Eddie Obeng: All Change!

Possibly the first business book I read as a new publication was an innovative take on project management. The book had a charismatic style, much like that of its author. Its title is emblematic of the focus of Eddie Obeng’s career.

Eddie Obeng

Short Biography

Eddie Obeng was born in Ghana in 1959, and grew up in Britain, attending a boarding school in Surrey. He  earned a BSc in Chemical and Biochemical Engineering at University College London in 1980, and stayed on to take a PhD in Biochemical Engineering.

From there, he went to work as a scientist at Shell from 1983-5 and then to March as a consultant. During his time there, he took an MBA at the Cass Business School. This allowed him to move to the Ashridge Business School in 1987, first as an Assistant Director of Studies, and then, from 1990, as an Executive Director.

In 1994, he left to found Pentacle, an independent business school, which he still runs actively. He is also a visiting professor at Henley Business School and was awarded the prestigious Sir Monty Finniston Award by the Association for Project Management, in 2011, for his contributions to the study and practice of project management.

Obeng is the author of many books, most of which are self-published or out of print. However, All Change!: The Project Leader’s Secret Handbook (1995) is still available and I highly recommend it

Obeng’s Ideas

At the core of Obeng’s thinking is change. He has articulated this simply, by comparing the ‘old world’ with the ‘new world’.

Old World
We learn faster than our environment changes, so our learning equips us well, to cope. Stores of knowledge and experience are applicable and the learned thrive. We can build stores of best practice and we can afford long cycle times in developing new products and services.

New World
Our environment changes faster than we can learn, so our knowledge and experience are always out of date. Constant learning and adaptation is our only way of maintaining success. We need to find ways to develop and test new ideas rapidly and be prepared to honour ‘smart failure’.

Does this remind you of the Growth Mindset ideas of Carol Dweck? It does me.

Consequently, Obeng’s teaching is based around five disciplines we need if we are to succeed in the New World:

  1. Inventing the Future – Innovation
  2. Delivering the Future – project management
  3. Delivering Today – operational management
  4. Leading Organised Talent – leadership and team management
  5. Ensuring Results – sustaining change

All of this tracks back well to the central idea that attracted me to Obeng’s writing in the mid-1990s: that there are different sorts of change, which require different styles of leadership and different balances of capabilities and styles among team members.

These he describes as:

Going on a Quest

Goals and objectives of the change are clear, but you’ll need to figure out how to achieve them. You will need to think carefully about your resources, lead with confidence and commitment, and sell the benefits effectively. You need to stack your team with problem solvers and sleeves-rolled-up doers.

Walking in a Fog

Neither where you are likely to end up, nor the route you will take are clear. You need to move forward carefully and deliberately, one step at a time. You’ll also need to constantly reassure team members with praise for their contributions. You’ll need plenty of problem solvers and also caring people who can create strong team cohesion in the face of uncertainty.

Making a Movie

You understand the processes of change, but are open to discovering where the changes will take you. Consequently, professionalism and expertise are your your tools to ensure that the outcome will be right for your organisation. You need plenty of experts around you, who can follow processes correctly and innovate when needed.

Painting by Numbers

The clearest form of change is where the end result is evident and the means to get there are familiar. Excellence will come from precision and accuracy so it is vital to avoid the threat of complacency. As well as knowledge and skill, your team needs people who can monitor, review, and evaluate well.

This framework is now familiar to many project managers. We often learn project management as if every project is like Painting by Numbers, but it isn’t. My experience was very much with Going on a Quest projects, for example. The rise in Agile Project Management, from the mid-1990s is very much a response to this dynamic – particularly to Making a Movie and Walking in a Fog type projects.

Obeng’s charismatic style is not to everyone’s taste (see the video below), but his ideas are often stimulating and easy to grasp. At their best, they are also valuable aids to thinking about the world of work in the twenty first century.

Eddie Obeng at TED: Smart failure for a fast-changing world

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