Standing in front of the president of the company, I couldn’t believe what he just asked me, “Can you put computers into all of our restaurants in less than twelve months?” Much later in my career, I learned that the best answer was a soft and fuzzy non-answer that would buy me time to find the correct response. Being young and stupid, I just said, “Yes, I can.”

Up to that point in my work life, I was a program manager overseeing testing of new products, procedures and equipment for a West Coast restaurant company. We would develop the concept to the point of putting the “new thing” into several sites, evaluate the test, and recommend if it should be ‘rolled out’ into the chain.

In 1991, everyone was getting computers, and the president felt that we needed to keep competitive, so we should have them, too.

Thus began my journey into change management.

As a good project manager, I began to scope out the project. Evaluating the types of computers available, how they would be installed, the wiring and electricity requirements, vendor availability, project team members and of course, a twelve-month project plan. In other words, a transactional set of activities that fit into the allotted time frame. I was confident that I could achieve the effort and deliver on what the president wanted. I was smug.

Then it hit me.

I had all of the “what and how”, but I hadn’t looked into the “who” component of the overall effort. Who was going to use the computers? Did they know anything about computers? Did they know how to type?

I crafted a management survey to ask about the project. What I found out was striking. Not only was typing absent from their skill set, most had English as a second language. In fact, the most significant finding was, most had a fear of computers. Survey comments included, you had to be smart to use one, you could destroy it by pushing the wrong buttons, it would be hard to learn, and that if they didn’t learn…. they would lose their jobs.

The effort of installing the computers in the allotted time could be done, because that was a transactional effort; buy the computers, wire the restaurants and install them. However, getting the people the skills, knowledge and confidence to use them was not as easy or as clear.  The “people part” was more transformational, and not as easy to plan.

So I transformed the effort into upgrading the skills of our management so we all could use computers to accomplish our goals. I convinced the president to narrate a video for the introduction of the effort and to explain how the project would benefit all of the employees. He outlined how they would use the computer-based tutorials on the newly installed systems to learn at their own pace.  Most importantly, that it would be easy and fun. And especially, that you would have the time and support you needed to get up to speed on the new system.

The project was not only a success, but also earned an award in 1992 for computer learning and support.

What I learned from the project, was that the people component of a project is the most important part. Without the support and understanding of those who are going to be affected, the effort will fail.

Today the “people part” of a project is known as Change Management.

So the question becomes, if you are going to use projects to continuously stay ahead of your competition, as you should, do you view projects as transactional or transformational?  That is, are all of your projects linked to an overall strategy, or are they a conglomeration of ‘keep-the-lights-on’ efforts?

All too often, software upgrades, new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, product development, reorganizations or major capital projects become stand alone efforts that are viewed independently and not really connected. The project team’s vision becomes delivering the project on time and on budget.

In reality, all of your projects should be transformational, because all of them are linked into the fabric that makes your business.

It isn’t the processes and technologies that create a great company, it is the transformational people that are inside.