Picture this: You have a plan for a thing your team needs to accomplish. It’s quite complicated. And you’ve planned extensively for it. It’s a cross-functional, multi-phased programme of works, with numerous milestones and dependencies. The plan is somewhat tricky to follow (to the uninitiated), but well documented, and as well understood by the team as it can be, given the various moving parts.

You’re working the plan. And the plan is working.

And then, just when you least expect it, along comes a senior leader with a new or revised agenda, based on <some other thing> that’s important to them or the business at that point in time. And just like that… Everything changes.

Unplanned Work

As I’m striving to accomplish a writing cadence again, I was struggling a bit with what to write about this week. All of a sudden though, it just dropped into my lap! Figuratively speaking. And not in a nice way. You’ll perhaps recall in my previous post that I used the common analogy of goalposts being moved. Well, this is more like someone having the entire playing field rotated by 180 degrees! I’m talking about a big change here; a huge amount of work and re-planning.

How does one deal with that, without going slightly mad? Here’s a few thoughts, collated from my years of experiencing, and dealing with the fallout of such changes.

Prioritise and assess

Prioritisation, one might convincingly argue, is the bread and butter of any self-respecting product manager. Having also been a freelancer and contractor for much of my career, I think I could make the case that it’s the lifeblood of a successful individual contributor / knowledge worker / creative, also.

First up then, you’ll need to assess the urgency & impact of the changes. You’ll need to do this to help guide the work and ensure resources are aligned with the new priorities and are mobilised accordingly.

You may also wish to carry out a gap analysis, to gain some sense of where there may be issues in terms of resourcing, timelines, and scope. You’ll of course want to share your understanding of what this looks like with the leadership team to make sure they are aware of the full picture, and perhaps in some diplomatic fashion with the stakeholder(s) responsible for the changes, so they understand the magnitude and impact of their dictate.

Risk Management

Figuring out where the new risks are in relation to the changed plans, in addition to the old ones, which may or may not still exist, or have been mitigated, or in the worst case, compounded by the new plans should be very high on your list of priorities. Obvious risks will likely jump right out at you. More subtle risks will require some digging and analysis.

One way in which you can approach this is by carry out an Impact Mapping exercise. I’m a big fan of this approach because it’s basically a mind map, and I love mind mapping stuff out because it makes nice and clear and easy to collaborate on. Documenting how these changes affect current in-flight projects and future projects will help you to form contingency plans where they’re needed.

For bonus points you can carry out a dependency analysis, either as part of your impact mapping exercise, or supplemental to it, identifying new or pre-existing dependencies, along with any other risks and issues.

Communication and Stakeholder Management

Blergh! One of my least favourite phrases; stakeholder management. But, a necessary evil.

Fun fact: I got turned down for a senior role by a decision maker some while back because they didn’t think my stakeholder management skillz were quite up to the level they were looking for. Rejection makes me sad… So, I’ve worked hard to improve my capabilities in this area. For me, it comes down to three key points (at least in the context of changing plans, as I’m discussing here):

  1. Immediate Communication: As soon as new changes are confirmed, they should be communicated to the relevant parties. The sooner the people who care about the plans know about the changes, the faster they can carry out any necessary adjustments to their plans.

  2. Clear Messaging: Effective communication of the changes will depend upon complete clarity as to why the changes are being made. Probably just blaming the person who dictated the changes be made in the first place isn’t the why you’re looking for. A better solution would be to identify the benefits of the revised plan instead.

  3. Open Dialogue: I talked about clear lines of communication in my previous article. It’s worth investing time and energy into cultivating an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing concerns or ideas for making any necessary changes, smoother.

Leadership and Team Morale

My team discovered that these kinds of changes were going to be taking place approximately the middle of last week. I wasn’t especially impressed by them; particularly since they were imposed from above, without any consultation on why the changes were being made, what the impact would be and how the impact of the changes would be managed. It’s fair to say, not everyone else on the team was, or will be happy when they find out, either.

As the lead PM for my team, at least to some degree they look to me for cues on how to react to things. I like to think I try to maintain a positive outlook, taking the view that challenges are also opportunities for growth. I don’t claim to always get it right, but it’s what I aim for and I think the team appreciates it. Being sure to offer empathy and support to the team is a big part of this too.

Part of staying positive can involve celebrating small wins. The path to the new release schedule will likely have milestones. Celebrating them will help to keep morale high.

“God Laughs at Your Plans”

Adjusting to a new plan is never easy; especially when you’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to the old one. Feelings of frustration and disappointment are a natural consequence. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to come out on top.

Prioritising your activities, identifying and addressing risk, communicating the new plans clearly and effectively, and demonstrating leadership throughout the process will help you do that.

Don’t forget to look after yourself too!