Change Management for Project Managers

Projects that focus on the needs of the customer generally have more successful outcomes than those that focus on the product itself. So the desire to keep a client happy is paramount to most project managers – they know that the client will have to sign-off on the completed project and if they are not satisfied with the end-result then the project will not be deemed a success.

But on the other hand a project manager also has to keep a tight grip on finances and the project schedule, which naturally means controlling requests for change. If the scope of the project starts to diverge substantially from the original requirements then the client may be happy with the end product but they will certainly not be happy with the budget and/or time over-run.

So how does a project manager put the client’s needs first when they want to change details of the project part-way through the schedule but still manage to deliver a quality product on budget, on time and within scope?

Project managers regularly face this challenge and their skills in managing people, budgets, schedules and deadlines are all vital at such times.

Clients do not always appreciate the consequences of a seemingly simple change. When a change is requested once the project is already in progress it can be much more costly to implement than if it had been built in at an earlier stage. Project plans usually have many tasks running in parallel and often have complicated inter-dependencies so any change can result in huge risk to the successful completion of the project.

But it would be naive to assume that change never happens in a project or that requested changes are always trivial to implement, which is, of course, why change management is considered such an important part of a project and the ultimate responsibility of the project manager. Project managers who are used to dealing face-to-face with clients know that it is simply not acceptable to turn down a change request without an extremely good reason that can be backed up with facts.

More usually the project managers will accept the change in order to show that they are cooperative and flexible and putting the clients needs first. But in order to mitigate the effect of the requested change they will need to have a good project management process in place and the best project managers will often try and negotiate a compromise within the new request to reduce its impact on the whole project or trade off the new requirements with one of a lower priority that was already factored into the plan.

So what is the best way to implement a change control process?

Firstly, it is important that right from the start of the project everyone involved is aware that any change in requirements must be documented through a formal change request.

Every change request submitted should then be reviewed to ensure that those changes that are really necessary or desirable are actually approved. The purpose of the process is not to prevent change but to control it so that it does not jeopardise the success of the project. Requested changes are often the result of ideas that have arisen only as a result of seeing progress in a project in reality. Many people find it hard to think completely in the abstract or to relate fully to drawings, models or prototypes so it is important to recognise that many change requests will result in a better final product.

It is, of course, also important to be able to distinguish between a change that will enhance the end-product and one that is inappropriate and will only serve to delay delivery of the final product.

So a change request has been submitted and reviewed and deemed to be worth investigating further. The next step is to produce an estimate of how long the change will take to implement and how this will affect the existing schedule, and also to weigh up the advantages of making the change with respect to the disadvantages. All of these steps should be documented and discussed with the client.

If it is agreed that the change should go ahead it is important to agree, at the same time, any increase in budget or extension of the completion date as part of the formal agreement to the change. If no additional time or funds can be allocated and the client still requires the change then this is the time to negotiate a trade-off with another, less important task.

In many businesses new ideas can be formed and developed rapidly so resistance to change is never an option. Instead, to remain competitive an organisation and its project managers must be able to deal with changes in projects in an efficient way. This is why change management processes are vital for the delivery of successful projects and why change management is usually part of the project management training undertaken by those responsible for complex projects.

10 Key Competencies for Change Managers

Although change management is founded on established theories, in too many cases initiatives fail to produce intended outcomes, and go over time and over budget. One study by Gartner Research, for example, found that of the companies surveyed 90% had experienced significant change within the past two years, but only 5% had avoided substantial disruptions and finished on time. Why do problems like these exist? Is there something wrong with change management theory? Or does the problem lie with how people perform?

In this article we examine 10 key competencies for change managers.

1. They must have proven research ability: Change management is a form of problem-solving. The best solutions to the problems are not discovered by guesswork, hunches, a ‘sixth sense’, or past experience. The stakes are far too high to trust unreliable processes. Problem analysis and solutions must be based on scientific evidence, and that means change management must be seen as a social science research exercise. Managers don’t need rigid ‘maps’ of how they work or get overly excited about the tools they have at their disposal. What they really need is a sound knowledge of how to conduct excellent research in social sciences. They need to know how to design research projects to collect sufficient, valid and reliable data; how to analyse data; how to report findings; and how to use the findings to create practical and workable solutions.

2. They must have a clear understanding of the change process: Nobody is going to do a good job if they don’t know what change is, how it works, and the theory and principles of how to manage it. Their understanding must be based on well-established research. It cannot be based on what the person ‘thinks’ change is, or on past personal experience. Change management is on shaky ground without a thorough understanding of the change process and established management principles.

3. They must be able to overcome resistance to change: It is a well-known and often lamented reality that people in organizations resist change. They do so for all kinds of reasons – and the manager must be aware of what those reasons are and how to overcome them. Failure to manage resistance sees most change initiatives ultimately fail in a slow war of attrition.

4. They must be able to identify and work with key change agents: Key change agents are people who are ready for change, and people of influence. People with readiness are unlikely to resist the change (providing it is introduced well) however, they are likely to spread positive stories about it. Those are the kind of stories you want.

5. Change managers must be able to harness the power of narratives: Stories create extremely powerful forces that can make or break change. Change managers must be able to tap into those forces and shape the kinds of stories people are telling within the organization.

6. They must be able to address cultural issues: Organizational culture is a broad concept that includes elements such as belief systems, attitudes, use of language, expectations, management styles, etc. These cultural elements must be examined to see if they are contributing to resistance, or contributing to change. The manager must know how to assess them and how to influence them, as required.

7. They must ensure organizational processes and structures support change: The processes and structures within the organization must support change for it to be successful, and it is essential the manager is aware of how these processes and structures impact the change process.

8. They must be able to use the power of organizational networks: Organizations are networked structures. Certain people are influential, and certain people have power. Change managers need to be skilled at working with different types of people. They need to be able to influence powerful and influential people so they become engaged with the change and contribute positively to the process.

9. They must have commitment for the change: Change can be tedious and exacting – most complex problem-solving exercises are. The manager must be dedicated to continually solve problems as they arise, to change tactics, and to see the process through to completion.

10. They must have realistic expectations: Change managers must be realistic about how difficult the process might be, and how long it might take. They also need to be realistic about how staff might react, and what their challenges could be.

The role of change manager is a complex and demanding one that requires a specialised skillset and extensive knowledge. The list of competencies listed here is by no means exhaustive. If the manager is not up to the task change can become very expensive, very disruptive, and potentially toxic to the organization. Even if you have skilled and experienced internal change managers, there are advantages to securing help from outside. External change managers provide an objective view and not caught up in organizational politics.