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Project managers as change leaders

Published on November 11, 2004
in Projects @ Work Magazine (online at

Perhaps the most challenging project of all is one that requires an organization to change. An executive mandate is a good start, but to reach the finish line project leaders with 'soft skills and iron wills' must carry the baton, as these two call-management system implementations in local government demonstrate.

When an implementation project promises to transform an organization's culture and alter employee work habits, resistance is bound to arise. Yes, an outright edict from executive leadership is often issued, and the project moves forward, for better or worse. But a more effective approach calls on project managers who can mentor change and build cooperation. And one of the most powerful tools in their arsenal is listening and straightforward communications, as these two independent call management system projects demonstrate.

The City of Des Moines, Iowa decided to create a customer response system to track and route citizen calls, including complaints about missed garbage pickup, park maintenance and potholes. In the past, callers would contact a department directly, email their city council member, seek out the mayor, or even do all three. The problem was that each city department collected and tracked citizen requests in different ways. And there was no way of telling if someone in another part of the city had already logged the complaint.

Some departments in Des Moines used Access databases to track incoming complaints; others just used sticky notes, pads of paper and index cards, according to City of Des Moines CIO Michael Armstrong. The resulting mixture of call-tracking methods created duplication of effort between city departments with two departments sometimes trying to solve the same problem. Confusion and delays were common, and the city manager in Des Moines had limited data about how to gauge the rapidity of responses or how to improve service to the citizens.

On the heals of a city-commissioned study in the fall of 2000 that outlined the city's troubles, the Des Moines city manager and 15 department heads immediately agreed to a technology initiative that would create the enterprise-wide Citizen Response System (CRS). The system would eventually allow the city to have a distributed call center in 62 buildings located across 77 square miles.

In Mobile, Alabama, a similar initiative took a 14-year path to realization, according to Mobile's MIS director Sue Farni. It wasn't until Mobile elected a new mayor in 1989 that a call-tracking system got backing, first in a manual form and then in 1999 via an information technology invention the City of Mobile dubbed REACT (REquests for ACTion).

Authority to Proceed

In both the Des Moines and Mobile projects, executive leadership was an essential component for providing project managers the mandate to get their jobs done in the face of internal opposition. "This project was going to affect every department so it was important that they be on board early," said Armstrong in Des Moines. And while a couple of key departments in Des Moines didn't quite grasp the value of the project, complaining that it would disrupt people's work habits, they did go along with the project's inception.

A basic project management requirement had been met for the projects in Des Moines and Mobile each had high-level champions and buy-in from the organization's senior leadership. As project managers know, however, when a project involves cultural change, it's not enough to have the top brass on board. Second-tier and middle managers within various departments, as well as the frontline workers, still wield an influence over a project's success or demise.

Further complicating the matter in the case of local government projects is that fact that civil servants regularly witness the rise and fall of elected leaders and their various pet projects. These workers know that if they withhold cooperation long enough, an unpalatable project may simple go the way of an unpopular official right out the door. A climate of non-cooperation can easily scuttle an IT initiative.

Spirit of Collaboration

To kick the Des Moines project into gear, Armstrong decided upon a Joint Application Development approach, something also employed by Farni's team. The developmental approach put frontline workers in the driver's seat of the design process, giving them ownership and responsibility for the design of the system they' would eventually have to use.

In Des Moines, project managers led a year-long series of weekly meetings with team liaisons from each city department to identify system requirements, according to Marylee Woods, customer service and training advisor for the City of Des Moines and one of two project managers on the citywide CRS.

"Our approach was 'tell us what you do,'" said Woods, who attended many of the system design meetings along with department project leaders. Rather than stand back and dictate, Woods put the end users in positions of responsibility, which in turn, gave them a sense of ownership and boosted their understanding. "When we ran into trouble, we got more people involved," Farni said.

In Mobile, Farni held workshops with various city departments to develop lists of keywords that would then prompt operators to ask a series of questions for developing work orders.

Resistance and Persistence

Still, project resistance was early, frequent and persistent. One of the earliest criticisms in Des Moines involved the disbelief that an enterprise system would solve the city's challenge. After all, one city department dealt with scheduling park shelters, another with delinquent children, and another with filling potholes. How could one system meet the needs of 15 departments?

By demonstrating flexibility in the design and conceptualization of the system, Woods was able to overcome some of those concerns. In Mobile, Farni explained that it wasn't MIS's desire to tell city departments how to do their jobs or how long a job should take. Rather, MIS needed the departments to set up parameters so the system would work right, which required cooperation.

For some employees, no amount of flow charts, graphs and conceptual documentation was convincing. For the most skeptical workers in Des Moines, nothing short of a proof-of-concept demonstration could convince them of the system's value. This, unfortunately, was only available during pre-rollout training.

During the design phase for the City of Des Moines project, some employees also worried that the system would make their jobs obsolete. Only a few workers understood the procedures for dealing with citizen requests what questions to ask, and how to route work orders. These workers, whose input was vital to the success of the project, had job security issues.

To address these concerns and secure their cooperation, Armstrong asked the executive team to send a message loud and clear to all workers: No one's job was endangered, and there would be no layoffs.

While job security was at the root of some workers concerns, others simply didn't want to change the way they did their jobs. "There was some attitude that the old way was working, so why mess with it," Woods said.

Lessons in Listening

But by outlining project benefits what the system could do, how anyone would access data, how having complaints centralized would reduce confusion and duplication of effort among city workers, and how tracking complaints and resolutions could help the city be more responsive the team members gradually came to understand the advantage of having one unified system.

In other instances, Des Moines employees had valid objections that resulted in a change of project design, underscoring the need for project managers to keep their ears open to genuine issues that might affect the project's viability. For example, confidentiality became a central question. If a citizen called to report a suspected drug dealer in the neighborhood, would that information become available to anyone with access the system screens? Clearly, the answer should be no. In response, the Des Moines design team created special screens that only employees with the proper permissions could view.

"I think that often as project managers, we get involved in the project and we see our viewpoints," Woods said. "Sometimes we fail to listen to what the end users are telling us and I think that really is key. We shouldn't dismiss resistance. Often times there are some really legitimate concerns that come out when working a project. And I think listening to those is absolutely key to success."

Compliance Concerns

The examples of project resistance were identifiable and often easy to spot in both the Des Moines and Mobile projects, making it easier for project managers to mentor change and, in the process, keep their individual projects on a forward march. But the project managers also had to be on the lookout for less obvious forms of push back. "It's the passive resistance that's harder to deal with," said Woods. "You have people saying all the right things, but they're not playing."

In Des Moines, once the CRS system was up the city manager could view reports showing how many calls city agencies received on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. But one Des Moines department was stunned to see its heavy call volume hardly represented in the reports. The same department had said repeatedly that the system was important and that they were cooperating, said Woods, but the reports showed just the opposite. It took a brief rebuke from the city manager to bring about a change in behavior with the non-compliant department. The Des Moines department is now the second highest user of the system.

In Mobile, after the REACT system rolled out, it quickly became clear that workers on the frontline weren't following system procedures. Once citizen issues were resolved, Mobile's employees weren't going back and closing out tickets. This made it appear that a vast number of citizen complaints were never addressed, when in fact they were. The issue came to a head when the executive director of administrative services for Mobile asked to see a report of the open work orders, according to Farni. "We took the report over there on a hand truck, it was so huge," Farni said.

Project managers in Mobile took two approaches to solve the issue. The first was to ask the mayor to announce that he would start reacting to the reports. The second was to explore reasons why employees weren't closing out tickets. On closer examination, Farni discovered instances where workers were handing off the task to office secretaries because the workers themselves didn't have access to desktop computers. Some secretaries were burdened with closing 300 service requests a day, an impossible task given their other responsibilities. By making PCs readily available to more workers, the problem resolved itself.

To address various project objections, project managers must have excellent communications skills, incredible patience and an iron will, Armstrong said. Project managers who want to mentor cultural change also have to have a tremendous commitment to customer service, Farni said. "You want to bring the departments in and have them take ownership of the system," she said.

Flexibility also plays a crucial role. Although the Des Moines was able to rollout its entire system more or less on schedule, Woods did alter her project plan significantly. Originally, she had planned to launch the CRS system to the entire organization at once. But during the design phase, the need to persuade employees to cooperate pushed out milestones, so Woods revised the project plan to reflect a phased approach to the release.

Today, both city agencies continue to successfully deal with citizen's concerns through the use of their independently produced call management systems. Their successes are also leading to continual systems adaptations and new inventions. In Des Moines, citizens can now report their issues online and check the status of their issue on the city's Web site. In Mobile, Farni's MIS group rolled out system functionality that allows administrators in city departments to easily update their departments' keywords in order to keep the system up to date with procedural changes. And the city is marketing its system through a technology consultancy based in Maryland. The lessons projects managers learned in Mobile will make it easy for future project managers to put the REACT system in place in their municipalities.

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