How To Manage a Change Request Without Derailing Projects

Projects change, and change requests are necessary to keep stakeholders informed and ensure the project continues to meet expectations.

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A small change request on a project that ends up ballooning out of control due to poor change management is the stuff project managers’ nightmares are made of.

Projects change over time, and change requests are necessary to keep stakeholders informed and ensure the project continues to meet expectations. The tricky thing is that change requests can easily be missed or overlooked during project management, resulting in serious consequences for the project and its stakeholders.

Thankfully, these challenges are avoidable with a bit of diligence and discipline in managing change requests. Let’s take a look at how change requests work and how to handle the process most effectively.

What is a change request?

Change requests are proposals by project sponsors or key stakeholders to modify accepted elements of a project. Essentially, they represent revisions to the scope, plan, schedule, or cost. Project managers must manage change requests to maximize efficiency and minimize disruption properly.

Change requests are an inevitable part of any predictive project, where expectations and goals are agreed upon and fixed at the outset. Predictive projects often require a lot of fine-tuning and adjustments as the project progresses, with different stakeholders providing input at various stages.

Typically, you will only work through a change request if the change is material and will alter existing plans. For example, the copy of a customer-facing email probably won’t require a change request, but adding an email campaign to the launch requirements of a new product or service probably will. The latter alters the project's scope, which will, in-turn, modify the schedule and resources required to achieve the revised goal.

How do change requests usually work?

Change requests are an integral part of any project management process and are a great way to ensure that sponsors, stakeholders, and project team objectives can be properly aligned.

The change request process typically starts with the project manager collecting change needs identified by stakeholders in the project. From there, the change request is documented with all relevant details, including user requirements (scope), impacts to the schedule and cost, and any alternative solutions being considered. This process becomes easier if you're using a change request form (more on that below).

Change requests must be approved by the project manager and key stakeholders who need to sign off on any changes before they can proceed.

Once approved, the change request serves as a guide for moving forward through the rest of the project. It's ultimately up to the project manager to ensure that each requested change is both adequately documented and managed from start to finish so that any impact on time or cost is kept in check. (Having good project controls in place can really help).

How to set up an effective change request process

How a change request is handled can make or break a project. Project managers who want to successfully manage scope, schedule, and cost should build an effective change request process so any changes along the project journey are well-managed.

Determine who can request changes

An important tactic for effective change management is to clearly define who on the project team can request changes. Then, you need to make this information available to all involved in the project so they know the ability and empowerment of each member.

Define a method for changes to be requested

Build an intake process or method to receive change requests. The best processes here involve consistent communication methods and tracking. You should be able to review all requests over time in one single location. A change request form should capture the following information:

  • Requestor
  • Project title
  • Due date
  • Executive sponsor
  • Stakeholders
  • Project impact and alignment with top-level organizational goals
  • Specific desired outcomes (e.g. a particular scope change)
  • Project description
  • Required resources

Determine how change requests will be evaluated

Decide and document how a change request will be evaluated once submitted. For example, do all change requests need to go to the project sponsor for review? Does the project manager have the authority to reject a change request without consulting the project sponsor? The project team should be consulted with each change to ensure that they are on board with any modifications and understand their roles in bringing about the new desired outcome.

Designate a decision maker

As in many cases in project management, it’s good to designate one individual—typically the project manager—to make the final decision on change requests after evaluation and recommendations from the team. The decision maker has the authority to accept, reject, or recommend revisions to change requests. Personally, I don’t recommend flat-out rejecting a change request made by a stakeholder or project sponsor. Instead, I typically use the recommended revisions path to find a solution all project team members can get behind.

Drive clarity with communication

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Communication is vital when managing change requests because the project is already off and running, and you’re looking to change something likely already in-flight! Information should be shared with team members as soon as possible, so there is no delay in implementing the changes. I suggest over-communicating wherever you can regarding changes, and be sure the decisions are in writing so you can refer to them later.

Five tips to manage project change requests effectively

If you’re a project manager who’s been around for awhile, you’ve likely seen at least one change request go terribly wrong before. Here are some quick tips for managing change requests more effectively:

1. Develop a clear, documented, repeatable change management process

For project managers to effectively handle change requests, they need to develop a straightforward process that is easy for everyone involved in the project to follow.

This should always include an assessment stage where stakeholders can state their requests and a review phase where the project manager can decide if the change is feasible and appropriate. It is essential that the process is transparent and communicated to everyone involved to ensure change requests are handled promptly.

2. Evaluate all change requests quickly

I've seen many project managers only accept change requests once they are completely perfect or when the project sponsor is starting to get loud about them—avoid this!

The proposed change you're hearing about now will become a big deal later. Be proactive and help the person considering or requesting the change work through the change request process and get approval. You want to work with the project team members and stakeholders, not against them. Be open to change; change is the only constant.

3. Consider the total impact of a change

When a change request is made, it is important to evaluate the total impact of the change and determine how best to respond. The aim should be to ensure that any modifications are managed to minimize disruption to other parts of the project.

This requires taking into account any dependencies between tasks and considering potential risks associated with making changes.

4. Make transparent decisions

Keep change requests from sitting in a pending, approved but not implemented, or another purgatory status. Make decisions about them, tell everyone involved about the change, and get to work! Being clear and timely about decisions regarding change requests will build confidence across the team that things are being worked out and managed well.

Clarity in what is happening and changing will help keep the project team moving forward confidently and enable the correct folks to implement the changes when the time is right. Don't delay; decide and communicate today!

5. Practice an open mental stance and be open to change

It is often a natural instinct to protect your existing project plan, scope, schedule, and budget. Remember, your job is to facilitate the project outcomes, not fight against the needs of the project sponsors.

Don't take it personally when something needs to change—be open to it, and seek to understand why it's important and how it will lead to better project outcomes.