Wabi-Sabi: Embrace Imperfection to Continuously Improve

PM Articles by Project Times. 

“There’s a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

– Leonard Cohen

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese wisdom principle that has great relevance to project management and, in fact, any management, including self-management.

The principle is to embrace imperfection, surrendering to the reality that nothing is permanent, and nothing is complete. In the complex world of projects, imperfection is inevitable.

In my forthcoming book on achieving optimal performance, I include Wabi-sabi as one of the elements that treat the cause of unnecessary stress. I tell the story of the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma who had a string break in the middle of a performance. Rather than being set off balance by the disturbance, he paused, changed the string and continued his performance. He was practicing wabi-sabi, cool and accepting. Equanimous. Imagine how it might have been had Yo-Yo Ma not been so equanimous, calmly accepting the situation. Likely, his performance would have suffered.

In organizations, a Wabi-sabi attitude is instrumental in promoting continuous improvement and avoiding the blaming that creates conflict, motivates people to hide errors and defects, and gets in the way of learning.

Acceptance that there will be imperfections eliminates the denial, anger, and fear that arises when the imperfections appear.

Active Acceptance

There is often a misunderstanding about the attitude of accepting and embracing imperfection. “What! Accept imperfection?” some might think. “Isn’t perfection what we are after. We want to be free of defects, errors, and omissions, not accept and embrace them.”

To clarify the misunderstanding, we have to explore what it means to accept and to embrace.

To accept in our context is to realize that things are as they are. It does not mean to accept that they will continue. Acceptance is active when we realize that everything is continuously moving, in process. Nothing is complete. Accepting the present reality, things as they are, is an ideal foundation for planning and moving forward to a desired outcome.


When an error is detected, will it go away if you deny it or try to cover it up? No. It is there. Accept it. The alternative is not pretty. Deny or hide the error and it is likely to come to light again, probably when it is even less convenient. When it does, there is a sense of distrust. The error has been compounded because imperfection was not accepted.

Acceptance allows embracing. To embrace means to accept something willingly and enthusiastically. You don’t have to hug and kiss the imperfections. The method is to be grateful that the error has been identified so you can enthusiastically see what you can do with and about the particular imperfection you have encountered.

This attitude motivates project team members to bring existing imperfections to the surface (not to create new ones). Embracing imperfection leads to actively improving performance and product quality by assessing each imperfection to determine its impact, its cause, and what to about it – in the short term, to manage the impact and longer term, to learn and improve.

Yes, we want to be free of errors and omissions. Learning from the ones we or others have experienced, is the basis for being free of them in the future. We can’t change the past or the present moment but using the knowledge of them we can influence the future.

What Gets in the Way

So, if it is such a good thing, why isn’t it universally applied? What gets in the way of taking a wabi-sabi attitude? Perfectionism, emotional reactivity, and an ambiguous definition of perfection are the primary obstacles to embracing imperfection.

Perfectionism is the drive to make things perfect. It can be healthy or unhealthy. If it is managed, it is a highly valued trait, a success factor. But unacknowledged and uncontrolled, it comes to the surface as unhealthy self-criticism and criticism of others, frustration, anger, and overcontrol. Perfectionism is often institutionalized, making it a cultural trait as well as an individual one.

The unhealthy perfectionist is caught up in the obsession to achieve unrealistic goals. The healthy perfectionist is aware of their tendency and can moderate the emotional drive to be perfect or have everything be perfect by rationally assessing how realistic their expectation is.

When perfection includes imperfection (“There’s a crack in everything“) and the imperfection is embraced, perfectionism is channeled into continuous improvement. For example when there is an effective process for managing quality, errors, and issues, and there is more than lip service to wabi-sabi it is a sign of healthy perfectionism.

Emotional reactivity is the second major obstacle to adopting a wabi-sabi attitude. It is related to perfectionism and to unrealistic expectations. In a perfectionist setting the emotions that arise when things are not perfect include anger, frustration, aggression, fear, anxiety, pride, jealousy.

These, like all emotions are to be accepted as part of the perfection. But to let them take over and drive behavior is to be avoided.

Ambiguous definition of perfection is the third obstacle. On the simplest level this means to recognize that while perfection is a target, performance needs to be assessed based on realistic criteria. For example, the recognition that a given level of defect is acceptable. A performer who continuously, even after retraining, makes errors nay need to be replaced. One who makes errors occasionally, particularly when trying new things, can be a star.

On another level, recognize that an unexpected outcome is not necessarily a terrible thing. Many discoveries and breakthroughs have been the result of accidents and errors. For example, sticky notes came out of a failed attempt to develop a permanent adhesive. The ugly duckling is not so ugly when the criteria of perfection are changed.

Perfecting the Process

The motivation to avoid letting these obstacles drive behavior is the desire for a perfect process with a wabi-sabi attitude.

Overcoming the obstacles to accepting and embracing imperfection requires awareness and effort. If there as an imperfect process that wastes the opportunity to improve by hiding from imperfection, do the work of changing attitudes with revised training, policies, and procedures.

This implies that process awareness and improvement is valued as much as current performance. But that’s a subject for another time.

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Best of PMTimes: Managing the Matrix – Work Streams and Projects

PM Articles by Project Times. 

(Published: 5/12/2015)

Many projects are performed within a matrix in which the collaborative effort of several groups with different capabilities under the direct authority of managers of different organizations (e.g., functional departments, vendors, line or operational departments) who may have different priorities than the project or program manager.

Individuals and teams are aligned with two lines of accountability, a project line and a functional or operational line. An individual or team may be working simultaneously on multiple projects.

The relationship between “work streams” and projects in the matrix is a foundation for clearly identifying roles and responsibilities, managing expectations and establishing an effective project control reporting process.

What is a Work Stream?

The Business Dictionary defines a work stream as

“The progressive completion of tasks completed by different groups within a company which are required to finish a single project.”

A work stream may be the work of a functional area such as application development, training, business analysis, sales, product delivery, and engineering. It may also be an effort such as requirements definition which involves members of multiple groups, for example, in product development, marketing, product development, engineering, and manufacturing.

Functional groups, vendors, and operational departments may have multiple projects or processes that are purely internal to the group. For example, an IT group may have projects to develop or acquire software tools or a new methodology. The group may be serving multiple projects that are vying for the same resources.

An operational department like routing, customer service, accounts payable processing, etc. will have its day-to-day activities as its highest priority, over project priorities, even when the project is to improve the group’s own performance. For example, an operations group is often called upon to give up the services of key members in order to provide subject matter expertise on a project that has a long-term impact on the organization, and this may make operational performance suffer.


In the context of project and program planning and control the focus needs to be on the program and project (for simplicity we will refer to project to encompass both projects and programs). It is the project manager (PM)’s job to manage the coordination of the work streams contributing to the project. The focal point is the project.

At the same time, the PM must be sensitive to the perspectives of the contributing organizations and consider them in scheduling, risk assessment, staffing and quality management among other aspects of project planning and control. From a functional department’s or vendor’s perspective, there may be many projects that require their services and expertise. From an operational perspective, the project is a distraction from daily activities.

Related Article: Turning Bad Requirements Into Good Requirements


Given these perspectives, it is necessary for upper management acting as sponsors to ensure that projects represent value to the organization and, therefore, warrant attention. They set the priorities and accept the trade-offs. They promote a common perspective that sees the big picture.

Work Stream Relationships

The work stream “owner” may be any person assigned as the work stream’s point person. The role is referred to by any number of names, including Lead, Manager, Coordinator or Owner. It is the work stream “owner’s” responsibility to coordinate work within the work stream and to work with the project manager in overall planning, providing estimates, resource commitments, and risk analysis. Once initial planning is done, the work stream owner is responsible for making sure the work assigned to their work stream is being accomplished and for regularly reporting to the project manager. The work stream owner is accountable to the Project Manager.

Work stream owners and their management must understand and commit to this relationship. Often, in matrixed environments, the role of the Project Manager is not given the level of authority required to get the job done effectively. This results in a “weak matrix” and, inevitably, to suboptimal performance and unnecessary conflict. In a healthy environment, the work stream owner “reports to” the PM and may also be responsible to and under the authority of a functional line manager or executive who is outside of the project.

This term “reports to” can cause confusion and conflict. Here, it means accountable to. It means that the person must inform the PM of activities performed (progress and status reports, issues, etc.) or to be performed (plans, estimates, etc.) within the project. In addition, the management of the groups providing resources to the work stream is obligated to report any changes that might affect the project and to ensure that the resources have a clear understanding of their responsibilities to the Project Manager.

The project encompasses all the work required to achieve project objectives, regardless of who performs the work.

The PM may or may not have any other authority but without the ability to get information and influence the quality of a work stream’s output, the PM cannot manage.

Work Streams and QC

Getting information and engagement in planning may be easy or not, depending on the character of the organization and the skill of the project manager in setting up an easy to use reporting mechanism and motivating the stakeholders to take part.

The realm of quality control and performance effectiveness is more complex than simply getting status reports. Ultimately, the PM must be able to assess the quality of deliverables and of performance in general and to act on the results.

The PM can delegate this responsibility to a Quality Assurance and Control work stream, but that works stream must be independent of the work stream whose work is being assessed. Further, there must be candid feedback regarding quality, and that feedback must be based on objective criteria.

To avoid conflict, the organization does well to educate everyone regarding the power of receiving candid and objective feedback and its relationship to continuous improvement. That’s a subject for another article.

Work Streams – Not Silos

The bottom line is that in complex projects, programs, and processes, work is performed by people in several organizations with different specialties. Managing in a matrix is efficient and can be effective if definitions and relationships are clear and mutually agreed upon.

Work streams are functional teams contributing to a project or business process. When the stream cuts itself off from the other work streams and thinks of itself as a fully autonomous independent entity, it turns into a silo. Silos are great for storing grain, but, in organizations, silos are dysfunctional.

Healthy work streams contribute to success. They recognize that their work is only of real value because it contributes to project success. Healthy work streams recognize that it is not enough to take in a set of requirements and pop out a result. Communication and collaboration with others is part of the job.

Consider the images conjured up by the words. If you are inside a silo, you have walls that keep you from seeing the big picture and keep outsiders from seeing what is going on within. If you are in a stream there is a sense of differentiation and identification with your group, but you can see out and those who are outside can see in. It is like multiple channels in a river, converging to make the river a mighty one.

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Remove Causes to Solve Problems

PM Articles by Project Times. 

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” ―  Albert Einstein

Performance problems are found wherever projects exist. There are two ways to resolve a performance problem: address its causes and address its symptoms. Effective problem-solving uses both approaches. Remove or remediate the symptoms while doing the work to address the causes.

Einstein’s advice is to think about a problem before jumping into to solve it. The solutions will be obvious as the problem is analyzed. This advice works well if you adapt the amount of time you spend thinking to the needs of the situation.

If the problem requires immediate attention, you still do better to think about it before deciding what to do and doing it. Then you can treat the symptoms with a temporary solution while you figure out what to do longer term to address the causes and conditions that gave rise to the problem.

Of course, there is the exception to every rule. If a lion is attacking you, don’t think for too long or you’ll get eaten. Fortunately, in projects we rarely encounter immediate threats. If we frequently react rather than respond thoughtfully, that’s a problem.

Everything is Caused by Something

Problem solving is on a firm foundation if you accept the systems and process thinking principle that everything is caused by something under existing conditions.

If everything results from causes and conditions, then resolve the causes and change the conditions, and the problem’s symptoms are resolved.

The symptoms are what tell us that a problem exists. For example, unhealthy conflict is a symptom, it can be addressed by separating the conflicting parties, so they don’t get into arguments. That solution removes the symptom without addressing its causes.

Symptoms are easier to remove, but the solution is temporary. On a personal level, treating the causes of anxiety or depression by taking drugs has side effects and fails to address the cause so that when the drugs wear off one either must take more or be anxious or depressed. The symptoms, or others that can be worse, return as the impact of the causes take effect.

Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. In our example, separating conflicting parties stops the conflicts. But if skillfully exploring differences would add value in planning, design, or making other decisions, removing the symptoms not only makes decision making less effective but it perpetuates the problem of unhealthy conflict management.

Causes are more difficult to remove than symptoms. They take much more time, sometimes years, and patient effort to change systemic factors and old habits.  But once the causes are addressed the problem can be permanently resolved. Of course, the solution might generate future problems. So be ready to refine any solution.

Example: Estimating

In projects, problems that effect performance include inaccurate estimating, unnecessary unhealthy conflict, perpetual performance shortfalls, high turnover of the most valuable staff, and poor decision making.

To address them all is beyond the scope of this article, so we will use the problem of inaccurate estimating as a prime example.


The practice of padding (unjustifiably adding time or costs) to an estimate solves the problem of underestimating a single project’s costs and duration but undermines best practices and leads to distrust in the effectiveness of the estimators. It perpetuates padding.

With or without padding, continuous estimate adjustments throughout the life of a project gives stakeholders a continuously truer sense of cost and duration. Though, again, there may be distrust in the estimating process, particularly if the adjustments are too frequent and the result is far off from the original estimate. There is perpetual uncertainty.

The solution to the problem of chronic inaccurate estimating is found by exploring its causes and doing something about them. For example, causes may be the absence of historical project data that can be used in future estimating, unskilled estimators, fear of giving a realistic estimate that would displease clients or other powerful stakeholders, etc.

Note that, conceptually, the solution is the same for all performance problems – courageously and objectively look to the system (the organizational setting) and the mindset of the stakeholders in it. Be ready to eliminate the causes you find and at the same time apply temporary fixes to minimize the symptoms project by project.

Old Habits are Hard to break: Manage the Process

Solving chronic project management and performance problems through cause removal is a critical part of process and quality management.

Tactics like padding estimates to address inaccurate estimates become habits. Over time they get so ingrained in everyday activity that they become accepted normal behavior and after a while become part of the organization’s character..

You know that from personal experience that habits are hard to break. Changing or removing habits requires that first you recognize and acknowledge them. Then you can identify the ones that get in the way of improved performance, decide what (if anything) to do about them and do it.

Knowing that every outcome is caused by a process, a chain of causes and effects under conditions, processes like estimating, conflict, and quality management can be analyzed to enable assessment and the discovery of the causes of current or potential problem causes. Once causes are discovered you can decide what to do. You can live with things as they are, keep applying band-aid symptom removal solutions, or change the process to address the causes. If you choose to address the causes, you may find the need for anything from minor tweaks to cultural transformation. Bring cost, benefits, and risk assessment into play to decide what to do and when to do it.

The bottom line is to recognize that problems are natural parts of life. And the best way to work through them is to:

  • Step back, accept, describe, and think about the problem,
  • Weave a solution from options to let the problem persist, apply symptom removal, and cause removal solutions to address immediate symptoms and long-term effects,
  • Assess and refine, as needed.

Stepping back and accepting is often the most difficult part of solving performance problems. It takes objectivity and courage, remembering that ignoring problems will not make them go away and that limiting solutions to symptom removal will perpetuate the problem.

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Best of: The Paradox of Patience, Planning and Expectations

PM Articles by Project Times. 

If your goal is optimal performance, cultivate the mindful awareness that enables clarity and responsiveness. Accept and work with paradoxes to embrace both-and thinking.

A well-respected mindfulness meditation master, advised that “A mind which thinks, expects, and plans, blocks off wisdom.” Following this advice would leave most of our projects at sea without a rudder. That is the problem with a great deal of the mindfulness teachings that have become common in the project management and general business communities – over simplification. The wise embrace both-and thinking.

The full quote is:
“Notice every time the mind is eager for
results and remind yourself of the right attitude.
You need to practice patience.
Only when the mind is simple, can wisdom develop.
A mind which thinks, expects, and plans, blocks off wisdom.” Tejaniya


Mindfulness is the ability to objectively observe everything occurring within and externally. It is beneficial, based on many studies and personal experience. Mindfulness techniques – formal and informal meditation methods – increase mindfulness and concentration. Mindfulness enables responsiveness as opposed to reactivity. Concentration brings calm, relieves stress and enables focus in the face of distractions. Together with effort mindfulness and concentration promote wisdom.

But how many project managers will sign up for simple mindedness? How many organizations will hire simple minded project managers who are not eager for results? Not many.

The Wisdom of Paradox – Eager and Patient

Yet, there is wisdom in the master’s advice. Like all quotes it is taken out of context. No meaningful statement about the nature of mind and mindfulness is absolutely true. There is paradox – events or ideas that are unlikely to coexist. Paradox is “seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true:” Oxford Dictionaries.

Investigating more deeply, we can know that to be aware of the eagerness for results and to have patience is good advice. Over eagerness in projects leads to rushing to complete, by-passing risk management, testing, and other parts of planning and controlling the project. The over eager stakeholder is more likely to make mistakes and set unreasonable expectations. The eager stakeholder is motivated to achieve.

Right Attitude – Patience

The “right attitude,” is to be both eager and patient. Patience is a tough one, particularly when faced with high ranking stakeholders who are eager for results. Patience is “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset:” Oxford Dictionaries

Patience requires a stepping back to mindfully observe the uncomfortable feelings that get in the way of consciously taking stock of the situation, planning, communicating, and establishing the most effective foundation for performance. Alan Lokos, in his book “Patience:The Art of Peaceful Living” makes the point that patience is not passivity. Patience is taking control of thinking, speech, and action so that what you say and do makes good sense and gets the results that you want. Patience is an ingredient for effective project management and performance.

Practicing patience requires effort. It requires the ability to notice and be able to accept the urge to dismiss the annoying functional manager or team member who is ‘obstructing’ progress. Noticing and accepting are part of the practice of mindfulness. When I teach meditation practices, I often recommend “sitting with an itch,” patiently waiting for the itch to change or disappear on its own rather than scratching it. Try it the next time you have an annoying itch. It builds the patience “muscle.”


Who Wants a Simple Mind?

Now lets turn our attention to “Only when the mind is simple, can wisdom develop.”

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein

To have a simple mind does not mean to be simple minded. A simple mind, in the context of mindful awareness, is a calm mind that sees things objectively, as they are. There is elegance in simplicity. The simple mind can integrate the sophisticated, complex skills and thoughts needed to manage and perform complex tasks in a complex, changing environment. The simple mind is free of the unnecessary noise of biases, confusion, and obsessive thinking.

Bertrand Russell said, “Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.” The simple mind, the mind that is mindfully aware, sits behind it all, open-minded, free of the comforting convictions. It observes objectively. The simple mind is like the eye of the storm – calm and clear while the storm rages. The flies are still there but they no longer get in the way of clear, focused thinking. In fact, mindful awareness promotes greater clarity and focus.

We can have a simple mind and simultaneously achieve objectives by applying our intelligence, skills and knowledge.

Planning, Expectations and Wisdom

To say that “A mind which thinks, expects, and plans, blocks off wisdom.” is overly simplistic. It is misleading. It is the kind of thing that can drive people, particularly project managers, away from the practice of mindfulness and the benefits it brings. The meaning is clarified by saying that a mind that is distracted by thinking, that unrealistically expects, and over-plans blocks off wisdom.

Wisdom is seeing things as they are and having wise intention. Wisdom can be blocked by Russell’s “flies.”

In Buddhist thought, things are impermanent, imperfect and the result of a continuous process of causes and effects. Wise intention is to give up the causes of suffering, cultivate good will, do no harm, and to ethically achieve objectives to benefit stakeholders.

Expectations are normal. Planning is necessary if you want to successfully achieve project goals and satisfy stakeholder expectations. However, having irrational, unrealistic expectations leads to disappointment and suffering. Constantly changing the plan moment to moment, gets in the way of being in the moment and performing optimally.

The Bottom-line

In the spirit of both-and thinking, we can say that we can both be patient and take skillful action. We can keep the mind simple and apply complex skills and knowledge to complex problems. And we can expect and plan and be in the moment, performing optimally, while allowing wisdom to develop.

Mindful awareness is the foundation for optimal performance. Cultivate it by practicing to focus the mind and open it to the full range of internal and external experience. Practice both-and thinking.

Published on: November 18, 2020

The Power of Active Listening

PM Articles by Project Times. 

“ It is only in listening that one learns.” J. Krishnamurti

Communicating is central to optimal performance. Listening is a powerful capability for success. It is the most critical part of communicating. As a project manager, or in any role, in any relationship, listening both shows respect for others and informs you, so you are better able to learn and respond effectively. Listening enables a meeting of the minds.

Hearing, Listening, and Active Listening

Listening is different from hearing. Hearing is passive. A sound is received by the ears and registers in the brain.

Listening is active. It exercises focus, self awareness, and social intelligence. It is giving attention to (“I am listening to what you are saying”), making an effort to hear (“I am listening for a signal”), or it can mean to act on what someone says (“The kids/my boss/the staff just don’t listen”). Not listening is ignoring or not making the effort to hear and understand.

In the context of relationships, leadership, and management, we have changed the meaning of to listen from “give one’s attention to a sound”[1] to give attention to the communication experience. We refer to this as active listening. active listening is not just about sound. It is paying attention to the full experience of the sounds, words being spoken (or written), tone of voice, facial expression, body language, and  “vibe” or emotional state.   Active listening involves questioning to validate understanding. And it includes listening to one’s inner voice and feelings.

Meeting of the Minds

Communication is an act of sharing. It consists of giving, listening, and understanding. It is most effective when it achieves communion – the sharing of detailed and thorough thoughts and feelings to reach a meeting of the minds – mutual; understanding. Active listening promotes mutual understanding.

Some may question whether the sharing of thoughts and, especially, feelings has a place in organizations and business relationships. This kind of sharing does not mean sharing one’s deepest feelings when that is inappropriate. But with detailed and thorough knowledge, there can be the mutual understanding that leads to better decisions and healthier relationships.

Mutual understanding transforms the state of mind of the participants. It implies that the people involved meet one another with open mindedness and the intention to understand one another’s meaning. With that kind of understanding, team members are motivated to act, to follow through on agreements, or to know that the there is disagreement.


A Scenario

I recently requested information from a colleague. I was clear that obtaining the information was important to me and he made it clear that while he was aware of that, he was not going to share it.

We had a meeting of the minds. It was an agreement to disagree.

My sense was that while he was listening to me and I to him, we were not thorough in our sharing. We had listened to one another’s words. I had listened to my feelings, and they gave me the sense that he had not shared the underlying reason for his position.

I was satisfied that my sense of a hidden agenda was not driven by my disappointment but from an interpretation of his tone and unwillingness to address his motivation. Unless he shares it, I can only guess at his thinking. While we had a meeting of the minds regarding the content, we did not meet on a deeper, more meaningful level.

You might ask, “What does meet on a more meaningful level have to do with project management and performance?” The answer is that when there is unwillingness to honestly share, relationships suffer. When relationships suffer, performance suffers.

Listening is a Challenge

“And for most of us, listening is one of the most difficult things to do. It is a great art, far greater than any other art.”  J. Krishnamurti Excerpt from What Are You Looking For?

Listening promotes healthy relationships and optimal performance. But it is a challenge. It requires the intention to actively listen, and the mindful self-awareness to know if you are paying attention or are distracted by our own thoughts and feelings; to assess your patience, and focus.

Are you busily planning what to say next or caught up in judging yourself or others? Are you verifying that the other party has understood what you meant and that you accurately understood what they meant?

For example, I have a habit interrupting others because I think I have understood their meaning before they have finished talking. Most of the time I do understand, and often they are going on and on repeating the same thing. But my interrupting is driven by impatience. It violates one of the most important parts of listening, respecting others’ need to express themselves.

Questions as a Way Of Listening

Working with my impatience (habits are hard to change), I am learning to step back and let the other party speak his piece. If I feel it is useful, I interrupt with a question. For example, “What I think you are saying is … . Do I have that right?” Questioning in this way shows that you are interested in what is being said and gives the other party an opportunity to see if you do understand and to correct or further describe their content. Questioning can also be a way of making sure the other party is paying attention and that there is successful communication.

What if the Other Party Isn’t Listening

Communication seeks mutual understanding. Listening is an individual act. When one party is not listening, communication is limited, mutual understanding is not achieved.

In the midst of conversation, there are ways to manage the situation to get the other party to listen. One way is to stop talking. It gets the other party’s attention and once you have it you can continue. Questioning is another useful way. In this context, you can say “I’d like to make sure I am being clear. Would you mind telling me what you think I’m saying?” Questioning engages the other and lets you know if they were listening and whether they ‘got’ what you were trying to get across. It transforms the conversation from a lecture to a dialogue.

Seek to Improve

In the long run there is a need for training in communication skills.

Start with yourself. Assess your skills, particularly your listening skills, and make a commitment to get them to be as sharp and effective as possible.

Then do what you can to promote effective communication in your team and other relationships. You can raise awareness by implementing a team training or engaging a coach or facilitator.

[1] Oxford Languages

Star-staffing SMEs on Change and Transformation Projects

PM Articles by Project Times. 

Smart organizations assure quality results by making sure their change and transformation projects are strategically staffed with star performers. They realize that these projects influence the future for years to come. They are willing to invest the time and effort to make sure the best people are in the right places.

There are many facets to managing change projects, this article addresses project stakeholders, with an emphasis on subject matter experts (SME) and their role.

The Change Project Continuum

All projects that make significant changes to products and processes are change projects. These projects range from ones that improve existing products and processes to those that fundamentally change, transform, the way an organization functions.

The difference between simple change and transformation is like the difference between gradual maturity and the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly.

The Stakeholders

“Too often, the people side of change is either not addressed or not addressed adequately.”

Stakeholders are “individuals and organizations whose interests may be affected by the program outcomes, either positively or negatively.” They are sponsor(s), members of the steering committee (“board of directors,”), architect(s), SMEs, functional, product, program and project managers, engineers, technologists, facilitators, BAs, operational staff (current and future), regulators, QA, QC, administrative, and more.

While many factors contribute to the success of change projects, stakeholders are the most critical. These are the people who authorize, pay for, plan, implement, benefit from, and live with the results. All stakeholders must understand their roles and the nature of the change – the reason for it, the desired outcome, the plan to achieve it.

Subject Matter Experts (SME)

This article zeroes in on SME’s and the need to make sure their role is well understood. All stakeholders are important. SMEs are singled out because their role is often misunderstood and understaffed or given to less-than-optimal players.

SMEs help to ensure that deliverables meet the needs of stakeholders. In a transformation or major change project there are multiple SMEs with a variety of specialties. They provide detailed information, fact check, assure compliance with regulations, policies, and standards, and promote best practices. Some provide experiential knowledge of the process being changed and its environment.

SMEs possess knowledge. They are influencers, not decision makers. Decisions are made by senior program leadership using information from SMEs, architects, and others.

Technical SMEs

SMEs may be technical or content experts. The work of technical SMEs is focused on technology, legal, regulatory, financial, policy, procedural compliance, and support matters.

The technical SME role is relatively objective, but there are always interpretations. For example, deciding if a design approach complies with regulations and standards depends on an SME’s interpretation of the regulations, their flexibility, and understanding of the design.

As a project or program manager, choosing the right technical SME (if there is a choice) means finding ones who bring options and recommendations to the table rather than making arbitrary decisions.

Because technical SMEs are often working across multiple projects and may have other, operational, responsibilities, make sure their availability is adequate and that you are building SME response time estimates and realistic delays into your schedule.


Content SMEs

The content SME role is far more subjective. The content SMEs’ role is to provide knowledge of the program’s current and target settings. Working with content experts, business analysts document procedures, operational history, etc. Designers and architects rely on practical feedback regarding the feasibility and potential impact of design elements.


SMEs provide knowledge. There are two types of knowledge, explicit (documented) and tacit (undocumented). Explicit knowledge is easy to acquire. Though it often does not reflect reality.

To obtain tacit knowledge engage subject matter experts to get the pulse of the organization, its nuances, and its staff. As a project manager beware of subject matter experts who:
• think their perception of reality is reality
• have outdated knowledge
• lack a process understanding that considers multiple perspectives
• do not realize that they represent current, and possibly, future stakeholders
• are overburdened with operational work to dedicate adequate time and attention
• do not realize the importance of their role
• Think they are in charge (though there are exceptions).

As an example, some SMEs who are in oversight positions, such as review board members “may sit in judgment … and expect their knowledge to influence content decisions. Their input may be a distraction to the process if they insist on making their influence felt on decisions that the design team and other SMEs are in a better position to make.”


When it comes to getting knowledge that will be used to make decisions, the goal is objectivity. Though there are always personal and organizational biases. Expect subjectivity and work to integrate it into a full decision package.

For example, a very knowledgeable SME who has been part of an organization for decades may be biased towards retaining the status quo, even though the project goal is to radically change it. An SME may not understand the power of technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics and dismiss ideas from technical SMEs, designers, and architects. Another SME might be forward looking in terms of applying technology to transform a process, but fails to address the impact on staffing and customer relations.

To promote objectivity make sure the SMEs and other stakeholders understand the need for it, and are willing to take the time and effort to elicit knowledge from stakeholders with multiple perspectives.


Organizational change and transformation programs are investments in the future. They set the stage for years of operation and evolution.

Don’t scrimp on SME staffing. Put “stars” on the project. Be ready to give up key operations and management people to staff the project with SMEs who have the mindset and availability to be effective partners in the change process.

This requires dialogue among program leadership, functional and operational managers, and communication across all stakeholders to ensure that everyone is aware of the need for open-minded objectivity, their role, and how it impacts success.