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Social Acumen – the Informal Leaders – Accelerate Projects

In 2001, a group of IT project managers published the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. This was in response to a long history of IT projects that consumed more calendar time and resources than originally expected, delivering poor results. Thus was born Agile Project Management.

Agile incorporates proven best practices of project management. These include collaboration, engagement, cross-functional teams, iteration and incremental development. However, we saw all these best practices in play in the early eighties, used by high tech corporations.

An example was Litton and their Command and Control Systems (CCS). They were designing and manufacturing software and hardware to coordinate naval gun and missile fire, air strikes, artillery bombardment and infantry movement on the battlefield. All that was packed was into a portable, 50 foot trailer. Back then, Litton’s program management was adamant they couldn’t succeed without, among others things, incremental development. They had to program and prove each logic loop in the system before they tried to combine them and turn on the entire system.

Recently, Agile is adding a new ingredient to their “secret sauce”: social acumen of the project team members. Namely, select at least some team members because of their understanding of and skills in the politics of the current company culture. This is in what we term as the “political” dimension of our change projects.

While this may be revolutionary for IT projects, it is a must-have in change programs. Social acumen is at the top of the list when we are selecting client participants on a project’s Design Team. These team members are trained in our methods (engagement and implementation), and are equal members in design and implementation. They provide insight into organizational reaction to design features and they are credible communicators of new process capabilities.

One advantage to using these skill sets on the project team is that they reduce the calendar time for design and implementation.

There is a natural cycle people go through during change, described in Jeffrey M. Hiatt’s ADKAR. The acronym stands for AWARE, DESIRE, KNOWLEDGE, ABILITY and REINFORCEMENT. Each individual first must become aware that change is coming. Then the individual develops a desire to change, i.e., they buy in. Next they acquire the knowledge (typically through training). Practicing it, they develop competency or the ability to perform it. Lastly, it is reinforced for sustainability.

The socially adept team members play a critical role in the first three stages. They are at the center of the project: privy to overall objectives, executive management perspectives and the emerging details. Their networks carry the message to the employee population with greater efficiency and speed than any newsletter or town hall.

Our experience is that this nearly eliminates the calendar time for organizational buy in (desire) required after process design. And it assures that the message on “why are we doing this” has credible people participating in discussions exploring the answers throughout the organization.

The empirical evidence of the resulting cycle reduction is astounding. We were contracted to help a Fortune 100 company implement ISO. Before our involvement, they estimated it would take them two to five years to complete the project on their own. Together, with a large cross-functional Design Team selected for their corporate social acumen (the informal leaders), the project was completed in nine months.

The "informal leaders" knew all company policies and procedures falling under ISO requirements. And, they personally knew all the people who would have to change behavior to achieve compliance. Given their relationships with current employees, the client team members had a set of "skills" that would have taken a super-consultant years to develop.


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