Episode #16

When to Decline a Change Project as a Change Consultant

with Dr. Linda Ackerman Anderson

There is nothing worse than being tied up in a change project that has no chance of succeeding. The causes of this are many. It may be poor sponsorship, no clear outcome, unrealistic timetable and budget, unclear decision authorities or ignoring stakeholder needs. The list goes on. This episode focuses on these issues and what change consultants can do to first avoid getting into these situations, and second, help the sponsor or leaders to see these predictable issues early and make strategic changes before the project fails. This takes courage and clarity. It takes caring about delivering value in the work you do. Come hear strategies that can assist you to consciously pursue good work that is meaningful to you and the client! This applies to both internal consultants and externals.  

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Video of Episode


04:19 – 07:06

Welcome to Ask Dr. Change.

07:22 – 10:03

I’m Dr. Linda Ackerman Anderson.

10:15 – 22:03

I’m happy to have you join me today to explore how to seriously up level your leadership and consulting to transformational changes all through conscious change leadership.

23:17 – 01:03:06

Welcome to today’s episode. This is an important topic for change consultants and one that’s often challenging to deal with. When to decline, when to say no to a change project. As a change consultant, when it clearly is not being set up for success. So this conversation surfaced with a colleague, a change consultant here in the U.S., who said, as a change consultant, when should I consider not accepting a project because of clear adverse leadership by an or a cultural issues?

01:03:08 – 01:35:07

Really important point. When do we say no? Can we say no? The asking of the question is very powerful in my mind. It shows discretion. It shows empowerment about realizing, is this work I want to do? I can do. And it shows courage by actually asking the question and hopefully being able to act on it. Now, for internal consultants, having been one, this is tough.

01:35:09 – 02:11:19

It’s tougher to say no as an internal. There are political dynamics at play. There are goals. Your performance goals may be dependent upon a particular project or a number of projects. You might risk angering the leaders who have asked for your help. And clearly you’re demonstrating, rocking the boat, which oftentimes doesn’t work very well internally. So I acknowledge all of these dynamics, and I have a lot to share with you still about moving forward with understanding when to say no.

02:11:21 – 02:36:16

Now, for externals, it sounds like it might be a little bit easier. However, it is tough when work is scarce. When something comes in, you want to take it, especially in the reality of needing money and needing to keep staff employed and paid. There are dynamics and pressures that cause externals to want to take on work that isn’t set up for success.

02:36:16 – 03:09:08

Maybe if you’re a part of a larger consulting firm, you have sales metrics to meet. And so taking on projects, even though they may be troublesome, is something you’ll be willing to do in either case. It’s really important to understand the dynamics and the circumstances of what it takes to set projects up for success so that you can see whether or not what you’re saying yes to actually has the possibility of succeeding.

03:09:10 – 03:32:22

So I want to start by going over a range of danger signals, things for you to look at when you’re first being introduced to a project, getting a briefing or being asked to take on a project, a variety of things. And I would ask you to consider how many of these things are true in the work that you’re currently doing or being asked to do.

03:32:23 – 03:59:09

If you have three or more of these, there’s a bit of risk in what it is that you’re doing. So let me go through the list. One up is a sponsor abandons the project or is very difficult to reach. Can’t get to, especially when things need sponsorship approval. And so a sponsor vacating their role is a critical danger point.

03:59:10 – 04:29:22

Perhaps the project has unclear goals, unclear outcomes, or an unclear scope. If you don’t know exactly what’s in and what’s out or what you’re attempting to achieve, very difficult to move ahead, even if it’s transformational change when you’re figuring this out. Lack of clarity, lack of parameters is very challenging. Perhaps there is a predetermined budget and timeline that has no leeway, no adjustment in it.

04:29:23 – 05:03

It’s about get to the finish line. This is how much money we have. That’s challenging, especially, again, if it’s transformational change, which has a lot of flexibility requirements in it. Perhaps the change effort is threat driven and so people are like alarmed by having to engage in what they’re being asked to do, which is not a constructive, positive climate to set for achieving an outcome.

05:05 – 05:28:04

Maybe there’s no leadership alignment. The various leaders at the top of the organization that is changing are going in different directions and competing with each other. They don’t all agree that this change is the right direction and therefore won’t support it, or even may sabotage it. Perhaps the project team is unskilled or the project team is all populated by subject matter experts.

05:28:04 – 05:55:21

Your content expert with no people or process expertise. That’s very challenging. In one major case. Dean and I worked on, we asked for very it was very large, a ten person change project team and the people that they selected didn’t even know how to spell the word change. They were very unskilled in all of this, and it was a huge requirement for us to train them.

05:55:23 – 06:27:00

Did not go well because they didn’t start out with any experience. Perhaps the outcome that you’ve been given has no parameters, know what’s in, what’s out, no guidance for what you are actually attempting to achieve. Perhaps unclear decision making. That’s an important one. Who gets approval, who can make decisions, who has veto power, who can influence how decisions are made.

06:27:02 – 06:54:09

Lack of clarity around decision making is key. Perhaps project managers are locked into their way of doing things. This is the scope of work. This is the process don’t vary from it. And so that can be challenging when it’s clear that you see other things are needed that aren’t within that scope or that mindset, that set of perception from the project managers.

06:54:11 – 07:31:20

Maybe there’s no attention to people or stakeholders or change management is not included or comes in way too late after there are major problems in the stakeholder group. And so a poor attention or no consideration for impact on stakeholders or how to set the project up to minimize impact on stakeholders, that’s challenging. A very common one is the project team and the change leaders not having capacity or even the stakeholders not having capacity to take on this change.

07:31:22 – 08:03:01

There’s no time, there’s no space. There’s no ability or readiness, willingness. So capacity can be a critical issue or people don’t show up in meetings that are essential. Maybe there’s a conflict in approach. Project managers come in, Agile comes in, change management comes in. Any other kinds of approaches may come in and you realize, how are we going to get on the same page about how to proceed?

08:03:03 – 08:44:17

The leaders maybe communicate, adding only top down what I call death by PowerPoint. And so top down communications, no opportunity for question, so no opportunity to really integrate what’s being asked of the organization. That can be very challenging and set up a lot of resistance, perhaps an external consultant is involved in the project and they take over, ignoring internal input, perhaps turning people off internally because they have something to contribute, but it doesn’t fit with the external consultants want to do or being paid to do or being rewarded for doing.

08:44:19 –  09:04:17

And so the discrepancy between internal and external influences important. Maybe rumors are rampant or the political dynamics are rampant and it becomes really a, you know, a shark zone. Where can you actually step and not get into trouble?

09:04:17 – 09:15:21

perhaps your stakeholders are very resistant, not willing at all to take this on or is in many paramilitary or military organizations?

09:15:21 – 09:42:19

We worked in tour of duty is three years. We’ll dig our heels in for three years and then that leader will go away and we won’t have to do this. And so how can we wait it out? There is one strategy for stakeholders, so knowing where your stakeholders are at is important, and then perhaps there’s no ability to make course corrections, there’s no strategic oversight of are we on track or off track?

09:42:21 – 10:09:03

And there’s no ability to find out where we are in the process. So it’s a long list. There are lots of factors here to take into consideration when you’re first being asked to take on a project. These are all kinds of things that I put in to getting a briefing. So I want to talk about your options. You’re being asked to take on a project.

10:09:05 – 10:12:03

You’re being asked to participate in a team.

10:12:03 – 10:23:12

Here are some considerations for you to think about. First up, who asked you to do this work? What are the implications of their power, their

10:23:12 – 10:30:22

position in the organization, their influence over you and over your career? Where you are in the organization?

10:30:22 – 10:54:10

Who asked? I can recall early in my days, a colleague asked me to take on a project so it wasn’t a leader, it was a peer. And when I began to figure out what the project required, it became obvious that she just didn’t want to do it. She didn’t think it was set up for success. So hand it off to someone else.

10:54:12 – 11:19:19

Me until I realized this isn’t going to work. And so I had the ability to say no to that one. So always, when asked, I want to get a briefing on all the dynamics I just talked about the history of the project, what it’s about, who is asking for it, what the implications are, the timing. There are lots of briefing questions to consider.

11:19:21 – 11:46:20

I want to get a briefing to see how well it’s been set up for success or what is at risk here. Then putting together a report, part of those findings, hopefully you’ll have the ability to share with the project leaders, the sponsor for sure, about what the current state of the project is and what it actually will require to be successful.

11:46:22 – 12:14:11

What are the pros of what is being asked and how it’s being set up? What are the cons? What are the risk factors? What are the potential costs of not proceeding? And so being able to explore those things creates a larger context of understanding of the project. Instead of just check the box, just do this. It really requires some understanding of the considerations to set a project up for its success.

12:14:13 – 12:44:12

An important thing to do is to assess the personal risk to you of saying no. Again, how you position this, what it takes, what you’re sharing about, what it takes to have the project be set up for success, can minimize risk and actually raise your stock in the leader’s mind because you’re seeing intelligent information, real dynamics that will inhibit their ability to be successful.

12:44:13 – 13:26:14

Make your recommender options to reboot or realign the project. Conscious Make them very specific. What are the conditions for success that are absolutely needed here? Not the luxurious ones, the baseline ones? How to get this thing on minimally solid footing. That information is very valuable to leaders to expand their understanding of what their changes require to be successful and them seeing you as being really intelligent about how to support the success of the effort, demonstrate your support in telling the truth about what the real requirements are.

13:26:16 – 14:04:05

I always position input feedback to leaders to say on behalf of you being successful. That’s always my context. So how you show up? Being candid, being courageous, being clear, overt about risk. All of that is important in strengthening your ability to either say no or get the project course corrected. So it can in fact, succeed. One of the core strategies I want to share with you is what we call questions that educate.

14:04:07 – 14:35:16

This is a very important competency for conscious change leaders questions that educate. I want to share these with you because it’s very active in our approach. When a leader doesn’t see what they need to see, when they don’t understand what they’re asking and how it’s not set up for success. We need to be able to interact with them in a way that they can gain value, broaden their perspective to see more clearly what’s needed.

14:35:18 – 14:59:14

So I always start my questions that educate how you frame them as very important. So I always start with you may have already thought of this. And so if they suddenly realize, Oh my God, I never thought of that, they’re not embarrassed. We don’t want to embarrass anybody or call a leader out for not knowing what they need to know to be successful.

14:59:16 – 15:12:05

So I always position my questions that educate that way. You may have already thought of this. I want to read you a variety of questions just to give you a demonstration of how they might be framed,

15:12:05 – 15:24:23

the language you might use and some of the topics. So consider these for the projects that you’re working on and whether or not any of these would be appropriate to talk with your leaders about.

15:25:01 – 15:49:21

So you may have already thought of this. What is the best way for us to get organized with clear roles and decision authority? I think there’s confusion in the team and it’s impairing our ability to get on with the action that you need. What does success look like for you? What do you think success looks like for our stakeholders?

15:49:23 – 16:11:01

What results are we after? What will be in place after this change effort is successful? Asking a sponsor to really think that through is very powerful. To clarify what the future state needs to be in order to feel that it’s successful. Another question

16:11:01 – 16:40:11

What if we can’t meet the timeline or budget because we discover it’s unrealistic? What do we do then? What leeway do we have? Another question How do you want to engage with the team as it proceeds? If we need information to give to you, if we have questions, we need your input on how would you like to be positioned to interact with the team as we go?

16:40:13 – 17:02:07

How can we set this project up early so our stakeholders will feel compelled and supported to succeed? We so typically get resistance and reluctance from them. How could we actually establish the conditions early on so that they’re excited about what we’re going to be asking them to do? How about

17:02:07 – 17:05:20

What do we do if the team doesn’t have capacity?

17:05:22 – 17:30:11

Is it possible that we can take some work off their plates, that you talk with their bosses so they have a little more time to spend on the project? We need their time and their focus. If they’re over capacity or they’re distracted, we’re never going to get what we need. So to have this be successful, what’s possible to create more space for the critical folks we need on our team.

17:30:13 – 17:59:14

If we have external consultants. So perhaps the question is we’re finding that the external consultants are alienating some of our internal subject matter experts and stakeholders. What can we do to realign with our external consultants so that they’re in greater partnership with what we’re attempting to do here and the other people inside the organization that have something to say about this?

17:59:16 – 18:35:08

So there’s just a variety of types of questions that educate around this particular topic about setting up a project for success or being able to say no to it. So that’s an option for you is framing critical questions that educate to hopefully get a project back on track. Note that one of the opportunities in all of this is the possibility of training of developing greater change leadership capability among the sponsors and leaders of your projects.

18:35:10 – 19:09:03

Because these kinds of questions and this kind of interaction broadens their understanding of the requirements of successfully leading change. That’s important. And so there’s an option or a possibility of being able to develop them more in their change leadership capability. My pro tip for you today is to become really clear about what projects success requires. In many ways it’s the opposite of all the issues I’ve talked about here.

19:09:05 – 19:37:15

But I have a clear idea in my mind in a briefing to ask for what’s going on. It’s history, what’s working, what’s not working, what the challenges are, what the obstacles are. So I have a sense of can I piece this together? So it will actually be successful? Maybe it’s about leadership. Maybe it’s about content expertise. Maybe it’s about engagement of stakeholders or other leaders.

19:37:17 – 20:12:13

Maybe it’s about leadership modeling. What’s required or what they’re asking of the organization. Is information clear? Is is there an opportunity for course correction? Do we have enough money? Do we have enough time? All of these things are requirements for setting a project up for success. So my pro tip for you is to have a clear idea of what is required for something to go well instead of being asked on to a project team and not having the ability to know what’s going on here, what needs to go on here?

20:12:16 – 20:39:13

Is this actually going to work? So what’s your mindset about your strength of of ability, your character to set up a change effort for success? If you come in from the context of how do we set this up to be successful? Hopefully you have the voice and positioning to be able to move a project team and leaders in that direction.

20:39:15 – 21:07:19

So my personal reflection for you is what’s the cost of doing bad work with this colleague who actually asked me this question? Here’s the circumstances I’m dealing with the it was so clear that he was deflated over how in the world do I deal with this? What’s the cost to you of doing of taking on and proceeding with bad work?

21:07:21 – 21:40:07

Is it fatigue? Is it disempowerment, cynicism, judgment of client? I hate this client. Perhaps if it goes on a long time, there’s depression or giving yourself away, feeling used. Maybe you get sick. I’ve gotten headaches, you know. What’s the cost of taking on bad work for us? And I have made the declaration, and we will only take on work that it has the possibility to be set up for success.

21:40:09 – 22:08:07

Granted, we’re externals. We’ve got lots of experience under us. We have the ability to do that. But I share that with you because what stand do you take for yourself internally or externally? Using any of these approaches so that you actually take on work that’s meaningful, that’s valuable, that has you feel up lifted at the end of the day that you’re truly being of service.

22:08:09 – 22:21:10

That’s the value of good work, and it takes truly knowing what it takes to set up projects for success from the beginning. I hope you found this valuable. Thanks for listening today.

22:21:21 – 22:37:16

Today’s subject is one of the key topics that we feature in our leading transformational change online program. If you’d like to learn more about leading transformation social change, go to beingfirst.com/LTC.

22:39:09 – 22:52:19

Thanks for spending some time with me today. I hope you gain some valuable insights for your work. Please send me your questions and challenges by going to askdrchange.com.



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