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One of the biggest issues in managing large, complex, or high-profile pieces of work including change and transformation projects is that you have to continually be on the lookout for, what I will call, half-baked problems or early warning signals that indicate challenges may be on their way—this while simultaneously leading, building, and delivering what is in your remit right now.


If you are a change project leader or tasked with leading and delivering big change in all or a part of your organisation, while balancing your many (read many!) day-to-day activities, you must also balance monitoring for early warning signals.

What do I mean by early warning signals?

As an example, any activity, new piece of information, or behaviour from a senior stakeholder that catches your attention because the information is at odds, surprising, or inconsistent with your current understanding of the context (and details) of your transformation work.

For instance, if there is a sudden change in senior leadership in the organization, pay momentary attention and ask yourself, ‘What does this mean for the transformation work in my remit?’ The answer decides if there is impact, no impact, or a need for action by you, such as continuing to monitor closely.

Early warning signals are one of the best sources of information on potential problems, risks and threats to your work’s success. Signals are indications of potential, unexpected change that might hit your work, project or complex activities. You need to monitor the horizon continuously to know what might be coming ‘down the barrel at you.’

What To Do?

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So, what to do when you are so busy with your day job to also fit in this extra layer of horizon scanning or monitoring?

If you are able to and your budget allows, surrounding yourself with a team of capable colleagues will help you build additional capacity to get the work done and to help monitor these half-baked problems and early warning signs.

It’s important to work out how to monitor what might be coming at you and your project because being prepared will mean you will likely nail anywhere up to 9/10 problems and mean you will rarely be caught off guard.

While not 100% fail-safe, monitoring the horizon for early warning signs of what might be coming means you stay more in control of your project overall and are able to reassure your stakeholders and sponsor of the same as well.

Stand-Out Capabilities You Want In Your Team

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In my experiences in the trenches working on distressed or big complex projects in multiple industries, where uncertainty rules, there are three recurring stand-out capabilities in people I have worked with that can make a difference to your success including pre-empting half-baked problems. You may want to read more about distressed projects and teams by reading my blog post "6-Point Checklist For Taking Over A ‘Distressed’ Project & Team" here.

The stand-out people are those with the motivation to do a good job, are able to join the dots in the project without full information, and are great at pivoting in uncertainty.

You might be surprised that I don’t mention, out of the gate, stand-out skills like knowledge or experience. In truth and in my own experience these are not the most important, at least initially. Skills and experiences can often be acquired including during high-pressure, big, complex, project work. I know because I had a brand new team start with me as part of the Brexit Transfer—choosing people who were not the most experienced but were motivated, could join the dots, and were able to pivot quickly and regularly.

So, let’s go through each of the three stand-out capabilities in a bit more detail:

Stand-Out Capability #1 - Motivated

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What I am talking about here is what drives the person in their day job. Some are driven to do their day job and others are driven by doing more than their day job without being asked. These people are what I would call natural-born problem solvers who are driven beyond just doing their day-to-day activities.

Nothing is externally imposed on creating this person’s motivation; rather the motivation comes from a place deep within the individual. They are driven beyond usual incentives rather they are driven by a higher-order goal that is beyond a paycheck (although this is important). I would best describe these people as going the extra mile without being asked to.
This is not necessarily about asking people to constantly go the extra mile. Your job as a leader is to make sure things remain as balanced as possible within the team and effort, but having the attitude tells you something about the sort of person you could potentially have as a colleague and on your team. And when you are restricted by size of the team, you have a small, tight-knit team, and in truth, there is little room for people who are not prepared to go the extra mile.

Stand-Out Capability #2 - Able To Join Dots

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People who join dots (connect information that doesn’t look like it connects but eventually you see it does) are able to join together information from different sources to build a clearer picture of something that is yet to reveal itself completely (like a half-baked problem or material risk that is yet to gain momentum).

This skill is invaluable in helping to pre-empt and deal with problems that are yet to ‘grow legs,’ that is problems that could become much bigger.

Colleagues with the ability to join the dots are able to see what may be almost invisible to most others. These are people who can work comfortably even without full information and yet have a sense of what to scan, what to ask ‘why’ about, what to watch out for, and how to act if things change, that is more or pivot quickly. They are able to see the small silver balls of mercury and are able to look and sometimes find the energy that may push each individual silver ball into a larger pool of silver mercury—that is a problem with legs in our analogy.

So, this capability to join the dots will always surpass knowledge and experience in my book. Of course, it would be ideal to have both types of colleagues in your team—those that are new, with fresh eyes on a problem, and those who might be more experienced and knowledgeable. This would then, however, require all to get on as a team to build trust to share information freely otherwise having all this knowledge and ability won’t bring out a great result. This bit, managing a team well, is up to you as manager or leader. By the way, skills can be trained but attitudes like motivation and an inner drive to understand and do a great job are not so easily trained or found.

Hence why I would always go with motivation over skills when selecting a team.

Stand-Out Capability #3 - Able To Pivot

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I define pivoting as an ability to turn or rotate fast. Pivoting is like watching velvet that moves. The feel of velvet is soft and sophisticated for some, and this is what I mean by pivoting in this context. People who can pivot are essentially able to effortlessly move from one task to another, from one piece of work to another, without any angst or stress. Velvety. Rather they appear as soon as they are needed even though they may have been very busy already.

Final word

As motivation is the hardest to recruit for and identify in your colleagues, the best way to find out what motivates a person is to ask them: ‘What are the top five things that motivate you?’ You will find that while money or financial reward is in the top five, it is not necessarily number one of the top five. Interesting, right?

Another important success factor is to make sure you select people who are naturally comfortable with change. Make sure you spend time understanding if your potential team member does not like or deal well with uncertainty in the workplace or in their day job; rather they prefer stability—nothing wrong with this by the way—but this means they may not necessarily be suited to the energetic demands of pressure and uncertainty coming out of a big project.

So, keep this in mind when building or assessing your potential team members. Make sure you match a person’s personal environment preferences (busy, stable, chaotic, calm) with their preferences. These are important factors in successfully embedding someone in your team and an important factor in the project’s ultimate success.

Summary

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As a leader or manager of large pieces of work that are surrounded by uncertainty, it is important to continually scan the horizon for emerging risks and impending problems. This is a vital capability that needs to sit alongside your many other responsibilities and skills.

It is in your best interest to surround yourself with a capable team that can provide additional capacity to you either to scan the horizon with you or for you to delegate some of your other work so you can dedicate more time to scanning, assessing, and mitigating problems that might be coming your way.

I would love to hear what you think and how you handle scanning for early warning signals in your change work and projects.

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