Our businesses, our jobs, and our lives are always in transition. Some transitions are big; some are small. Some spring from our own ideas and ambitions; others are thrust upon us. Some are exciting; some seem threatening. And for some transitions, all the above may be true – depending on who you are and how you’re impacted.

Yet all transitions have one thing in common – moving from one state or condition to another. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that the single, most essential task in any transition is ensuring that there is a sufficiently detailed, shared understanding among all relevant stakeholders regarding the current and future state – and the objectives that are motivating the change.

As the complexity of a transition grows, the need for clarity and agreement becomes increasingly critical. For example, upgrading a small staff to the newest version of a software package is a fairly straightforward effort. In contrast, migrating to a new journal platform or partnering with a publishing house after being self-published for decades, or even centuries, is far more complex. In our experience, there are several common pitfalls in how transitions are managed that, with a bit of effort and commitment, can be avoided.

The Symptoms

A lack of understanding about project goals and the road ahead will almost certainly lead to poor team performance, manifesting in a variety of ways – and it may not always be recognized as the root cause. For example:

  • Difficulty making decisions. The team may struggle to agree on key decisions, frequently turning to project sponsors or steering committees for resolution. Or they may flip-flop on decisions.
  • Trying to make the new tool / service do exactly what the old one did. This is a very common and somewhat understandable trap. Change is hard and, without a clear vision and plan for the future, teams can find themselves lulled into the comfort and safety of the familiar, old way of doing things. We like to refer to this as “putting peddles on your new motorcycle.”
  • “Interim” solutions that undermine objectives. When difficulties are encountered in the transition, teams may find themselves deploying workaround solutions that unwittingly compromise the objectives. And all too often this is done without a specific plan and timeline for replacing the “interim” solution, which then becomes the de facto permanent solution.
  • Repeated schedule and budget extensions. An insufficient understanding of the degree of change at the start of the project is more likely to lead to surprises along the way.
  • Finishing without delivering results (or under delivering). Without a clear understanding of the destination, it’s difficult for teams to know if they’ve hit the mark. They may declare victory well short of the finish line.
  • Project cancellation. It may become clear at some point that the project is failing, and the plug may be pulled. (If discovered early, this is often a better outcome than projects that continue to be extended or that finish without delivering.)

The Solutions

So how do we ensure that we have the necessary degree of clarity and agreement to avoid these pitfalls? How do we make sure that we’re all on the same train and going to the same place? Here are a few tools and techniques we’ve found most helpful.

Commitment and Communication

  • Organizational commitment. The more transformative and far-reaching the transition, the more essential it becomes to have sustained commitment across the organization, from top to bottom. This includes commitment of appropriate resources, clear and consistent communications, and a willingness to work through difficult challenges and conversations.
  • Strong leadership. Typically, a successful change initiative includes a sponsor, who has primary responsibility to define and deliver the objectives, and a project manager, who leads the execution.
  • Kickoff meeting. Bringing all stakeholders together at the start of the initiative to review and refine objectives, risks, schedule, etc. It is vital to the success of the project that communicating concerns and doubts be encouraged and worked through – lip service and silent acquiescence will not suffice. Management and facilitators should pay close attention to dissenting opinions and anyone that’s not engaged. One-on-one conversation can also help to ensure that no one is holding back.
  • Regular team meetings and steering committee meetings. Essential to ongoing communications. Similar principles as the kickoff apply. Invite varying views and work towards resolution.

Clear Transition Process

  • Following a well-defined project methodology (Agile, Scrum, PMBOK, PRINCE2, Lean, etc.). This is the most significant thing you can do. All these methodologies include best practices designed to ensure clear understanding and delivery of objectives. All have their strengths, weaknesses, and critics. However, in our experience, the reason that teams struggle is usually not due to a faulty methodology, but instead due to the failure to fully understand and appropriately apply one.
  • Stakeholder management. Identification of all stakeholders and effective communication with them is essential. This should include everyone implementing and affected by the transition, both internally and externally (e.g., subcontractors, vendors, partners, etc.)
  • Project charter. For more complex transitions, a project charter is an essential tool as it documents, among other things, clear and measurable objectives. Iterating over this document and sharing with all stakeholders will go a long way to help ensure clarity.

Very few of the above are one-and-done activities; they should be revisited iteratively as the project progresses. It is impossible to know everything at the start but taking the time to document and address the things that are known up front, and as you go, is vital. There will always be “known unknowns” – but should never be “unknown knowns”!