Projects – why people may not do what you need them to do!



As I explained in this blog, project success is dependent on people,

  • the subject matter expertise they bring to the project, and

  • how they perform, both

  • individually and

  • as part of connected teams.


For project success, we need everyone (the people working on the project and the people impacted by it) to

  • Be committed to the project goal and the plan to deliver it

  • Understand what they need to do and be able and motivated to do it

  • Work effectively together in interconnected teams

  • Be able to do all of that for the duration of the project until the goal is achieved.


The trouble comes when we assume that this will happen naturally or easily, which is what I’ve experienced on most projects. The focus tends to be on the plan and the mechanics of delivering the project and not on making sure that people can and will do what we need them to do.


And by the very nature of projects and people, the things we need people to do are more challenging than you might think.


In this blog, I’ll tell you some of the reasons why, as it provides some clues as to what you can do about it. And I’ll give you my top tips on what to do.


Why aren’t people committed to the vision and the project plan to deliver it?


I was going to write that this is generally more of an issue for the business teams implementing the solution than it is for the joint IT, consulting and business teams delivering it. But as I think of it, I can recall more than a few examples of teams who are not bought in or committed to the plan. Not convinced that the project is going down the right path. Not feeling like their ideas or concerns have been taken into account.


Taking steps to get the buy-in of the whole team is crucial. Without that, people have no reason to make the effort to do what you need them to do.



We prefer familiar

A basic reason that people may not be committed to the project or plan is that people are simply not wired to like change.


We like what is familiar. Like an old pair of comfy shoes. Breaking a new pair in is uncomfortable and we’d rather avoid that.


Most of the time we are running on autopilot, using all our experience to help us quickly decide what to think and what action to take. Change, or anything new, means we need to interrupt our automatic thinking. It slows us down and takes more energy. We’ll avoid it if we can.


Don’t get me wrong, we like variety and new can mean exciting, but when it comes to us changing what we do and how we operate, we’d rather stick to what we know.


Tell-tale signs on projects?

  • “Why don’t we just do what we’ve always done”

  • “Well, this is what we do today, so the system needs to do the same”


Top tips?
  • Provide lots of support and reassurance. Try and link the new to something that is already familiar.

  • Make the change seem as comfortable as possible.



Change is scary


Times of change and uncertainty generally come with an element of fear. Fear of

  • not being able to cope

  • being judged badly

  • failure

  • not being enough in some way

  • not being able to ‘do it right’

  • looking stupid

And when this happens, our minds and bodies react in the same way as they would to the threat of an imminent attack by a wild animal.

Our fight, flight or freeze response is triggered and puts us in 'survival mode'. Stress hormones flood our bodies, blood moves to the wrong part of our brain for logical thought and our IQ drops.


Maintaining peak performance and productivity is impossible in this state.


On projects, this can show up as

  • Fight – active resistance: “I’m not doing this, it’s a stupid idea”

  • Flight – passive resistance: not getting involved, not showing up when you need them to, not doing what you need them to do and providing lots of excuses.

  • Freeze –not doing something that you’d expect them to be able to do and showing signs of stress.


People generally don’t like to admit they’re afraid, so their fear is likely to show up as something more ‘acceptable’.


Top tips?
  • Be curious and listen without judgement. Uncover the fear and do what you can to help them overcome it. For example, normalise how they are feeling, provide reassurance and support, provide training, coaching etc.

  • Make the change seem as simple as possible.




Change takes effort


Dealing with or learning anything new takes effort. There’s a period when we don’t feel like we know what we’re doing any more. We’re no longer cruising and it feels harder.


From a business point of view, business change projects also mean something additional to your day job

  • extra effort than normal

  • more to think about

  • less time to do what you’d normally do.


So don’t be surprised if your announcement about your project isn’t met with jubilant cheers and a willingness to sign up and get involved.


People need a good reason to put in the effort to change and get involved. They need to know they’ll be ok. That they’ll be able to cope.


Top tips?

  • Ask what support the team need to be able to make the change or do the work, and then provide that. What time and resources do they need to be able to do what you need them to do?

  • Make the change seem as manageable as possible.


You need to do what you can to make delivering the project and making the changes needed seem as simple, manageable, and as comfortable as possible, to overcome people’s natural responses to change.


Why don’t people understand what they need to do?

Why can’t they do it?

Why aren’t they motivated to try?


Misunderstandings and misaligned expectations are easy. Particularly on a project when you throw people together who probably

  • Don’t know each other

  • Haven’t worked together before

  • Have very different knowledge, skills, mindsets and ways of doing things

  • Have different values, objectives and perspectives on things

  • Talk in quite different languages


I’ve been in quite a few project roles where I’ve sat somewhere between the IT team, the consulting team and the business team.


Where one team can only see 6 and the other can only see 9.


With both sides talking quite different languages.

And a major part of my role has been to help with the translation and the relationship between the two.

For example…

  • The reason the IT team have asked you to do that is because….

  • I know they’ve said you need to do ‘x’ and that might seem impossible, but what they’re really asking you for is…

  • I understand that you don’t know what a 'user acceptance test script' is, so let me explain…

  • I know that might seem like a great solution, and the business isn’t trying to be difficult. The issue is that…

  • They’re not being lazy or uncommitted, it’s just that you’ve asked them to do this at month end which is a really busy time for them.

  • They didn’t really understand when you told them how this worked, but now they’ve seen it, they can see that won’t work.

We’re all so used to our areas of expertise and our own ‘worlds’. It’s easy to forget that others don’t share our knowledge, understanding, skill or even just the terms we use.


If someone’s not been involved in a project like yours before, they won’t naturally know what to expect, what’s expected of them or what the plan really means.


You need to remember that people are likely to be dealing with some element of ‘new’ so they’ll naturally be apprehensive and need to learn. You can’t assume they’ll know what you need them to do, that they’ll know how to do it or be motivated to have a go.


Top tips?

You need to

  • Develop an attitude of understanding and respect and some great relationship skills

  • Stay curious and be ready to flex how you communicate so you can avoid misunderstandings and misaligned expectations

  • Be willing to provide the support people need so they can do their best work




Why can’t people work effectively together?

Why don’t people perform as expected on projects – individually or as part of a team?


For all of the reasons above! It’s actually more surprising when people DO work effectively on projects!


  • We don’t like ‘new’ or ‘change’. It’s uncomfortable, scary and takes effort.

  • Projects are challenging and can be stressful places to work. There are always elements of ‘new’ and ‘change’ to deal with.

  • We can’t stay productive and perform at our peak when we’re stressed. We don’t react to people and situations logically when we’re stressed.

  • Working with new people and people who are different to us can be hard. And that's the norm for projects.


Final top tips?

  • Go into your project assuming that people won’t naturally do what you need them to do for the reasons explained in this blog

  • Proactively focus on people. Find ways to provide the support they need to overcome the challenges projects bring so they can do what they need to do

  • Develop the knowledge skills and mindsets for change that will help you do that


If you’d like to explore this topic with me further and how I might be able to help, please book a free call. You might also want to check out this page that covers my People and Project Support solution.


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