Change Management in Projects + 5 Tools to do it

Way back when I started managing projects, change management was a specific role in large organizations. Big projects — and lucky project managers — had their own Business Change Manager.

This person’s role was to integrate the change delivered by a project into the operations of the company. Change management was largely focused on communicating downwards and training.

In this article, we’ll look at what is different about change management now, how change management is defined, and why it is worth investing your time and effort into doing change management.

Then I’ll share some common tools and techniques for change management so you have some practical tips to make sure the changes you are working on are well-received and sustainable.

Change Management: the focus on readiness

Change management today isn’t solely focused on training and comms any longer, at least not for most initiatives.

Larger organizations may have someone focused on change management, but often change management is (or should be) embedded in everything we do that shifts the way a company works.

Change management is the unwritten requirement in everyone’s job, especially those people involved in projects.

Training is still important, but there’s also this idea of ‘readiness’: how prepared the organization is to do things differently.

And if the answer is ‘not very prepared’, change management is the way that we help them get better prepared.

When have you ever come across execs who decided not to change their business because the staff weren’t ready? They might have delayed their plans, or put extra support in place, but if your strategy and survival rely on being able to move with the times and stay competitive, change is coming to those workers whether they like it or not.

Communication remains critical in a changing environment, both in laying the groundwork for the change and for ensuring people know what is happening.

Defining change management

So what is change management?

The definition of change management I use in my book is this:

The way we facilitate the shift from current practice to new practice in order to achieve a benefit.

In other words, it’s a systematic and planned approach for helping individuals and teams be successful with new ways of working.

Why is change management important in project management?

Change management is important in project management because projects set out to change things. And you want the time and effort involved in doing that change to be beneficial to the company.

For example, if you spend $1m on designing and implementing a new computer system, and no one uses it, they all say it’s awful, and three months after go live the system is ditched, that’s a waste, right?

It’s a waste of $1m, and it’s a waste of your time putting the system together. People who worked on that project could have been better utilized by doing something else that would add real value to the company.

But if that system is switched on and people know how to use it, and they give it a chance, and then they find they are saving an hour a day because the new system is better than the old one… well, that’s a win.

Change management definition

If you manage projects, you need to incorporate change management into your work because it means the end result is better received and you’ve got more chance of adding value and seeing the benefits.

Trust me, project managers who deliver a solution that leads to benefits and happy customers — that’s career changing.

The main way change management achieves those things is that it reduces resistance to change.

resistance to change affects project success

Change management reduces resistance to change

Change management helps you deliver the benefits by:

  • Building support for the change
  • Identifying and addressing resistance to the change
  • Helping individuals develop the knowledge and skills required to adopt the new practice successfully.

In doing all of this you are ensuring that your change has the best possible chance of long-term sustainability and success. Because that’s what we really want — and what project sponsors want.

For most projects that involve organizational change, the emphasis is on making a difference over the longer term, not just changing behavior during the month following the launch, for example.

It’s quite easy to define change management in this way. However, when you start trying to shift the behavior of people who have worked in a certain way for years and years. Suddenly getting them to do something different seems a lot harder.

That’s why we have to spend time on change management. And, no, it’s not the same as project management.

Read next: Top 10 Books on Change Management

Differences between change management and project management

Shifting someone from doing a job one way to doing it another? Isn’t that project management? No, it’s not.

Project management and change management are allied but different disciplines, although as a project manager you will probably end up doing both at points during your project.

Think of it like this:

  • Project management is about installation.
  • Change management is about implementation.

Here’s a table from my book, Communicating Change: How To Talk About Project Change, that sets out the differences (and one similarity) between change management and project management.

Project ManagementChange Management
Primarily focuses on installationPrimarily focuses on
Creates a deliverable e.g. a new
software system
Creates an environment where
benefits can be realised e.g. new
software is used to improve
Focuses on the planFocuses on the people
Has a clear timelineMay not have a clear timeline
Has a hard deadline and clear
Does not have a hard deadline; can be hard to determine when change management activity should end
Feels organizational or corporateFeels personal
Led from the executive levelLed from the executive level

5 Tools for change management

Fortunately, if change management work forms part of your project responsibilities, you aren’t starting from scratch. We have a raft of tools available to make it easier to ‘do’ change management, and you’ll be familiar with many of them.

Here are five tools that you will help you with change management.

1. Readiness assessments

These help you understand where the organization and individuals are in their preparedness for the change.

They act as the beginning of the journey and are key to helping you uncover the gap that you have to close in terms of helping people end the journey with their new behaviors.

2. Project sponsorship

Unsurprisingly, having senior leaders involved and championing the change is a way to create buy-in, generate interest and get things done.

One of a project sponsor’s responsibilities is making sure that the project lands well and the vision is realized. After all, the vision, mission or goals is why the project was started in the first place.

A good project sponsor will champion and support the project at all levels — in my experience, that’s essential to convincing others that the change is worthwhile.

project sponsor

3. Coaching and mentoring

Helping team members on a one-on-one basis to deal with and adapt to the change is time-consuming for large implementations, but you can offer team managers the skills to support their staff and devolve mentoring to subject matter experts or local champions.

More focused coaching during organizational change management can help key individuals understand their role in the change and how it is going to affect them. I can also empower them to support their own team.

Elizabeth Harrin working together

4. Training

Training is a structured way to embed and support the new behaviors, explain new processes and get people comfortable with new ways of working.

5. Communication

Timely and meaningful interactions with the people affected by and interested in the change will underpin and support the achievement of the benefit that you’re looking for.

Communicating Change ebook

In Communicating Change: How To Talk About Project Change I focus on the last point: communication. Each section highly practical and actionable — this is not a book about theory.

The book is designed to help you do change management and talk effectively about the changes that your project is going to deliver.

You’ll learn how to use communications to minimize resistance to change, leading to higher project success rates and happier stakeholders.

The ebook is available now and is £8.99. Click here to get your copy.

Other tools for managing change

There are other tools for managing change, like SCARF and the 8 levers of change discussed by Shea and Solomon. There are also many change process models like Kotter and ADKAR from Prosci.

It’s a huge topic, and one you’ll find more about by browsing this blog!

Before you go…

I have prepared a further reading list of my top 10 books about change management. These are the books that helped me the most when I was getting up to speed on project change management and how to do it.

That will give you something to get started with!

Beyond that, I’d suggest connecting with your change managers at work and finding out what they need from you as a project manager so you can work together on your next initiative.

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change management in projects