“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, 1505.
This quote was shared in a project management discussion and it hit home with me. In making the leap to the next level of performance, I mention as a young manager how perplexed I was by the number of folks, even after we were successful, who were unhappy about the results. I would experience this kind of reaction throughout my career.
As a project manager or anyone seeking to bring about change, this quote provides insight that is useful to help us deal with this issue as it arises. I just think of it as human nature. We will have a push back with any change we make. The fact that being successful didn’t win over everyone took me a while to sort out. I finally realized, for example, that some folks have invested possibly years explaining their beliefs why things don’t work well and how to improve them. When someone then come along, does something different and succeeds it rattles the foundation (credibility, reputation, etc.) that person has been building. No one likes a situation, even a successful one, that seems to imply: “see, our approach really worked — yours never did!”
In successful managers without successful projects, I also considered why some senior managers seem fairly content with projects that don’t go well. I suggest it is in large part because they have had their successful rise up through the ranks primarily with “unsuccessful” projects. If we can be individually successful without a clearly successful effort, then our motivation or perceived need for hard changes to have a truly successful project is that much less.
While I have no magic solution for overcoming this natural resistance to change, just knowing this kind of thing may happen helps us as project managers to deal with it when it arises. Much of the sophistication in management comes not from knowing specific methodologies and techniques, but from knowing the range of possible outcomes and human reactions to what we do and not being surprised nor discouraged by them when they happen.
Have you experienced cases where people’s reaction to success was not what you expected?