Intentional Influence

January 31, 2010 by
Filed under: Leadership, People 

An important consideration in projects is that, consciously or not, we all exert influence on those around us. If we are trying to make life on our projects better, we certainly effect the behaviour of others, as well as their character. We can influence them.

Understanding the basis of influence and working to sharpen our skills in this area can be a powerful tool for the project manager, and help us understand what can be done to improve our influence on others (or conversely, help us understand why we may have less influence over others than we would like).

One popular model for understanding influence was put together by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, called the McKinsey 7S framework (they were working at McKinsey & Company at the time). While generally identified as an organizational influence model, the model scales well to help us understand the key factors at the project level, and serves as an aid for driving refined behaviours.

The model consists of seven interdependent nodes (or “levers”), briefly described in the project context as follows:

  • Staff: The people involved in the project, along with their overall capabilities (at a high level, ‘role’ perspective)
  • Systems: The existing processes and practices that are used by people on the project to accomplish their tasks.
  • Strategy: The strategic intent for the project, identifying overall goals and strategic advantage over the competition.
  • Structure: The organizational and reporting structure of the project team
  • Skills: Specific skills that each person brings to the project team.
  • Style: The particular style of leadership that is in place on the project at this time
  • Shared values: The core values that are expressed within the structure, relationships, and working attitudes of the project team.

Shared values are at the center of a circle that contains the first six levers, to show that these shared values are central to the development of all the other elements on a project. A change in any of these levers will affect all the other levers in the system.

In the original model, Strategy, Structure and Systems were described as ‘Hard Elements’, apparently more easily defined and hence being more amenable to direct influence. The remaining elements were described as ‘Soft Elements’, as less tangible, and more influenced by the culture.

I’m not so sure I agree, based on the projects I have seen over the years.
On projects, it is important to recognize that while these hard elements are more easily defined, many projects do not take the time to explicitly define these elements. Structure is most often the clearest of these three, while the definition of strategy and systems will vary dramatically. While these definitions may be readily apparent to you in your project environment, it is critical to determine whether these definitions would be the same for everyone on the project.

The soft elements are just as important as the hard elements for the overall model, and are often perceived as less tangible. I suggest that for any of these elements to be ‘hard elements’, they would need to be:

  1. clearly defined,
  2. commonly understood by all participants, and
  3. reflect the current reality.

With these criteria, on most projects, almost all of these things soften considerably. Overall, we should strive to make all the elements of this model as explicit and tangible as we can within our projects, in order to gain as much leverage and insight as possible.

There are all sorts of reasons we might want to improve our influence within our project environment:

  • Improve the performance and results of the project team,
  • Understand the possible impact of changes to the project environment,
  • Improve alignment within subgroups on the project team,
  • Select the most reasonable of a set of potential changes.

For the project to be ‘firing on all cylinders’, the seven elements of this model need to be well aligned with one another. Considering all of these elements in turn for a given situation (whether that is the current situation or some possible future situation) helps us understand where key issues may lie.

As with many models, this 7S Influence Framework won’t simply provide us the right answers to our challenges, but it will help us clarify the situation by making sure we consider a complete landscape.

Inconsistencies between these elements will appear if there is a challenge in the current project environment, and if we are looking at possible futures, identifying inconsistencies within this model may save you a great deal of grief before you implement any change.

To start with the model, consider the following questions for each of these elements. Feel free to add other questions that might be relevant to your current project environment, and use this as a framework to develop and extend your own set of questions over time:

Staff:

  1. Is there an understanding of the staffing needs for the project?
  2. Have you got an adequate coverage of staff for all expected areas of work?
  3. Is there a reasonable understanding of all stakeholders involved in the project?

Systems:

  1. Do you have a clearly defined approach for the work to be done?
  2. Is this approach commonly understood by everyone involved?
  3. Is this approach actually representative of what is done on the project?
  4. Do these systems support both the standard practice and provide guidance for dealing with issues?
  5. Are these systems adequate to bring a new project member up to speed quickly?

Strategy:

  1. Is there a clear understanding of the goals for this project?
  2. Is there an explicit and reasonable differentiating element for this project? What makes this project different from what currently exists?
  3. Are there mechanisms to ensure that changes are tested against this strategic view?

Structure:

  1. Does the organizational and reporting structure facilitate reasonable workflow through the project?
  2. Are there silos or attitudes that tend to polarize different groups within the project team?
  3. Is there any conflict based on the structure that is in place?
  4. Do all team groups recognize and appreciate the contribution from the other groups required to make the project a success?

Skills:

  1. Are all the required skills for this project understood at this point?
  2. Is there an inventory of available skills for all those involved on the project team?
  3. Is there a balance of specific skills available within the existing staff to meet the needs of the project?
  4. Are there particular gaps that may be addressed through training initiatives?
  5. Are there essential skill needs that are redundant within the team?

Style:

  1. Does the leadership style work well with the culture of the project team?
  2. Are there differences in how distinct groups or individuals respond to the leadership style that is in place?
  3. If there are issues with the leadership style, where do these issues lie in the continuum of inappropriate style to unreasonable response to that style (how is responsibility for adjustment distributed?)

Shared values:

  1. Can everyone express the core shared values of the team?
  2. Are differences in the emphasis of these core values across teams or individuals compatible within this project environment?
  3. Are these shared values consistent with all the other elements of this model?

Considering these questions will surely provide a wealth of potential issues to address, or provide insights that would make any potential change stronger. Typically, you will find a number of gaps or inconsistencies between these elements, and resolving these issues in a prioritized fashion is an excellent way of improving.

Make incremental changes only, do not attempt to correct all potential issues at once. Select the most critical few, adjust, then reassess. Working in this manner will ensure that you are able to influence your project environment in the right direction. – JB

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