Seriously, friends, we need to talk.
Most weeks I spend a day or two sitting in rooms full of gifted and motivated professionals like yourself. I see you passionate about making a better world and mobilising your talents to create change projects you hope will make a difference.
I’m honoured to spend time with you.
But there’s a problem.
I’m seriously questioning whether we are doing this work well.
I want to name the malaise. I believe it is “Change Project Management 101”, the set of unwritten assumptions about how we go about designing change projects. OK there are other systemic causes as well, short-term funding being high on the list, but the way we understand our PROCESS OF DESIGN is something we have in our power to do so much better.
Could there possibly be a less effective way to design a change project than conventional “Change Project Management 101”? I see it everywhere, in projects large and small, super glued onto the automatic practice of so many talented and motivated people, unquestioned, reproducing itself from project to project, from decade to decade, immune to evidence of failure.
I think it goes a little like this:
Step 1: You write a funding submission the night before it’s due, based on whatever occurs to you at the time and with as much jargon as you can throw in.
Step 2: Miraculously you get funded. I say ‘miraculously’ because the funding agency couldn’t possibly have imagined what you really meant by all the jargon and vague abstractions you used. But then, maybe it wasn’t such a miracle: after all, the other grant applicants used exactly the same barely comprehensible language.
Step 3: You set up an advisory committee of mono-disciplinary professionals who have been working in the field forever.
Step 4: You survey your intended audience asking closed questions that reinforce your theory about what’s causing the problem.
Step 5: You commission a graphic design agency, at great expense, to design a logo and tag line – two things that make not a jot of difference to the success of your project. This keeps your advisory committee tied up for months, which is, of course, a blessing in so many ways.
Step 6: You assemble the facts, lessons or offers you think will persuade your intended audience to change their behaviour.
Step 7: You develop a website, poster, workshop series and so on. Maybe a blog and an app if you are an extremely with-it kind of person.
Step 8: You launch your project with a well-meaning press release that’s picked up and re-printed word-for-word in the local papers (yay!)
Step 9: Resounding silence. Almost no one gets involved in your project.
Step 10: You painstakingly evaluate your project, laying fantastic emphasis on every positive, and attributing the poor showing to the message not being loud enough.
Familiar? OK, it’s a bit satirical. But familiar? Yes.
The effect is as if the project designers locked themselves in a hermetically-sealed echo chamber that simply bounced their assumptions back at themselves and filtered out any alternative ideas.
Here’s a very different way of designing a change project:
When designing a project, determine, from the very beginning, to be surprised, amazed and delighted. And don’t be satisfied until a pile of your assumptions get busted – especially the ones you didn’t know you had. This means going out of your way to expose yourself to people, views, stories, examples that might bust those assumptions.
Step 1: Write your funding application (in plain English) pointing to successful solutions from other places, but stating clearly that you intend to test and modify your ideas based on what your formative research tells you.
Step 2: Scour Google Scholar and other sources to re-examine the problem and its causes. What really is the problem? What are the causes behind the causes? Usually the nature of the problem changes radically when looked at through different life situations and different disciplines, leading to radically different solutions. Reinvent the problem, then move on, but keep those multiple perspectives in mind.
Step 3: Invite a diversity of people to join a brains trust: professionals from divergent disciplines and backgrounds; as well as lay people; and creative, community-savvy types like choir leaders, community gardeners, men’s shed leaders, theatre directors.
Step 4: Expose them, and yourself, to a wide array of views, approaches and possible ways of tackling the problem, including related – and unrelated – projects from Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Seattle, Stockholm and Shanghai (that’s what Google is for).
Step 5: Collect immersive data to understand the lived reality of your intended audience’s lives, businesses or farms. Do interviews, observational studies, focus groups, and experience their lives for yourself. Understand their interaction with the problem as a set of stories. Share this with the brains trust too.
Step 6: Use your brains trust to brainstorm a fantastic array of possible solutions, including ones that are intended to be ludicrous and wacky. Prioritise these ideas to create an original solution that’s unique to your project. This solution will inevitably be multi-faceted and nuanced, including changes to systems and environments, and fun and engaging as well. It will bear no relationship to the lame “message” that Change Project Management 101 would have generated for you.
Step 7: Prototype your solutions, on a tiny time scale, in say 3 weeks, even if you have to draw your own posters with textas, or ring the participants personally. Then improvise on the fly, building on the good bits, losing the bad bits.
Step 8: Grow your project, scaling up your prototypes, until you feel confident to roll it out on a larger scale.
Step 9: Watch, listen, talk, learn and keep questioning your assumptions, based on your observations and anecdotal evidence. By all means do a formal evaluation too – it’s what your funder wants, and you’ll need the data to tell your success story later.
This approach treats knowledge very differently. Instead of blocking out contrary ideas, it purposefully seeks out divergent ways of seeing and acting, aiming to flood the cognitive space of your project with unexpected possibilities. (The reason for doing this, of course, is that conventional solutions don’t work. If they did the problems we are trying to tackle would probably have been solved long ago!)
Here’s a nice case study of this kind of approach in action:
Waverley Council, in Sydney’s beach suburbs, wanted to tackle a knotty municipal waste management problem – increasing recycling in apartment blocks or “multi-unit dwellings” (hence the acronym “MUDs”).
Thankfully the team, young and largely fresh to the waste management field, chose an unconventional approach.
First, they wanted to REALLY understand the human dimensions of the problem, so they interviewed 46 residents in 14 apartment blocks. And they wanted to understand the physical dimension so they carried out audits of 337 bins in the same blocks.
The interview format was unusual because it focused on the residents’ LIVED EXPERIENCE of the entire recycling system, from storing their waste in the kitchen, to carrying it down the stairs, to their feelings in the bin area. The team collected these experiences as narratives. One of the most productive questions was: “What, if anything, is the most annoying or frustrating thing about recycling for you?”
This, combined with the audits, led to interesting top-level findings:
The red garbage bin was full of stuff that could be recycled, including fully 30% paper and cardboard. And that might be because:
– 58% of residents said the paper and recycling bins were often too full to use; and
– 49% saw high levels of contamination, mainly plastic bags, that deterred many of them from recycling.
Incidentally 75% were happy with their bin area (that was a surprise), and 68% had no problems with kitchen storage (that was also a surprise).
Next, the team convened their brains trust, a diverse group of individuals including four block residents who were interested in recycling, two managing agents, and two members of council’s waste operations group.
In a single three hour session, the team briefed the brains trust on all they had discovered, inspired them with positive case studies from other places and cities, including some very different approaches, then borrowed their minds for a brainstorming session to generate original solutions.
The brainstorming was marvellous. A few times I noticed the project team grinning and metaphorically slapping their heads with amazement at the quality of the thinking.
The residents cut to the chase and quickly realised that shifting the 30% of paper and cardboard wrongly placed in the waste bin into the dedicated paper bin might be single most pivotal change, and a sensible one, given that the paper bins earn money for council. So they proposed a single issue campaign – just get paper in the right bin.
Full bins? Head-slappingly easy: provide more bins, an idea that council operations staff were very happy to investigate.
And since paper bins fill most quickly, provide small compactors and fun paper folding classes (origami anyone?) so residents could pack their paper and cardboard more tightly.
Plastic bag contamination putting people off recycling? Have another single-issue campaign, this time focusing solely on getting plastic bags into the correct bin (the waste bin).
Meanwhile the managing agents welcomed the idea of new tenants’ packs. And the group also agreed that apartment blocks with lots of back-packers were a special case that needed a special strategy.
Waverley’s recycling team are now writing up these ideas and deciding which ones to prototype first.
And that, dear friends, is a lovely example of how to do it. The result is a nuanced mix of system changes and single-issue behavioural projects that’s unique to the needs of Waverley’s apartment blocks.
It doesn’t mean that implementing the program is likely to be simple and there will still be a lot of learning and modification to come, but this is an infinite improvement on the standardised result that Change Project Management 101 would have produced. That’s because the process was designed from the start to surprise the project team and bust their assumptions.
The process of project design is an art. It’s the difference between success and failure. At its best it’s a fountain of creativity. And it can be tremendously fun and inspiring to do. If only we gave more attention to what that good process might look like.