A tale of two cities

a change management story


Deji Ishmael, Director, Afrissance Consulting, Nigeria Valerie Dabady, Manager, African Development Bank, Ivory Coast


Moving an international organization from one country to another is a tale of two cities. Without a burning platform, with the large majority of staff not knowing the destination city, with a dynamic political context in the host country and a post-conflict destination country…how do you provide for effective change and project management?

Some of the scenarios below are unavoidable; however, effective change management can be an enabler for realisation of organisational priorities when combined with effective sponsorship:

  • What? I can't hear you! Or, the importance of consistent communications: why people keep asking the same questions but don't seem to hear your answers
  • Do I really have to? Or, resistance to change and how to deal with it
  • Who's in charge here? Or, the present/absent sponsor
  • What's scarier, malaria, or Ebola? Or, how reality can sometimes be scarier than your fears
  • Not moving without my horse. Or, everyone's problems are personal
  • Issue of having to adapt policies to a changing environment—no separation packages were foreseen—and then the reality of political and fiscal pressure changed this.

The article will highlight some principles within the context of an organisation's leadership and culture setting combined with the context of third party delivery partners (consultants or consulting firms) often engaged in the delivery of strategic initiatives. The intention is to help change managers, consultants and leaders in organisation develop skills for:

  1. Increasing sponsor skills across their organisation;
  2. Ensuring that there is optimal integration between program management and change management in the delivery of initiatives they are responsible for;
  3. Leveraging and/or developing appropriate techniques for optimizing the culture of the organisation to aid realisation of business benefits; and
  4. Dealing effectively with early warning signals that indicate that realisation of project objectives could be compromised.

In 2013, the authors played a significant role in delivering the people side of the project charged with relocating the entire operations of a regional development bank from Tunis, North Africa back to headquarters in Abidjan, West Africa.

The authors played the roles of change management consulting partner and client project manager respectively; this case study has been jointly written to share the insights gained through the journey from Abidjan to Tunis.

The following are some of the important characteristics of this change:

  1. The bank had moved out of its purpose-built headquarters in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in 2003, due to conflict in the country. The bank, as part of its business continuity plan, implemented activities to ensure a successful move to Tunisia. In this case, success for the move was premised on the impact of the move on continuity of business operations, but also on maintaining staff welfare.
  2. Significantly, the company and all staff always knew Tunisia as a temporary relocation agency, which meant that the company knew that it would remain there only as long as conditions in Ivory Coast were not appropriate for the move, but there was no known timeline for the return. The decision to continue to stay in Tunisia was always an item for discussion at the company's annual general meeting and the decision to remain was always for one more year at a time.
  3. The conflict situation in Abidjan, which triggered the sudden move of the bank to Tunis, had some negative impact on staff, which may have been unavoidable. Regardless, the bank's leadership team made a commitment to include a purposeful change management intervention whenever the decision was made to return to Abidjan, in order to ensure that the staff and family members were eased through the transition and consequently business operations were not adversely affected. At the time of the move, the bank had 1500 staff and 3500 family members that could potentially be impacted by this move.
  4. The staff dynamics had also changed considerably when the decision to return to headquarters was taken, because the bank had grown considerably during its ten year stay in Tunis. For a majority of staff in the bank at this time, they were not returning to Abidjan but were actually going to Abidjan for the first time. In fact, over 75% of staff were recruited in Tunis and had not previously lived in Abidjan.
  5. The bank contracted change management consultants to provide the needed change management support to drive the change, and these consultants were in the form of a joint venture between two companies based in Nigeria and South Africa with an internal project management team headed by a staff of the company. This scenario therefore added some measure of complexity to the dynamics between the client and the delivery partners making up the joint venture.

The Planned Delivery Approach

From the onset, certain guidelines in terms of the parameters guiding project success were agreed upon with the client, and these guided the delivery approach adopted by the consulting firms. The client proposed the following as the three measurements of success (Exhibit 1):

  1. Staff and family engagement with the return;
  2. Effective transition management during the return; and
  3. Institutionalising enterprise change management across the bank.

Exhibit 1: Relocation project picture of success.

Delineation of Roles and Responsibilities

In summary, the following high-level areas of responsibility were assigned to each partner in the tripartite project delivery team.

Client project manager: responsibility for overall program delivery and resolving escalated issues.

Joint venture company A: responsibility for driving the consulting and implementation aspects of the change management engagement.

Joint venture company B: responsibility for driving the capacity building of internal change management knowledge across the change delivery organisation.

Change Management Approach

The key success factors proposed by the bank informed the delivery approach adopted by the bank. The main components of the delivery approach are described below.

Onboarding the tripartite project delivery organisation: Due to the tripartite nature of the delivery team (client, joint venture partner A and joint venture partner B), the consultants included a two day focused team-building event to help the team become high performing in the shortest time possible. The recommendation was for this process to commence as soon as the core of the project team had been identified, and this idea was accepted at the inception of the project.

Developing active and visible sponsorship: It was agreed that the single greatest contributor to project success in this instance would be active and visible sponsorship; hence it was positive that the initial project sponsor was the vice president for corporate services. The project approach would focus on developing the sponsorship capability of this leader and other leaders within the bank and enable the sponsor build an effective coalition to drive the change across the bank.

Building change management capability across the organisation: One of the critical success factors for this engagement was the intention for the bank to leverage this important change, as a platform for building change management (resilience capability) across the organisation. This became even more important during the commencement of the project when it was discovered that there had been a previous change competency development to drive SAP adoption earlier in the bank, but the initiative did not lead to any form of improved change competency in the bank.

This requirement to build internal competency to lead change was vital in the project approach adopted. The approach proposed and adopted by the bank included the actions described below.

  1. Holding project sponsorship workshops for vice presidents and directors would kick off capacity building initiatives targeted at developing excellent sponsors of change able to provide on-going change and communications management engagement as the move progressed.
  2. Building change management competency amongst a select group of internal change agents selected by the vice presidents after considering the personnel requirements for success in the role. These change facilitators were to attend a rigorous three-day change management training program and coaching with the goal of championing the development of change engagement activities across their division. Additionally the goal was for them to provide coaching to sponsors and managers in their respective divisions.
  3. Change management training for managers and supervisors: Due to the nature of the change, training sessions were proposed for all managers within the headquarters environment to help them know how best to navigate the myriad of changes and changing emotions that their reports were likely to surface. This group of people would be developed to become skilled at providing resistance management support to the internal change facilitators.
  4. Change resilience training was recommended for all headquarters based staff directly impacted by the move. The essence would be to prepare them for the myriad of changes that this move would expose them to.

Integrating program and change management: Managing the people side of this change required a major interface with the delivery of major program components that ranged from policy issues, infrastructure development and other areas such as service delivery. From an early stage, it was evident that there needed to be a tight integration between the change management activities, of getting the people (staff and family members) engaged and excited about the move and the readiness of the proposed new location to accommodate the returnees, whilst affording a conducive working and living environment within which the business and family members could continue to thrive. This was raised and prioritized at the commencement of the project.

Delivering within the organisational context: The organisational culture raised certain issues that needed to be addressed in order to proceed with the delivery of this important initiative. Such issues included those described below.

Steering responsibilities for the overall initiative. In addition to the bank's diverse workforce, there are multiple investment partners representing different countries as members of the board of governors. These board members are key stakeholders in a project of this magnitude and it was important to have a project steering board that was suitably empowered to make decisions for the project.

Method for integrating program and change management activities. Organisationally, there was no central program management office or function to drive benefits realisation in a formal way. Consequently, there was no sense or evidence of driving initiatives using any structured program and project management approach that was sufficiently robust. Early assessment of the level of preparedness of the program management activities clearly showed that there was insufficient attention to the program management activities required to get the destination site and related features ready in sufficient time for the move.

Change history within the bank. Tightly linked to the structure of the bank is the change history of the bank. The bank was majorly seen as a directing institution that did not previously pay much attention to issues of change management. This deliberate attempt by the institution to be different and proactive in approaching this move caused suspicion of another motive in part amongst some members of staff.

The Delivery Approach vs. Project Execution Realities

Project Assessment at Kickoff

The reality for most experienced project managers is recognition of the need to modify plans to suit the project realities in a manner that is responsive to the changing organisational priorities, without losing the essence of the direction or approach that was set up at the initiation of the project.

At the onset of the project, an assessment of the current state of reality for the project was carried out using some interview questions and observation methods. The reality is presented in Exhibits 2 and 3


Exhibit 2: Relocation project assessment at kickoff.


Exhibit 3: Graphical illustration of project assessment at kickoff.

Executing the Change Initiative: The Realities

The next part of this white paper looks at some of the changes that were made during the implementation, states the reasons for the changes and the implications where possible. These actions were always introduced in response to the assessment of the project realities at different stages balanced with the need to continue project delivery within the organisational context.

Project Governance

This return was highly visible and viewed as critical both internally and to the bank's external stakeholders. In this instance, project governance varied as described below at different stages of the project.

Early stages of project. A high powered body chartered by the president and chaired by the first vice president was responsible for project steering and this body was sufficiently empowered to make high level project decisions and deal with exceptions at the highest level. This body made important decisions that expedited important and far-reaching change management decisions however recorded less success in making the decisions related to the infrastructure project delivery aspects.

Mid stages of the project. Due to the slow progress being made on the delivery of the project infrastructure related deliverables, the president chartered a separate steering committee to exclusively oversee the delivery of needed infrastructure and deal with government interface in the host country of Ivory Coast. This committee was also staffed by senior members of the bank who were empowered to make decisions related to infrastructure and was situated in Ivory Coast for obvious reasons.

Later stages of the project. Due to project related issues, organisational challenges, the steering bodies were disbanded and/or reconstituted and the president reassumed overall steering for the people side and the infrastructure sides.

Onboarding the Teams

Following project initiation, the teams were eventually resourced after a longer time than planned. The reality then was that the team needed to get to work immediately to regain lost time. Consequently, the planned two-day team onboarding process was deprioritized by the client in spite of the low budget requirement as being difficult to justify in the present circumstances.

The optional scenario became the need to leverage the project kickoff meeting to create the bonding that was required to help the team met each other and create project team working culture.

Implications: As the project progressed, organisational priorities shifted and challenges from other projects came to the fore, this project team encountered some difficulties in interactions such that the joint venture partners and or the client had disagreements on best way to resolve issues at some time. This was no surprise given the diverse nature of the project team, the bank's workforce and the highly virtual nature of working.

Building Sponsorship Coalition

The vice president responsible for this project started off as the project sponsor and in the early days remained committed to building an effective sponsorship coalition to support this change very effectively across the organisation. The leadership team did an exemplary job in driving this change through several engagements including town hall meetings, divisional meetings and succeeded in presenting a consistent message in words and action that really reinforced the need for this change. This was invaluable in driving the change forward.

Due to organisational context, the decision was made to set up a committee to oversee the bank's return to Abidjan, and this committee was made up of all the vice presidents and the directors of the organisation. This decision provided an increased visibility and an empowered decision-making entity within the bank chaired by the bank's first vice president.

A possible consequence of the 'subtle’ change in primary sponsor role from one identified sponsor to a committee seemed to be that although the previous sponsor still maintained the sponsoring role of building coalition and actively championing the change, she was less available to give direction to the project team on emerging matters that often needed executive intervention. She (and the new committee somehow) delegated this role to the project manager, but it was not clear that the client project manager had the authority as well.

Implication: During project execution, some critical sponsoring activities were no longer being carried out, and this led to attention not being given to some matters early enough. Such matters included the progress of program management activities and the establishment of an effective interface or mechanism to align program management activities with change management activities.

Integrating Program and Change Management

As early as the first project meeting, it was clear that the absence of a function to oversee the completion of the physical deliverables for the move such as the completion of office locations etc. could pose a problem later on during the relocation.

This issue was raised and the bank considered multiple options to manage the timely delivery of project deliverables, resulting in the establishment of a technical committee to oversee this aspect.

Implication: The front loading to get the people engaged about the change was successful, however it is possible that some of the gains were lost due to the challenges that occurred as a result of state of readiness of the infrastructure in Abidjan, as the move progressed.

Difficulty in Using the Change Facilitators as Coaches for the Vice Presidents and Directors

The hierarchical nature of the bank made it difficult, in some instances, for the trained change facilitators to function optimally as coaches to directors and vice presidents of the bank. In these cases, the role was performed through a combination of sponsor coalition imperatives and consultants stepping up to the role.

Furthermore, the change facilitators were not officially released from ‘normal’ activities; hence, the effectiveness of some was affected by the level of support received from their respective vice president or director.

Project Achievements

To a great extent, the project achievements can be summarised in the following categories.

Staff and Family Engagement with the Return

The efforts of the change management project team led to a high level of engagement amongst staff and family members with the return to Abidjan. Evidently, the mood changed from “The move will never happen” to “Wow! This is really happening.”

The staff and family engagement was quite high. Additionally, the staff was very impressed about the bank's attitude of listening and preparing for this change; some felt that the institution was changing for the better because of the way the relocation was handled.

Effective Transition Management.

The process of transition management during the return was well appreciated by the staff and the employees. The workshops, town halls, meetings with family members, video clips that were available and the availability of on ground support and many other activities really helped staff with the transition. There were challenges with availability and state of infrastructure when compared to Tunis, but staff perception was that the transition management was effective.

Institutionalising Enterprise Change Management Across the Bank

The training and coaching provided to the change facilitators, managers and sponsors have definitely resulted in an increase in commitment, to using change management principles to increase benefits realisation even as the return continues. Other departments such as IT and HR are realising the need to do more change management, and they are applying this in ongoing initiatives. The capability and awareness of change management is definitely reinforced across the bank.

Unfortunately, there is no ‘formal’ structure to ensure that this awareness and competency is harnessed properly to continue to be an enterprise priority. There is a risk that the enterprise change management reality may be slow or could disappear over time unless a structure is put in place.

Lessons Learnt

As practitioners, it is important to reiterate that there is no lack of knowledge regarding the best way to effect some changes; oftentimes our best laid plans may need to be modified within the context of the organisation where we are delivering the projects.

As practitioners, we question ourselves on why we did not do what we knew to do and proactively make decisions about ensuring that in future, we set up mechanisms to ensure that the chances of our plans being usable are optimized upfront.

This section looks at some of the things we feel we could have done better in ensuring a better outcome for our project.

Onboarding of the Project Team

As consultants, we knew this was important because of the tripartite nature of the team and the visibility and timelines associated with the project.

The high-performing session planned by the team was critical to our success (consultants and clients) and it would have been beneficial if we had been more insistent in having this done, or perhaps we could have contractually ensured this was a commitment by the customer upfront. The customer's reason included the sentiments that it was difficult to get the internal staff out of the office for two days to do team building.

Sponsor Engagement

Although the project organisation provided for regular engagement with the sponsor, the inability to effectively fulfill this function meant that some of the sponsors’ concerns or ideas may have been missed, and some of our concerns and ideas also never got to the sponsor. In the end, this was not ideal.

Program and Change Management

This was a project that clearly needed to have a strong project responsibility assignment matrix (RAM) management emphasis. The project management activities had significant input into the change management and communications activities. The inability to have a stronger connection, due to prevailing organisational realities was not ideal for the project.

Final Words

As project and change managers, it is important to realise that change projects will always be delivered within the context of the organisation's culture. We may need to be flexible and pragmatic in working with clients to adapt our plans, where possible, to emerging realities, especially as we recognise the impact other corporate initiatives may have on our projects.

Here are the main messages from the tale of two cities:

  • In matters of communication, treat a message as if it were the first time the words were uttered from your lips; repeat the message until you feel physically ill if you were to say it once more time.
  • In communication, treat the more serious messages (e.g. how to avoid typhoid) along with the lighter ones (e.g. where to go carting) if you are to present a balanced view of concerns.
  • In change management, the issue you worry about may end up being inconsequential in highlight. Trust was formed by actions that management took that proved they were listening to staff; they met staff more than halfway on a number of issues—e.g., implementing a separation package, and allowing staff to take a cash option to ship their personal effects.
  • Fight with the army that you have. Sponsorship was not a very cohesive group, but the sponsors that were visible were used the most and were allowed to carry the message.
  • Management by consensus has its limits; the senior management committee was ultimately disbanded in favour of direct decisions by the president.
  • Address the myriad concerns of staff, even the most seemingly trivial (e.g. I won't come if I can't continue horseback riding lessons), as if that issue were the most important question in the universe.

© 2015, Deji Ishmael and Valerie Dabady
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – London, UK



Related Content