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It's Less about Convincing and More about Understanding

Jeff Hallman, Director, Project Management Support Office, Georgia Tech Research Institute
Jeff Hallman, Director, Project Management Support Office, Georgia Tech Research Institute

Jeff Hallman, Director, Project Management Support Office, Georgia Tech Research Institute

Organizational leaders in the business and project management world have laboring indefatigably with Change Management since the 1980’s. A quick search of business journal databases yields journal articles such as Linda Ackerman’s 1986 article “Change Management: Basics for Training” published in Training and Development Journal and Julien Phillips’ 1983 article “Enhancing the Effectiveness of Organizational Change Management” published in Human Resource Management. The effort required was minimal to discover these two examples of change management literature, meaning there are probably thousands more additional sources that could be dredged up. Why are we still wringing our hands in an attempt to understand this essential project and organizational management skill as it relates to interfacing with and contributing to project and organizational strategy?

The answer could be simply that we are generally ineffective practitioners at delivering effective change to our organizations. Most of us want to focus on how to encourage people to change their minds regarding different topics or how to stratify groups of people in our organizations to concentrate on likely converts to our way of thinking. This is where we may be wasting a lot of our effort and resources. There is a more basic concern we should turn our attention to when faced with a change issue within our organizations. Understanding not only the ‘what’, but the ‘why’ of a conflict change situation might help us negotiate the entanglement of our organization’s multiple personalities.

  We create templates of the world that we try to fit incoming information into to help determine a course of action 

A noted psychologist, George Kelly, postulated in 1955 that each one of us uniquely creates or constructs ourselves through an exclusive amalgamation of many absolute understandings that are related to human psychology. This is the ‘why’ to be understood intimately before implementing change across a department or organization. If you can understand the implications of this one sentence, you can jump-start your change process.

We can use George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory to help understand this idea. Let us start the sentence deconstruction with the phrase “uniquely creates or constructs ourselves” in an attempt to apply this psychological principle to the business change process. The postulate means in basic terms that we create templates of the world that we try to fit incoming information into to help determine a course of action. Those templates or patterns are created from a unique set of personal experiences and are continuously dynamic via a hard-wired feedback loop called life.

The second phrase to deconstruct is “absolute understandings.” These are axioms related to our personal experiences that may or may not be axioms related to specific experience interpretations in other people’s lives. Our personal axioms are the starting point for any opinion or decision. A simple, real-life example of “absolute understandings” might help here. During the months of December through February, the weather is generally colder. True, except in Australia or certain other Southern Hemisphere countries, correct? The absolute is only from our personal point of view. A person’s “absolute understandings” are used to “uniquely create or construct ourselves” through a continuum of successive approximations of happenings and circumstances.

People are confronted with the repercussions of paradoxes created by personal construct templates in their daily lives, but most never consider the wider consequences. For example, have you and a peer ever been subjected to or been presented the same information about a civic, relationship, or business situation and ended up with dichotomous reasoned responses? You and your peer are discussing how the newly formed Program Management Office (PMO) at your company is supporting your development programs. You state that you expect the PMO to be valuable to your projects in the planning phase. Your peer states that she believes planning should be left for the project manager to execute alone.

Who is correct? No one knows, and it is not important. What you do know is that they are both correct for their given experiences and created templates. Your task is to understand as many influential stakeholders’ “absolute understandings” that “uniquely create or construct” their motives for decision making. Understanding stakeholders in this context are discovering their history and reasons behind their opinions and decisions. Practicality is a concern here, but this is a framework to be applied appropriately for given situational conditions.

Gill Nicholls of the United Kingdom’s Higher Education Academy brought Kelly’s understanding of human psychology to the business domain, while maybe unintentionally, by stating that a person’s behavior can be more fully understood if we can interpret the cues embedded in a person’s planning, regulation, and explanation of their actions. This idea can be fully integrated into the change process equation:

Actions ---> Behaviors ---> Culture ---> Change

If we create the environment of positive change actions, then eventually behaviors are modified. If behaviors are modified, then the organizational culture will begin to shift. If the organizational culture shifts in the direction the organization wants to head, then positive change will occur. George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory gives practitioners a basis of understanding to start constructing a plan for change within their project team or organization. The understanding of how to start can minimize time wasted on convincing stakeholders that are already firmly planted on the opposite side of the issue. The project team or organizational leader can use those resources for listening to stakeholders and understanding their position to craft a plan for change that more fully envelopes the entire stakeholder spectrum of your project team or organization.

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