Categories: Carole Osterweil, change management, communications management, leadership, stakeholder management, teams
Welcome to the third in this series of blogs exploring what the project world can learn from neuroscience
Handle a change request badly and you can trigger a stress cycle that adds layers of complexity to project delivery.
Stakeholders changing their minds can be exasperating – especially when you think you’ve finally tied everything down! Everyone in the project profession recognises the risk of scope creep. Far fewer recognise that their response to a change request is important too.
Your response to a change request matters
When a stakeholder changes their mind it’s crucial we don’t let it wind us up. Why?
When we are stressed or upset we find it harder to regulate our emotions and keep our Thinking brain online . This can lead to a chain reaction – a ‘project stress cycle’ – that amplifies stress levels and sets hares running – making it far more difficult to achieve successful project outcomes.
Read on to find out how to spot a project stress cycle and what to do about it if you are caught in one. Then check out the video conversation for a summary.
What is a Project Stress Cycle?
Picture Fred a senior project team member. Things are not going his way. He’s getting increasingly frazzled.
He is holding it together but doesn’t realise how stressed he is. This most recent change request was last straw – he is snapping at everyone and finding it harder to act in a rational manner.
The Project Stress Cycle
Source: Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience - A Leader's Guide to Walking in Fog 
The impact on those around him is palpable. No one wants to provoke an outburst, so they give him a wide berth. And of course, after a bruising meeting it’s hard to keep your own Thinking brain online. Trust is falling across the piece and relationships and communication are suffering.
When the project started Fred and his colleagues went out of their way to highlight the need to invest time in building relationships and ensuring people worked well together. They repeatedly reminded the team ‘successful delivery relies on collaboration and creativity’.
But now the pressure is on and metrics are the primary focus. As relationships get strained collaboration is more difficult. Rather than waste time struggling to work together people are falling back into old habits and old silos. They are relying on approaches that worked in the past. But without quality collaboration it’s hard to be truly creative.
And the word on the street? The project is unlikely to achieve the desired outcomes – which does nothing for stress levels.
Powerful stakeholders are getting nervous. They are demanding more and more information in slightly different formats to reassure themselves that things are under control. These demands distract the team from the work they should be doing and add to the stress.
They have less time and less inclination to work collaboratively and the preoccupation with spreadsheets and metrics is forcing them to adopt behaviours that reduce the chance of success and multiply stress – right across the system.
In telling this story I have illustrated how one person’s response to a change request can increase the complexity of delivery. Yet this is a simplification of what happens in real life. Real life involves many stakeholders and many responses to a single change request – not all of them proportionate or rational.
I’m not suggesting that stress is a bad thing – a little goes a long way. (I don’t know about you, but I’m suspicious of dashboards that only show green flags).
We need to be on the look out for signs of excess stress and we need to be looking for patterns. It’s not enough to keep an eye on how individuals, (including ourselves) are responding to change requests. We need to be checking how project boards and project teams are responding too.
I’ve written elsewhere about the need for psychological safety . A lack of it is often an indicator of things going awry.
Excess Stress can trigger a cycle that plays out across the wider project system and impact delivery
Next time a stakeholder changes their mind
- Press the pause button
- Check out how you are feeling about this news
- Do you need to do anything to bring your Thinking brain online?
If you suspect there’s a project stress cycle at work,
- Name it – with the intention of checking out whether others can see it too.
- Use the diagram above, or the story of Fred to test the ground.
You’ll be amazed at how quickly things can shift once you’ve got a way to describe what is really going on!
Check out this video clip for a summary.
As this is the first time I've included a video clip in a blog here, please use the comments below to let me know whether it's helpful and whether I should do so again.
BLOGS IN THIS SERIES
- What Can the Project World Learn from Neuroscience?
- SCARF a Brain–based Model for Managing People on Projects
- PM Point of View Episode 69: Neuroscience in Project Management Carole Osterweil in conversation with Kendall Lott (starts 40 mins in)
and coming soon
- Corona Reducing Personal Uncertainty
- Corona Reducing Team Uncertainty
 Osterweil, C. (2016). Using Insights from Brain Science to Manage Projects and Influence Change -. [online] Visible Dynamics. Available at: https://www.visibledynamics.co.uk/using-insights-from-brain-science-to-manage-projects-and-influence-change/ [Accessed 21 Feb. 2020].
 Osterweil, C (2019) Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience – a Leader’s Guide to Walking in Fog, London: Visible Dynamics
 Osterweil, C. (2017). Self-protection is natural and psychological safety is king! -. [online] Visible Dynamics. Available at: https://www.visibledynamics.co.uk/project-psychological-safety-google/ [Accessed 21 Feb. 2020].