Change management would be easy if people weren't involved

best practices for managing the people-side of change management


Often as project managers we focus on managing changes that occur to our projects; however, that is not sufficient. We forget one very important component of managing change and that is managing stakeholder's expectations around change – this is a big component of nearly any project regardless of its size or complexity. When we don't effectively manage people's expectations around change on our projects we risk project failure! The effort we must put forth increases when we begin to work on projects that involve stakeholders from a variety of cultural backgrounds or with virtual or remote teams.

Step one in more effectively managing expectations around change is understanding the impact of change on the individuals within the organization. Step two is following a simple process to ensure continued engagement by stakeholders throughout the project – mainly done through regular and frequent, but controlled, communications early on and throughout the project. This paper will provide best practices for managing the people-side of change on projects. When we learn to do this effectively, we increase the success rate of our projects in the eyes of our stakeholders and overall better engage our stakeholders in our projects.


To be successful, every project manager must focus in two areas of change on their projects:

  • Managing changes required of the project itself
  • Managing stakeholder's expectations around change

In fact, PMI’s Pulse of the Profession™: The High Cost of Low Performance (PMI® 2013) notes that change management contributes to the increased success of projects and programs. This means that you must learn how to engage your stakeholders in change and manage their expectations around change – not just manage changes to the project itself.

Often the focus is only on managing changes required of the project and not on how stakeholders will handle change nor their expectations around the change that will occur because of the project. Sometimes this is due to our belief that change has to happen so others will have to adapt to it; other times we are just not sure how to deal with people's expectations around change – it can be an emotional topic and we are not always up for the fight!

Well-managed projects that do not take into account how stakeholders will react to change are not well managed!

The amount of complexity of change management for projects is directly tied to the type (or complexity) of the project. And in particular, in today's world, so many projects have a virtual component that change management is critical for project managers to master. When working with individuals, whether team members or other stakeholders from a variety of cultural backgrounds, managing the people side of change management is even more crucial to project success.

A simple three-step process enables project managers to better manage stakeholder's expectations around change and also helps to ensure effective and sufficient preparation and planning of such projects. And what better way to explain about the value of focusing on the people-side of change management than with a project focused on change in the organization.

Three Step Process for Managing Change Projects

Exhibit 1 – Three Step Process for Managing Change Projects

Each of these steps will be discussed further in this paper, from the perspective of engaging stakeholders and keeping them engaged in the change, along with challenges encountered in each step and how to best address those challenges to keep the project moving forward.

The Impact of Change on Individuals

Without commitment from the individuals (your stakeholders), it will be difficult to make any change project “stick.” From a project management perspective, your role does not end simply because the project has been launched, rather, your credibility is impacted if the project never takes hold within the organization.

There are a variety of obstacles to change that impact stakeholder's perception of the project and their willingness to support and champion it. These obstacles include:

  • A fear of the impact of the change specifically on the employee's role and responsibilities
  • Insufficient knowledge and information about the change and why it is happening
  • Disruption in the employee's daily routine
  • A “we always do it this way” mentality
  • Viewing the change as inconvenient given what else may be going on in the company or personally for the employee
  • A fear of not having the skills or experience to change (lack of training)

Communication is the best method to help individuals move past their obstacles of change and support and champion your initiative. Communication should be done upfront before the start of the project, throughout the project and after implementation and evaluation. This is absolutely essential to keep stakeholders engaged and reduce their fears. (Abudi, 2012)

There are five stages that individuals go through when making a change (Hiatt & Creasey, 2012):

  1. Awareness of the need to change
  2. Desire to participate in and support the change
  3. Knowledge about how to change
  4. Ability to implement new skills and behaviors
  5. Reinforcement to maintain the change

As a project manager, you have the ability to help individuals within the organization progress through these stages by your regular communications and interactions with them. When we keep individuals engaged, they are more receptive to change as they feel a part of the change and not simply as if the change is happening to them. We want participation in the change initiative – we don't want individuals to feel as if change is being thrust upon them and they are powerless. When individuals feel this way, they do not support the change and may actively work against it.

Consider the following conversation starters to get stakeholders engaged in the change-focused project:

  • Highlight what happens if the change does not happen and the impact on the individual and the organization
  • Discuss the benefits of change and how the change may personally benefit the individual
  • Promote the ability to learn new skills or increase knowledge when change occurs
  • Discuss the ability to get involved in something exciting and new

Additionally, consider engaging stakeholders by asking the following questions in a small group setting or casual conversations:

  • What do they believe may or may not work about this change project?
  • How would they proceed with the change initiative if they were managing it?
  • What do they want to know to alleviate their concerns?
  • What does success look like to them?

When we invest time in understanding the impact (whether real or perceived) of change on individuals, we are more likely to engage them in the project and get their support and commitment.

You can gauge whether or not stakeholders are champions or resisters by their interactions with you and their body language during your stakeholder meetings. Those who are willing to have the conversation can be converted to champions; those who ignore your efforts to engage will resist you throughout the project. When you find those who are resisting you, seek out time alone with them in order to focus on them individually and review the project and their perception of it. Sometimes individuals just need to have a personal conversation and get their questions answered and concerns addressed individually.

To ensure successful communications on your particular change project, be sure that you can answer the following questions:

  • How have change initiatives been communicated in the past? What channels were used for communication and were they effective? If they have not been effective, why not?
  • What else is going on in the organization that may impact your communications?
  • Do you have the right people in the communication loop? Both for receiving and delivering communications?

The Impact of Cultural Differences

Cultural differences also have an impact on how individuals perceive change. Geert Hofstede, while employed with IBM, developed dimensions of national cultures that help project managers to understand why stakeholders may react as they do to change initiatives. Hofstede's original theory focused on four initial dimensions:

  • Individualism and collectivism
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Power distance
  • Masculinity and femininity

For example, individuals from certain cultural backgrounds may not expect to be involved in change initiatives if their role in an organization is not a management-focused role (power distance). In such situations, they are expected to be told what to do and when to do it, therefore, while they may be worried about change, they will be unlikely to raise concerns about change. They may support it because they are expected to do so, or they may work behind the scenes to derail the initiative. From a project manager's point of view, a general understanding of the dimensions of culture enables for improved interactions and engagement with stakeholders from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Looking at one other example – if stakeholders are of a cultural identity where there is a strong uncertainty avoidance dimension, risk tolerance is low. In such cultures change would not be supported unless there was compelling face-based evidence that the change must occur and it would be detrimental to the individual and/or the organization if it does not happen.

What is important to keep in mind is that while an understanding of the dimensions of culture enables for more effective engagement of your stakeholders, assumptions cannot be made that because an individual is of a particular cultural background he or she is completely in line with that dimension. Rather, use the theory to have an overall understanding of stakeholders and to set a plan for engaging and communicating with stakeholders in a way that will work with them.

Evaluating Change

In this first phase, Evaluating Change, the focus is on understanding the change that will occur and how it will impact the stakeholders involved. Start by considering the stakeholders who will be involved. Can you answer the following questions about the project you are leading?

What is the scope of the change? Who is impacted by it? One workgroup? One department? A division? Multiple divisions? The entire organization? The greater the impact of the change, the riskier the project; therefore, requiring more upfront planning enables project success.

Are those impacted ready for change? Are stakeholders engaged? What else is going on within the organization that may impact this project? Are there other change initiatives – major or otherwise – that may impact how stakeholders perceive this change? Have change initiatives been successful in the past? Is there usually resistance to change? Past change-focused projects and how they were handled will have an impact on stakeholders’ perceptions and expectations around the current project.

As the project manager you will need to be able to respond to inquiries such as, “What is this project all about?” “Why is this happening now?” “How will this impact me personally?” To do this you will need an understanding of the project and what change will be required within the organization because of the project.

In this early stage, project managers should have an idea of who may be “on board” with the change and who may need to be sold on what is happening and why. Certainly this will become clearer as we move to stage two, Prepare for Change. In this first phase, our focus in on educating and socializing our stakeholders on the project. To do this, however, we must understand the project ourselves.

The earlier you begin to communicate with stakeholders about the project, the more likely you will have engaged and committed stakeholders who support the project. Develop an initial communication plan that utilizes a variety of methods to educate and socialize the project with stakeholders – this might include email, face-to-face meetings, virtual meetings, small group meetings, all staff meetings, etc. The more options presented for communication the more likely you are to reach all stakeholders in ways that work for them. Rarely do project managers over-communicate; more frequently they under-communicate with stakeholders. This is particularly common when a project is complex and requires significant project manager attention. Keeping stakeholders engaged through communication tends to be pushed aside to meet deadlines, resolve problems and stay on budget. Regular communications enables for educating stakeholders on the project. Change-focused projects are only successful when the project has been socialized with stakeholders and they support the initiative. As a best practice, consider building into your initial project schedule time to meet with stakeholders and socialize the upcoming project before the project actually starts.

Project complexity drives the type and frequency of communications with your stakeholders to keep them engaged and supportive of the change. Consider the following about your project and the approach you might take. Certainly, the more complex your project the more time and effort will need to be invested in engaging stakeholders.

Type of project (complexity) Take the following approach…
Large scale and complex; impacts most all business functions; requires employees to dramatically change how they work
  • Begin to discuss the project and share information with stakeholders significantly prior to project start
  • Define responsibility for communications among several members of the project team with key points of contacts for stakeholders
  • Develop a plan for regular and frequent communications using a variety of methods
  • Ensure regular “check ins” with stakeholders outside of planned communications
  • Consider use of a portal to share information and enable for regular interactions with and between stakeholders and the team
Moderate in scale; impacts several functions; requires new skills and behaviors of employees
  • Begin to discuss the project and share information with stakeholders prior to project start
  • Develop a plan for regular and frequent communications
  • Ensure regular “check ins” with stakeholders outside of planned communications
  • Consider use of a portal to share information and enable for regular interactions with and between stakeholders and the team
Small scale; impacts only 1 or 2 functions; requires minor changes to how employees will do their work but with no real change in responsibilities
  • Share information with stakeholders at project start through a kick-off stakeholder meetings
  • Develop a plan for regular communications

Even with a project that is being thrust at you for start immediately, you might still negotiate a bit of time to socialize and educate your stakeholders. In situations where you need to start a project immediately, socialize simultaneously upon start. However, work with sponsors to hold off on beginning work in any areas that requires stakeholder support. Remember – without support and buy-in from the stakeholders you are unlikely to have a successful project. It is near impossible to get support when you are already moving forward in making changes. This does not enable for building trust with your stakeholders.

Preparing for Change

In this phase we want to ensure that we will prepare stakeholders for the upcoming change.

To do this, project managers must take steps very early on in the initiative – often before the project officially begins. Focus initially should be on the following areas:

  • Communication planning throughout the project
  • Initial consideration of project transitioning and training needs

At completion the project will need to be transitioned to another group within the organization – will they be ready? Early on in the project planning stages have an initial transition and training plan to present to relevant stakeholders. Change management requires ensuring stakeholders and others are comfortable with what lies ahead. They will want to know there is a plan to transition the project and to ensure they are trained in the project. There is little more frustrating or worrisome to stakeholders then knowing there will be a change that will impact them and not seeing, nor participating in, a plan for that transition to go smoothly. You need an understanding of stakeholder's current skills to determine if they are able to work with the change to be implemented. Certainly the more complex the project, the more planning required upfront in training and transitioning. While you may not lead the development of training programs to prepare stakeholders and get them the skills they will need to be successful, you will need someone on your team from Human Resources and/or Learning & Development who will be responsible for this component of the project.

When project managers spend the time upfront and early on in planning for communications around their change project and engaging stakeholders in the change, the balance of the project goes much more smoothly.

Planning for Change

In this phase, your stakeholders should now have an understanding of why the change is happening, how they will be supported in the change (training, communications, question and answer sessions, etc.) and they are moving toward being engaged in the change – they feel a part of it and empowered about the change rather than as if they have no choice.

Once the project begins there is a tendency to get so wrapped up in the project and managing it daily that we forget about our stakeholders. We may have engaged them from the start and communicated effectively, but now problems begin and we forget about our stakeholders. We may assume that because they were on board initially we don't need to spend much more time with them. This is an erroneous assumption. As we begin to move into managing the project, issues will arise on the project. Some of these will undoubtedly impact stakeholders that may not otherwise have been impacted. It is essential that we continue to engage our initially identified stakeholders and any new stakeholders as we move through the project. (Abudi, 2012)

Although as the project manager you will be busy with meeting deadlines and managing to the budget, you must take the time to manage communications also. In this phase, you need a communication plan developed that ensures frequent and regular communications with your stakeholders. While you may have others on the team who handle some communications, you must keep in the forefront with your stakeholders. You may do this through casual conversations with stakeholders and ensuring that stakeholders know you are available if they have any questions or concerns.

For larger, more complex change initiatives, arrange for monthly stakeholder meetings – either face-to-face or virtual (or both options to ensure you capture the largest group of stakeholders). During this time ensure that stakeholders are updated on timelines for project completion, transition planning and/or training that will be done. This is also the time to answer any questions and ensure that stakeholders are still on board.

These three phases – Evaluating for Change, Preparing for Change, and Planning for Change – should all be accomplished prior to and into the early start of your project. Meaning, you need to evaluate and begin to prepare for change before you actually kick off your project initiative and then move into planning in the early stages of your kick off of the project. You will need additional information which will be learned as you progress through these phases and through your interactions with stakeholders to finalize your project scope and ensure you understand exactly what the project involves.

Using Collaboration Portals

Collaboration portals are an excellent way to keep stakeholders updated and engaged in your initiative once the project kicks off. There are a variety of tools for collaboration portals – I lean toward using Microsoft SharePoint® as it provides me a great tool to engage both the project team and my stakeholders and to manage my project overall but certainly there are a variety of tools – including free ones – that will work just fine for any project. When you have stakeholders who are virtual or remotely located, collaboration portals become even more essential to enable them to feel connected.

Collaboration portals enable your stakeholders to go to one central location to find information about the project. This might include:

  • The project schedule
  • Upcoming stakeholder meetings
  • Who to contact on the project team
  • Upcoming training sessions
  • Information about change to the project that may impact stakeholders
  • A forum to ask questions about the project

For larger, complex projects, assign a team member to manage the portal and ensure it is updated and stakeholder inquiries via the portal are addressed in a timely manner. I have often used a project administrator to fulfill this role.


Managing projects that require stakeholders and others within the organization to deal with change in some way, shape or form is very challenging for project managers. The years of experience you have as a project manager does not make those challenges disappear. The challenge is in stakeholders’ expectations of change. People have a difficult time accepting change – even when it appears to be a minor change or a change for the better. Those who have accepted change in the past may have something going on personally (outside of work) that impacts their perceptions of what needs to happen in the workplace. Through effective engagement and communications, we can get the majority, if not all, stakeholders onboard with what needs to happen. Many project managers may not see managing people's expectations of change as a component of their role, but it most certainly should be.

Abudi, G. (2012). Best practice steps to successfully plan for change. Retrieved on August 1, 2013 from

Abudi, G. (2012). Helping others move past obstacles to change. Retrieved on August 1, 2013 from

Hiatt, J., & Creasey, T. (2012). Change management: The people side of change. Loveland, CO: Prosci, Inc.

Hofstede, G. (2013). Cultural dimensions theory. In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved on August 10, 2013 from's_cultural_dimensions_theory.

Project Management Institute. (2013, March). PMI’s Pulse of the Profession™. Retrieved on August 1, 2013 from

©2013, Gina Abudi, MBA
Originally published as a part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – New Orleans, Louisiana



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