A philosophical approach to managing change

by Edward Witchey

How about a philosophical approach to managing change? Change happens frequently in a project, within a large program, and an overall portfolio. Having an open mind and being somewhat philosophical in the approach allows for effective management towards change. As project managers, when we look at change from a philosophical perspective, we better understand how to react and manage change effectively.

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where your heading.” ~ Lao Tzu

A Philosophical Approach


One of the most valuable concepts we can learn as a project manager is the notion of progressive elaboration. Progressive elaboration, according to the Project Management Institute, is “the iterative process of increasing the level of detail in a project management plan as greater amounts of information and more accurate estimates become available” (PMI, 2013, p. 553). It all comes down to change. Tzu teaches us that we do not know everything at one point in time because things are in a constant state of flux. To chart a course, set sail, and never reevaluate the course as we continue our path is foolish. Each step of the way, we should be taking in new information and making the necessary adjustments to the project plan. The result may not be far off from where it was planned originally, but chances are aspects changed, and they should be managed accordingly. If not, you may end up right where you originally planned, and most likely, that is not the same place the customer or the sponsor wanted or needs.   

The first step in knowing when to change direction when managing a project is to embrace change. Change is inevitable. As a project manager, you cannot be rigid and refuse to deviate from the plan. As new information becomes available, baselines and metrics need to be adjusted to accommodate the change. Another key indicator for knowing when to change is to closely monitor and control the project. Most knowledge areas have specific reports that can be used to measure performance. When used properly, performance reports will show deviations to cost, time, scope, quality, and risk that may force a change to the plan. 

At the program level, changes are monitored in a broader environment. There are several analytical tools that can be used to consider the environment and how it may affect the program. These include a SWOT analysis, Porters Five Forces Analysis, and a PESTEL analysis. These tools help the program manager to look at the surrounding environment and the risks that present themselves. Some program managers may also look to their oversight committees and the information they produce to guide the program in a different direction.

“We see the world the way we do not because that is the way it is, but because we have these ways of seeing.” ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein

This quote is better understood when broken down into parts. The first part says, “We see the world the way we do.” So, how do we see the world? First, we see the world based on our experiences. Our experiences shape how we think and react to certain things. As a project manager, this can prohibit us from seeing the project from a different perspective. Our environment also has a lot to do with the way we see the world. If I spend all my life in one geographical area, it will be more difficult to understand how things work in different parts of the world. A good example of this was seen in the building of the Panama Canal. The head of that project was unaware of the disease and extreme temperatures that killed thousands of people.  

The second part of the quote says, “not because of the way it is, but because we have this way of seeing.” As people, we have a certain way in which we are wired. The way we think, our culture, the people we surround ourselves with all play a part in who we are. Sometimes, this doesn’t allow us to see things the way they really are but instead how we are perceiving them based on our own experiences, environment, or simply because of who we are as individuals. This has a direct correlation to how we need to manage projects. We cannot only rely on what we know from our experiences or what we can see in our immediate environment. While there is something to be said about a subject matter expert who is also a project manager, it is important to have an open mind and see all aspects of the project from different angles. Taking a philosophical approach will help in the planning process, and it will help remain agile when change eventually occurs. 


Project Management Institute (PMI). (2013). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge: (PMBOK Guide), 5th ed., Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute, Inc.


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