Project Management Institute

Binding Authority

Project Managers and Change Managers Need to Strike the Right Balance amid Disruption



By Karen Smits

There's no denying it: Change is constant. But there's fierce debate over who's best equipped to manage it: project managers or change managers. Some insist that project managers are the ideal agents of change, because they can maintain technical and rational stability in the face of disruption. Others believe that a dedicated change manager is necessary, because that person views change through the lens of behavioral science and with high levels of interpersonal skills, astuteness and sensitivity.

So who's right? I believe there is opportunity—and a clear need—for a fruitful collaboration between project managers and change managers.

In a recent project, my role was to mentor a team through the organizational change matters of a project management office implementation. When it became clear that team members were focused on the methodological aspects of the project, I urged them to take a step back. I asked them to interview stakeholders and learn about cultural aspects such as artifacts, values and basic assumptions to explain the DNA of the project organization. Unfortunately, all of the tasks I assigned to them were done with the goal of merely “checking the box,” rather than engaging with the purpose of the task and connecting with the people side of change.

This team—and I have no doubt there are many others like it—needed a change manager who could work in unison with the project manager to help facilitate and implement significant behavioral change. In reality, the project manager is often short on time and resources to fulfill all the change management activities needed to achieve effective results.

Here's how change managers and project managers can peacefully coexist and help their teams understand what it takes to genuinely embrace change:

1. Create clear lines of work

The project manager and change manager roles and activities are relevant at different stages of the organizational project. Discuss how the project management and change management disciplines will work together on a particular project and align ownership for the particular activities. For example, the project manager outlines the project definition and focuses on managing resources, people, budget, schedule and risk. The change manager develops an impact analysis and focuses on changing behaviors and organizational culture to achieve the goals. This arrangement also serves as a common point of reference when disagreements arise regarding areas where both disciplines have some stake and activities (e.g., stakeholder management, communication, planning).

2. Share responsibility

The project manager and change manager should be at an equivalent level in the project organization and together maintain responsibility for project success. This type of arrangement might be facilitated by separate lines of reporting—the project manager reports to a program manager, the change manager to a change owner, for instance—while both roles are held accountable for the project's outcome.

3. Support cohesion

The project management discipline might be integrated with the engagement focus and attention to people and culture of change management. Meanwhile, change management might come to understand the roles and relationships of the project manager, the project team and stakeholders to supplement in areas beyond the focus of the project manager.

After all, it's a given that when teams work together, projects are much more likely to deliver benefits. So when project managers and change managers agree to share the responsibility of adapting to organizational change, projects and their teams will be better equipped to define and realize success. PM

img Karen Smits, PhD, is an organizational anthropologist working at Practical Thinking Group in Sydney, Australia. She can be reached at [email protected].
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