Change management for projects

07 April

When you think about it, all projects are change management projects. Projects are all about creating something new and in the process changing how something is done. This is of course most often accompanied by people being trained or hired (or fired) or customers doing something different.

So if change is an inherent aspect of every project, why is “change management” held out as a separate thing? Why are there independent workstreams and subject matter experts explicitly tied to the notion of change management? The answer lies in how projects have been typically defined, planned and executed.

Consider these outcome-directed goals: Move our on-premise infrastructure to the cloud; Change our health insurance provider to one with better coverage; Reduce our ecommerce abandoned cart percentage by 10%. It is hard to argue that projects don’t focus on deliverables or outcomes. They represent the goals, the objectives, the destination the project hopes to reach.

Naturally, getting to an outcome requires things be done. But there is often little upfront attention paid to how those things affect project stakeholders; what changes they will likely encounter. For example: the fact that the engineers and technicians charged with moving an infrastructure to the cloud are also eliminating some of their jobs. Or that reducing abandoned carts may result in a change in product offerings affecting the people who manage marketing, product development and purchasing.

If you are familiar with some of the principles underpinning adaptive leadership, you know that considering and dealing with loss is a foundational component. Understanding that change more often than not creates losses in any number of ways is critical to successful change “management”. Why? The most obvious reason is that in some cases the people who are truly required to bring about the change may be the ones most affected by it; and not in positive ways. Isolate or alienate them and the odds for success drop dramatically.

Keep in mind that change and loss do not need to be catastrophic to create friction and obstacles on the way to the goal. “Loss” can be as simple as someone not doing something the same way they’ve always done it. You can hear this resistance in the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

People in general are both risk and change averse, even when risks are low and changes are positive. Even in the face of a new process or technology that will ultimately benefit them, people can be reluctant to embrace the change. And that reluctance can derail even the most positive of initiatives. So what, from a change management perspective, can be done?

Here are three actions that if taken can increase the odds that change will not be an obstacle:

  1. At the very inception of the project, think hard about how short and long term changes will affect project stakeholders. Create change scenarios revealing when, where and how those stakeholders will encounter the changes.
  2. Analyze the scenarios and develop mitigation strategies to lessen the effects of the changes. Test and refine those strategies with sample audiences selected from the stakeholder groups. Include known detractors as they represent the greatest risk.
  3. Be transparent and communicate early and often. Withholding “bad news” or waiting until the change presents itself is a recipe for resistance and resentment. Remember that just the act of acknowledging stakeholders “pain” can have a positive impact.

Do projects need separate change management teams or resources? Not if change and the losses it will create are addressed from the very beginning.

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