Convince Your Sponsors to Use a Different Approach

Derrick Bowen
Principal, Houston Office

Over the past 100 years, society has gotten very good at solving a certain type of problem. We have engineered solutions to everything from wireless telecommunications to putting a person on the moon and returning them safely back to Earth. However, we are increasingly running into a new class of problems against which our existing approach is ineffective.

In the business world, this manifests as dismal project success rates, or as “successful” projects that do not actually change what they were aiming to fix. How many projects have you watched fall apart as the initial assumptions change or are found to be invalid? Even if you wanted to try a different approach, how could you convince your sponsors that it is safe?

Complex is not the same as complicated

The existing approach breaks down as we attempt to work on ever more complex issues. According to the Cynefin framework within systems theory, problems lie along a continuum from simple to chaotic. Below is a high-level overview as a foundation for this conversation.

Simple:

Easily knowable and highly predictable. Contains a small number of components, may have a “recipe” that can be followed. Example: Your car key.

Complicated:

Not simple but still very predictable. Contains a large number of components or requires deep knowledge to understand how it works. Expertise is highly valuable. Example: Your car.

Complex:

Not fully knowable, but some ability to predict. Interconnected relationships of independent evolving sub-systems. Surprises inevitable. Cannot be understood through deconstructive analysis of the parts. Example: Traffic.

Chaotic:

Unknowable and unpredictable. Example: driving off-road into uncharted territory.

In today’s organizations, simple problems are handled as individual tasks, and chaos is avoided if possible. Businesses are profitable when they can successfully provide solutions to complicated and complex problems. We have gotten very good at complicated problems, designing, planning, and executing until we have engineered a workable solution. Complex problems defy top-down executive control, they are by nature collaborative and emerge through the work of independent entities. Trying to “solve” a complex problem with the same approach used for complicated problems will not produce the results desired.

Problems with the standard approach

Standard project management approaches are designed for complicated problems. With complex problems, the iron triangle of project management no longer applies: you don’t know the full scope, you only know some of the resources you will need, and good luck guessing the schedule. In complex problems, there is not one right answer, and any changes you introduce could have unintended consequences. As such, there is not really a “complex problem” approach. 

To work on a complex problem, you have to first break the unknown into concrete pieces that you can attempt. The difference comes in understanding that your “requirements” are just guesses that require action from independent actors, so you must put practices in place to continually monitor for and react to the inevitable surprises that will pop up.

A desire to be more dynamic to changing circumstances can be thwarted by the common practice of demanding business requirements be set in stone before sponsors will give approval to begin. Instead, how can we structure projects in a way that allows for dynamic adjustments of scope, schedule, and resourcing while still building confidence in our sponsors that we have a plan?

How will your sponsors respond to a more dynamic approach?

In a modern business, decisions to take on a new project are not made by a single person, but by a group of decision makers. These sponsors typically fall into one of the following three categories: 

Those impacted by the project

Those who control the budget

Those who check the technicalities

In order to use a more dynamic approach for your project, you should consider each of the sponsors you will need to align with, and how to create a structure that will satisfy their needs. You have different options for each group of decision makers based on typical people and project structures.

Use these options to generate ideas as you consider the needs of the individuals you are working with in your situation.

Those impacted by the project

These are the people who will be directly impacted by the outcome, or who lead those who will be using the result of the project. They are generally agreeable to a more dynamic approach, as it provides them more flexibility and requires less up-front effort before getting started. A dynamic approach does require more ongoing involvement, so they may have trouble with the idea if they feel they do not have sufficient time available. The best way to address this concern is by identifying someone they trust to handle the day-to-day decisions, with clear criteria for what should be escalated for their attention.

The agile software development methodology, when done correctly, is a good example of a dynamic approach that has proven popular with this category of sponsor. Often times with agile, however, there is difficulty including and convincing sponsors outside of those most directly impacted, and this reduces the range of complex problems that can be addressed. 

Those who control the budget

To this category of sponsor, a dynamic approach may look like a blank check with no guarantee of results or positive return on investment. They likely have experienced failed projects, and in reaction implemented increased rigor to protect the company. It is important to remember that they are not wrong: complex problems are more risky than complicated problems, and it is often not possible to assure positive returns on a short timeline. However, the long-term benefits can be very substantial or even necessary to prevent obsolescence.

Sometimes, teams appease this category of sponsor by simply writing a detailed scope or set of business requirements that they then go on to ignore for the rest of the project. This works as long as the outcome of the project is positive, but if substantial difficulties are encountered along the way this can lead to a full collapse of the effort into a storm of blame.

Several alternative approaches can be helpful for convincing this category of sponsor: First, focus on defining the process for monitoring, identifying, and responding to surprises in scope, schedule, and resources. Be sure to include approvals for any increase in budget to build confidence that this is a professional endeavor and not just a playground. Next is to structure the project as a series of experiments so you can validate results with real people before paying to scale to larger audiences. Third, include levers for scaling back or killing the project if it becomes apparent that the desired outcomes are not possible. This could include distinct phases or milestones with built in decision points to combat the sunk costs fallacy. 

Those who check the technicalities 

This category of sponsor includes procurement, legal, IT, security, risk management, auditors, and any others who are tasked with ensuring the business runs smoothly. They are similar to those who control the budget but focused on their area of concern. How likely they are to resist a more dynamic approach depends on the scale and scope of the project being proposed. The most effective way to gain alignment with them is to build trust by actively listening to their concerns and integrating the structure they seek into the process for monitoring, identifying, and responding to surprises.

Conclusion

To make the impact on the world that we seek, we have to be better able to see and respond to surprises that will come up. Use these ideas to help you break free of the inertia tying you to your existing approach. By working with sponsors to understand their needs, we can change the way we do work in order to successfully take on more complex problems.

 

 

References:

Snowden, David J.; Boone, Mary E. (November 2007). "A Leader's Framework for Decision Making". Harvard Business Review, 69–76. 

Dignan, Aaron; (February 2019) “Brave New Work”

http://noop.nl/2008/08/simple-vs-complicated-vs-complex-vs-chaotic.html 

http://learningforsustainability.net/post/complicated-complex/

Original article on Derrick’s LinkedIn page

Derrick Bowen

About the Author

Derrick shapes projects with the understanding that the ultimate value of any system is driven by the experience of people in the physical world. He sees web and mobile technology as enablers to combine global markets and increase the availability of resources, ultimately leading to business and social transformation. His focus during his career has been on solving those problems that span the edges between knowledge domains, technology stacks, or functional areas.

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