Why every project manager must understand change management

by Sylvie Edwards

Being effective in project management requires project managers to understand change management. If you are a Project Manager right now looking for the next course or discipline to pursue, I would suggest change management. We, as Project Managers, are consistently associated with change efforts of all kinds touching every level of the organization, yet, we seldom have the proper tools and therefore are ill-prepared to support our stakeholders.

In recent years, I have been examining the project management landscape and have realized that if I wanted to keep up with the profession or even be a step ahead, I was going to have to be better or at least understand change management way more when dealing with project implementations in the context of organizations.

Understanding change management


Part of every good training program for a project management professional should include not only change control but change management concepts. It is important not to confuse these two concepts as being the same as they are very distinct and have vastly different repercussions on projects. You will notice that in terminology, one will see the word organizational added when we are talking about the second instance. The first deals with how we maintain our baselines by monitoring and putting in place specific controls for changes, mostly impacting cost, schedule, scope, and quality elements. The second one is the one where we are at a disadvantage and hardly ever get any training until it is later in the game. As a matter of fact, I don’t know of a program out there, which includes proper organizational change management for Project Managers. Most change management programs are taken as if they are a separate set of skills and quite often by a different group of individuals in order to manage organizational change.

Often, stakeholdersreaction to a Project Manager bringing in a new project is that of concern, anxiety, and stress. The same exact symptoms that many individuals face when dealing with change. As a matter of fact, any Project Manager walking in a room would almost swear that people see the word “Change” plastered on their forehead. We do plan, support, and deliver changes with the implementation of every project. What we do not do well is understand and deal with how these changes impact the delivery of those projects and people’s everyday lives.

We are quick to blame some, if not most, of our issues on the lack of stakeholder support or engagement, but I will contend that what we are dealing with is mostly a lack of clear understanding of how changes modify and influence stakeholder behaviors.

So, what exactly is change management?

Change management is not a new concept, in fact, it dates, in its current form, from the mid-1900s when Kurt Lewin (yes, the same person who gave us leadership styles and the force field analysis) proposed the first of several models to come in support of individuals going through organizational change.

So, at its core change management is how we deal with changes in an organization through the use of technology, processes, and systematic planning. In doing so, we are trying to assist individuals affected by the change with integrating into and adapting to their new context. I won’t go into more details of the change models and processes into this article, but this is done by looking at individuals prior to the change, setting up an environment to support the change process, and supporting individuals during and after the change is in place.

Many Project Managers have left or have been told that this is best handled by the organization’s executive team and therefore it is not considered as part of the planning or delivery process from a project management perspective. This is where our biggest problem lies. If the project is bringing about the change, change management should be totally integrated into the process for better results. We are doing more and more projects, constantly changing people’s environment, needing them to get on board quickly without question yet not giving them the tools or the time to take it all in. Worst not giving the Project Managers the tools and the understanding, they need to factor what impacts this can have on the project delivery.

I see some organizations embark on large organization-wide ERP (Enterprise Resources Planning) solution implementation without a thought of the profound changes that such implementations bring on the workforce. This is more than technology, or a system being implemented; it is a way of life being replaced for most individuals. Sure, we have the training, user manuals, and new process maps for the transition, but people are expected to follow, do, learn, and move on. I believe we have saturated our stakeholders, and they cannot take much more without some support or at least thought of how to get them through the initial impact phase.

A good foundation in change management from a Project Managers’ perspective should make us consider that saturation impact and view our projects differently. We, the Project Managers, should be able to think more like change agents or champions so to enable us to provide our executives with upfront reality checks before we get deep into trouble during implementation.


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