Change is a constant in project management. It will occur even after we've set our timelines, decided on the scope, and fixed the budgets.
As project managers, beginning a new project is like being a fortune-teller. We use our past experiences, draw from others' learnings, rely on data, and use research to anticipate how the project might unfold. But let's be honest; we don't possess a magic crystal ball to predict everything perfectly!
For those new to project management, unexpected changes can be a harsh reality check. These changes can knock projects off course, leading to stressful, all-hands-on-deck situations. But, the experienced project managers? They know change is part of the game. They expect it, plan for it, and keep the project running smoothly.
Let's dive deeper into how you can effectively manage change in project management.
What is change management in project management?
Change management in project management relates to how appropriate changes to project constraints are planned, implemented, monitored, and closed during the lifecycle of a project. These changes usually happen due to pivots in requirements, unexpected challenges, or evolving business needs.
Resource constraints can reflect various aspects agreed upon by clients and stakeholders, such as timeline, budget, and scope but also run further into variables on the delivery organization's side, such as people, technology, and tooling.
It's important to distinguish this from the broader concept of organizational change management. In our context, the focus is on ensuring changes are managed effectively so projects continue to run smoothly, on time, on budget, with high quality, and with a positive atmosphere because the chances of project success are maintained.
Let's consider the four main types of change management:
- Anticipatory: This is a bit like a game of chess. As a project manager, you need to be thinking several moves ahead. It's all about looking to the future, imagining what could happen, and making plans just in case it does. It's similar to creating risk and contingency plans. You put on your thinking cap, evaluate the potential effect of these future changes, and sketch out strategies to prevent any significant hiccups in the project.
- Reactive: This is the quick-response mode. When something unexpected occurs, a reactive approach is taken. There's no pre-set plan, and the project manager has to use their skills and their team to solve the problem as it arises. While ideally, these situations are avoided, they're inevitable in most projects. Over time, project managers get better at handling these surprise changes. They're most common when a stakeholder requests something outside the initial project scope.
- Incremental: Some significant changes happen simultaneously, but others can be broken down into smaller parts and spread over time. Managing change this way can minimize disruption and resistance since it avoids a sudden, significant change that's harder to handle and more likely to cause problems.
- Strategic: This type of change affects the entire organization, not just one project. Usually, there are teams of change managers leading these initiatives. But project managers need to be aware of any strategic changes. They need to ensure their projects align with these big-picture changes.
Two important principles of managing change
Here are two things you need to do to make sure you manage change effectively:
1. Establish a solid change management process
In any project, a robust change management process is the first defense against unforeseen changes. It's important to tailor this process to the size and complexity of your project and the nature of your stakeholders and clients.
For example, imagine implementing an enterprise-level change management process on a small project. This could get tangled in unnecessary paperwork and procedures, which may frustrate your team, stakeholders, and clients. On the other hand, a too-simple process may not provide enough governance for more extensive, complex projects. So, selecting an approach that fits your project just right is crucial.
A comprehensive change management process might include critical documents like a change request form (CRF) and a change management log (CML). The CRF is a template to propose a change to the project, filled out by the person requesting the change. This form should capture details such as a description of the change, reasons behind it, potential benefits, estimated cost, impact, and any other supporting information. The CML, often designed as a spreadsheet, is a tracking system for all activities related to each change request. It's a detailed log that reflects how change requests are initiated, progressed, and ultimately closed.
Once a CRF is filled out, it's up to the project manager to review the request, ensuring it contains all the necessary details. The change request is also logged in the CML. Then, the project manager decides if they can approve the change independently or if it requires escalation for higher-level approval. This decision rests on the risk and impact of the change on the project.
When a change is approved, the CML is updated, relevant parties are informed, and the work associated with the change is scheduled into the project timeline. After completion, the CML is updated to reflect the actual effort, cost, and completion date.
Pay attention to change requests
Always look into and address change requests from stakeholders. And once you investigate if they're viable, make sure to act on them before they slip away. You can find out more in our guide to managing change requests.
2. Keep the human factor front and center
A well-defined change management process is crucial but only part of the story.
A good project manager also manages the people affected by a change, ensuring everyone stays informed at all stages. This includes not only stakeholders and clients but also the project team. A healthy project culture embraces an agile mindset, where change is expected and welcomed, not seen as a problem.
One helpful tip is to present your change management process at project kickoff meetings. This can set the expectation that changes are likely, and there's a transparent process to handle them. Without this, stakeholders and clients might expect changes to be implemented without affecting the timeline and budget, which can cause stress and strain in relationships.
So, managing change is about having a thorough process and remembering the people involved. By balancing these two principles, you can help ensure successful project change management.
Five challenges when managing change
Let's break down the complex world of managing change into five primary challenges. Even if you're a pro at communication and care deeply about your team, these obstacles might still crop up. After all, change is the only constant.
1. Resistance to change
It's natural for people to feel uncomfortable with change. This discomfort can stem from anyone or any group affected by the change. The best way to handle this is through clear and honest communication. Explain why the change is necessary and how it will benefit them. Trust is critical here—if people trust you, they're more likely to accept the change.
I remember a project where we were developing a new website and content management system (CMS) for a client. They were comfortable with their old CMS, so naturally, they resisted the change. However, we recognized this resistance early on and made a concerted effort to get them on board with the new direction.
We included them in the project, listened to their input, and showed them how the new CMS could offer the same benefits as the old one but more efficiently. We overcame their resistance by treating them as a vital part of the project and ensured a smooth transition.
2. Scope creep
Scope creep happens when a project's objectives drift from the original plan. It can affect the budget, timelines, morale, and even trust. As a project manager, it's crucial to be diligent when managing change and to ensure that all changes are documented and approved.
In my early days, I was too eager to please stakeholders and often allowed changes without following the proper process. This approach, unfortunately, compromised the project's integrity. I've since learned that sometimes you must have tough conversations and uphold the project's original scope.
There may be instances where it's in the organization's best interest to accept a change without charging for it. This decision should still follow the proper process and be thoroughly documented.
3. People availability limitations
When approving a change, it's crucial to remember that someone needs to do the work. Overlooking this can lead to supporting changes without having the necessary resources to implement them. This can happen if the people on the project team are fully booked and cannot spend more time on the project, which is common, especially in digital agencies where billable time is vital.
Always factor in people's availability when considering change requests to avoid this pitfall.
4. Technical complexity
Sometimes, a change request might involve technically complex work. It's a common mistake to approve such requests without ensuring the necessary expertise is available. To avoid this, always validate change requests with your team to ensure the proposed changes are feasible.
5. Difficult stakeholders and clients
Even with a straightforward change management process, you can still encounter challenges with stakeholders or clients. For instance, they might agree to the process initially, but when implementing changes, they might forget or disregard the agreed-upon approach.
It's important to remind them of the established process in these situations. Some might apologize and adhere to it, but others might disregard it. This is where your diplomacy skills come into play.
You'll need to be firm yet flexible, adapting your approach based on the personality of the stakeholder or client and the politics involved. In extreme cases, it may be necessary to escalate the situation, but this should be a last resort. Sometimes, stakeholders might argue that their proposed change is within the original scope. This can be a tricky situation. A solid specification document outlining the agreed scope can be a lifesaver.
If new stakeholders join the project midway, be sure to onboard them properly, which includes presenting the change management process and expectations to them.
Become an expert
Want to become a pro at stakeholder management? Discover 11 proven strategies for effectively engaging stakeholders and steering your project to success.Explore now
How to use technology to support your change management process
Gone are the days when project managers had to do everything on paper to manage change. Today technology is all around us and here to help. Here are some ways modern-day technology can help drive change in project management.
Streamlining scheduling with Float
Float is a lifesaver for project managers handling scheduling changes. As a project manager, you can immediately access your team's schedule, seeing who is assigned to which task and when. The comprehensive view of your team's time is a significant upgrade from unwieldy spreadsheets or all-in-one tools that try to do too much. When a change request pops up, Float helps you quickly determine when the right person can take on the new task (if approved) and rework the schedule if needed, making change management a breeze.
Schedule and plan projects with ease
Plan your project schedule, allocate resources easily at any time, and keep track of progress and workloads with Float.Try for free
Harnessing collaboration tools
Tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams have become indispensable in our digitally-connected world. They allow asynchronous communication, document sharing, and video call—fostering easy and efficient collaboration among project teams, stakeholders, and clients.
There's no longer a need to coordinate multiple schedules for an in-person meeting. Instead, real-time discussions about changes can happen at the click of a button. These tools ensure everyone is kept up-to-date, a critical aspect when navigating change.
Transparent project management
Trello, Jira, Basecamp, and Asana are all platforms that provide a shared space for your team, stakeholders, and clients to see the potential impact of a change.
These online tools provide real-time updates to budgets and timelines, making the process transparent. This open communication can foster trust among everyone involved, showing there's nothing hidden when changes occur.
Securing approval with document signing software
Tools like DocuSign or Adobe Acrobat Sign are known for their role in formalizing contracts, but they're just as valuable for change management.
These digital signature tools add a sense of formality and commitment to the process by providing an official approval record for a change request. This can be invaluable if you ever need to justify the outcomes of a project, as you have clear proof of each approved change.
Why you need a structured change management process
Without a transparent change management process, your projects can quickly become messy.
I've been there in the early days when I didn't have a set strategy. It was tough—I lost the confidence of my team, manager, and clients, and handling changes felt like guesswork.
It's a situation you want to avoid!
That experience taught me the importance of a solid change management plan. Even though the specifics might change, the key elements discussed in this article remain the same. With a good plan, you can handle any changes your projects might face while keeping your stress levels down.
Here's to managing change in all your future projects successfully!