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Sunday, 28 February 2010 00:00

When PMs OD, Projects Run Better

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Most projects do not fail for the problems on the project; they fail for the problems in the organizations associated with them. Even issues within the project are usually personnel related requiring the project manager to do more counseling than managing. So where does the project manager get these skills? Unfortunately, they come from experience; few come from formal training. Instead, project managers get training on process, which, as can be seen in many of my articles, is misguided. Project managers need to spend more time developing the organizations, making them stronger. Without doing extensive organization development, projects will continue to fail.

Organization Development

Yes, I am talking a different OD, Organization Development, to be exact. OD is a discipline that treats organizations as systems, much as one might look at a human as a system of interconnecting and dependent parts residing in a society. The interconnecting parts (the things inside the project) affect the system as much as the people and conditions around the being (things outside the project). For example, a person can get a cold and it negatively affects the body, but that cold comes from the environment, its origin is outside the body. Just as with our bodies, over seventy percent of a project's problems are from the outside.

OD Genesis

Organization Development, as a discipline, began in the 1940s and was thrust into common business vernacular fifty years later when Peter Senge wrote The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Today, its importance grows as the pace of businesses increases, positions become more volatile, and business goals change at an ever-increasing rate. The OD philosophy advocates looking at problems in a holistic manner rather than working with individual people, groups, events, or problems.

The Tools

OD practitioners help an organization function better by looking at people, their interactions, and the internal and external influences on them. This top-down, organization-wide effort focuses on increasing the effectiveness and health of the organization. Tools that OD practitioners use are easily trained techniques that are available in many professional development curriculum (a local example is the OD program in the Professional Development Center at Portland State University). These practices include:

  • Treating the organization as a system rather than individual pieces (systems thinking)
  • Focusing the organization on their positive aspects leveraging what they are doing correctly (appreciative inquiry)
  • Creating an organizational mentality that thrives on and accommodates organizational change
  • Working with individuals and groups to improve their ability to perceive, control, and evaluate emotions (emotional intelligence) stabilizing the group and promoting its health
  • Taking purposeful actions in organizations (interventions), disrupting the status quo and feeding organizational learning through questioning the norm
  • Promoting on-line learning
  • Coaching teams and individuals on OD techniques
  • Facilitating the creation of self-managed, self-directed and self-organizing teams (sounds a lot like Agile)

The Process

Grounding the organization in these key principles creates a learning organization. Project or functional managers can enlist the help of practitioner to support fixing these problems. However, the organization must fix the problems.

The typical interaction with an organization entails six steps:

  1. Engaging and establishing the goals
  2. Assessing the organization's needs
  3. Providing feedback to the organization
  4. Creating an action plan
  5. Performing interventions, implementing the results and evaluating their success
  6. Closing the engagement

Practicing OD on a project is troublesome due to the organizations attitude on projects. Projects, by definition, are focused on building a product or service. Improving the organization is generally outside its scope. To add to this problem, many projects are staffed with temporary contract labor or are remote from the company's OD experience. Trying to apply OD practices in these situations is difficult, however, for the same reason it is critical. In order to form a cohesive team quickly, one that works seamlessly with the support organizations outside the project, these principles are essential.

Learning More

Since most organizations have not made the connection between the organization's health and that project managers need to be versed in using these tools, continued education is often left to the project manager. Resources, in addition to the ones mentioned above, include the Organization Development Network (ODN) and its local chapters. Most chapters work hard to promote OD and educate individuals and companies on the practice. One example is the Oregon ODN (OODN) based in Portland. This group uses social media heavily to communicate OD knowledge. OODN's meetings are open to the public, their LinkedIn group welcomes non-members, and their new twitter account (@OregonODN) servers up articles from a variety of OD practitioners.

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