the tender the way forward is already hidebound by the selection process.

The conversations around management innovation need to be simplified rather than continually puffed-up. I’ve always believed the one, single question that needs to be asked and answered in a recruitment reference check is ‘Would you re-employ this person?’ In the same vein the conversation-starter in terms of management could be ‘Let’s talk about how we can work together, better.’

…the conversation-starter in terms of management could be ‘Let’s talk about working together, better.

Think about it.

You’ve decided to implement a Programme, Portfolio and Project solution for your organization because all your performance data is saying you can be better at project management, and you are currently heavily reliant on spreadsheets. Normally you’ll start looking at a range of business functions (e.g. scheduling, issue management, risk management, registers, reporting, lessons-learned) and you’ll reach out to the organization to define their needs around these functions, and get some level of buy-in. One of the major problems this embeds from the outset is a mistaken belief that you need to define a detailed set of requirements when in fact modern solutions should provide these ‘features’ out-of-the-box. Building up a home-grown, detailed list of requirements also tends to eliminate senior decision-makers from the process because they don’t have time or interest in the underlying detail. Going down this track can take months, and the longer the process, the less clear the requirements actually become. Things get continually reinvented depending on who speaks loudest. Too much detail also blurs success measures.

Implementing a solution isn’t the measure of success. What you can achieve with it is much closer to the mark and that’s about people not process. So how about a different approach. Instead of a detailed list of requirements, mark-up a 1-page Innovation Prospectus. Define your business purpose – the reason you exist; outline your specific challenges; define your high-level success outcomes = better projects – better teams – better results. Then launch a conversation with solution providers and innovators based on the following conversation-starter.

‘Let’s talk about how can we be more successful by working together, better’.

You could define your business purpose; outline your challenges; define your success outcomes (e.g. better projects – better teams – better results), and then start the conversation with some smart solution providers.

Once you go down this path, the whole conversation moves away from rules, procedures, methodologies, and even tools, and becomes about people. Those best placed to take part will be practitioners – those who are walking the path. You might find this eliminates all those consultants who rely on business theory but haven’t actually tried practical solutions themselves. We’ve been involved in some outstanding solution implementations. In one case, the customer achieved a 100% success rate across a significant portfolio of projects. But even then they didn’t kick on to even greater success and the reason was that we collectively failed to build on the human dynamics. We needed a different range, and depth, of conversations across all the participants from the outset. The whole process needed to be humanized.

Imagine the conversations you could have with the right solution providers around the following 5 outcomes all based on Working. Together. Better.

Adopt an ‘investment’ approach. Your solution should support a business lifecycle – taking ownership of benefits from the idea stage, through a business case, into the project and holding on to that view through, and past, delivery, and into organizational change management. Key is prioritizing the must-haves as opposed to the nice-to-haves so that you choose initiatives with the highest chance of success. For this to work successfully everyone must know where they can contribute to the initiative as it travels through the lifecycle, and by doing so understand and support the work others are doing.

Crowdsource your projects. Project teams facing a new, exploratory, high-risk initiative (the typical definition of a project) could reach out to their in-house cadre of experienced project and programme personnel seeking advice and support from early in the process. By creating these networks you also build in-house project personnel capability and store ongoing IP for the business.

Break down Executive-level barriers. It’s very simple. Your senior-level decision makers, need to understand where value is being created or destroyed and should be able to see exactly how many projects across the business are delivering benefits. They can then guide the business in terms of future performance expectations. The same principle applies to aligning work to strategies, and a raft of other organizational outcomes. Context promotes the right high-level conversations.

Deliver successful projects. Most organizations can improve in this area but not through applying more rules, process and outdated methodologies. There are a range of opportunities to drive project success rates upwards through a combination of smart, lean processes put together by an innovative ‘EPMO’ team; working alongside an investment team who identify and prioritize the quick-wins; and engaging with the Executive who stay up with the play right across the business by accessing data on-line, in real-time. The potential for growth in this area based on diversity of thinking and the ability to explore and pivot is enormous.

Balance your business. Always look to balance one management dimension with a competing dimension. In terms of business change projects, for example, you will build in-house support for new initiatives by ensuring that people working in related, core, business-as-usual roles are part of the mix, and in fact inform projects that will eventually be rolled back into the business. The reality is that the elements to be balanced already exist in the business. You simply need to connect them and when you do you’ve automatically connected up people who might previously have been seen as working at opposite ends of the spectrum. Research indicates that achieving this sort of balance dramatically increases business value, and why wouldn’t it!

Imagine implementing business solutions that support such rich conversations. Imagine the networks of people that will grow around these conversations. Imagine how well your business could be functioning and how well it’s positioned for whatever is thrown at it. I’m also betting that if you take part in these conversations you’ll eliminate most of the business process and rules you had in your mind at the outset. If not you are probably doing it wrong.

Working. Together. Better’ seems to have a lot going for it. It’s simple. It’s powerful. It’s different. It respects your people, wherever they work and whatever they do. OK, it’s three words rather than one but like the ‘bubble’ it allows for a different range of conversations to take place. It breaks with management convention at a time when Covid-19 has revealed the frailty of all our systems, including organizational management.

The ‘bubble’ became a social contract for families, friends and work colleagues as we worked to keep ourselves and each other safe. Working. Together. Better becomes a social contract for workplaces as we share, explore and collaborate along with others, and have fun while we’re at it.

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