The Project Manager: Champion of Change

A natural by-product of any project is the inevitable changes which the organization will have to cope with upon project completion. Besides being a master of tasks, the project manager has to be a champion of the organizational changes and the resulting impact of these on the workers in the organization. Project success doesn’t just mean delivering on time, on budget and within scope. It also includes genuine acceptance by the people in the organization who will benefit from the project or, in some cases, be impacted negatively by it.  Often, this aspect of the project is lightly touched upon or brushed aside as the project manager views these changes as merely part of project communications, i.e. (“Just tell the employees what needs to be done”), or training (“just send them to training”). In reality acceptance of change can either make or break a project effort. 

The completion of the project will always cause some sort of change to the organization’s structure, processes, systems and/or jobs (or maybe the justification for the project objective needs to be questioned?).  Whenever change of any type happens within the organization it requires extensive planning and hard work to ensure the change is implemented in a manner that will be embraced. Let’s not get this type of change confused with the Change Control tasks which deal with specific changes within the project life cycle. This change deals with those individuals, or stakeholders, who will be impacted by the results of the project. They are the ones that Mark Twain’s quote would apply to best, “I’m all for progress. It is change I don’t like”.

During the project execution, the project manager uses a process and set of tools and techniques to manage the specifics of the project such as the project charter, statement of work, work breakdown structure, schedule, etc.  These activities are focused on the technical side of the project and can challenge a project manager’s “hard skills” especially when there are a lot of unclear requirements, leading to extensive time required to manage change control. The “soft skills” of a project manager need to stay focused on the stakeholders impacted by the change.  This includes applying a systematic approach, but still showing empathy, helping these individuals by providing support and understanding, addressing resistance and providing the required knowledge, while helping mitigate the eventual impact of the solution to the organization. 

For these types of projects the project manager the project manager needs to address the following activities in addition to the typical project planning, executing, and monitoring and controlling processes:

Stakeholder Analysis

–  Identify the specific organizations and jobs that will be impacted.

–  Identify the individual stakeholders from those organizations who will most likely accept the changes and those who will resist them. 

–  Facilitate discussions with theses stakeholders with regards to what will change, giving these individuals the opportunity to share their concerns, provide feedback and ask questions.  This now becomes a two-way communication that encourages feedback from those impacted. It also helps to identify what concerns need to be addressed to potentially move then from non-supportive to a supportive position.

Risk Management

–  Once the changes, perceived or real, have been identified it is imperative to make a determination as to how difficult the acceptance of changes will be.  The result of this analysis may result in additional risks being added to the Risk Register.

– Understanding the various stages that a person goes through when presented with change will help determine the appropriate risk response.

    1.  Person denies change,

    2.  Person responds with anger and resistance,

    3.  Person accepts and adapts to change,

    4.  Person becomes committed to the new way.

  • Just as with other project risks, it is critical to continually monitor the resistance as well as the acceptance to the new environment. 
  • Develop a training plan that will include not only the normal operational training aspects but also the “selling” of the benefits or reason for the change.  This may require not only formal training, but also mentoring and coaching to effectively enable the change.


–  The communication plan will need to be reviewed to ensure that the most effective communications methods are being utilized. This goes beyond the identification of the typical project management communications, and identifies the right messages, the right time, the right format and the right, “authorized” sender to carry the message to the organization. These types of communications are often best conveyed by someone in the organization, other than the project manager.

–  Work with management and project sponsors to build strong and active coalitions of senior “leaders” to craft key messages that must be communicated. This is very similar to the development of a marketing plan for a “product”, without which no new product would be expected to be successful when “rolled out”.  

–  Development of the “sound bytes” that managers and supervisors will need to deliver.  This initial emphasis should begin to make the case of “why” the change is needed, even before the specific details of the solution are complete.  Just as in political debates, often impressions are made based on a few words, and therefore these words need to be very carefully chosen.

–  The effective communication identified in the communication plan is further developed and targeted for each of the different audiences impacted by the change, including information about what they care about and what they need to know. 

Project Closure

–  Once the project has been completed it goes without saying that the project manager should ensure that those who were instrumental in enabling the change be recognized, rewarded and those accomplishments celebrated by all.  

After all the activities above are addressed the soft skills of the project manager will be tested.  Resistance to change is the number one obstacle to successful change. 

To truly become a champion of change, the project manager should consider the following suggestions:

–  Seek support from management and support them,

–  Choose your battles wisely with the people, management or supervisors,

–  Control your attitude towards changing people; some take longer to see the light,

–  Be tolerant of mistakes – they happen,

–  Practice good stress management; you’ll need it,

–  Have a sense of humor; you have to laugh sometimes,

–  Embrace the future and don’t reincarnate the past.

Most of all, remember the purpose of a project is to provide a benefit or improvement, and with that something must change.  If there was no need for change, there would be no need for project managers!!!