Managing the people side of change

an applied framework


Projects are change. The purpose of any project, by definition (a temporary endeavor, undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result (PMI, 2008, p. 37)) is to bring about change. Yet many projects and programs struggle and even fail due to individual, organizational, and cultural factors that are not adequately understood or addressed. As a result, the target stakeholders are unable or unwilling to embrace and sustain change. Understanding and managing these factors and the complex interactions among them requires a blend of analytical rigor, interpersonal awareness, and execution discipline. This paper presents a change management framework that:

  1. Helps project managers understand change as a dynamic system;

  2. Serves as the basis of assessing the current state, then planning and managing the change effort; and

  3. Provides a tool to detect, diagnose, and overcome resistance to change throughout the project


The 2008 IBM Global Services’ Making Change Work study found that 41% of projects were considered successful in meeting project objectives within planned time, budget and quality constraints (IBM Global Services, 2008, pp. 11–12). The most significant challenges were related to people. Changing mindsets and attitudes (58%), Corporate Culture (49%), and Underestimating Project Complexity (35%) were more significant than non-people related factors such as lack of resources, business process, and technology barriers. The top performing 20% of organizations in the study, dubbed “Change Masters” in the study, reported an 80% success rate. In contrast, the bottom-performing 20% of organizations were successful only 8% of the time. The primary success factors for successful projects (IBM Global Services, 2008, p. 13) were heavily weighted toward “soft,” “people-oriented” factors such as Top Management Sponsorship (92%), Employee Involvement (72%), Honest and Timely Communication (70%), Corporate Culture that Motivates and Promotes Change (65%), Change Agents (pioneers of change) (55%), and Change Supported by Culture (48%). In summary, mastering the people aspect of change is highly correlated to project success.

Change as a System: A Framework for Change

Individual Factors

Regarding politics, long-time Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tip O‘Neill, once said “All politics is local.” With respect to change, it can be said that all change is individual. Human resistance to change is a much-studied and written about topic in business literature. Some common conclusions are that resistance to change is:

  1. Natural

  2. Unavoidable

  3. Predictable

  4. Manageable

Each individual exposed to a change goes through a process of evaluating and responding to the change. Daryl Connor's book (1992), Managing at the Speed of Change, depicts the typical path in Exhibit 1:

Commitment Curve. (Connor, 1992, p 148)

Exhibit 1. Commitment Curve. (Connor, 1992, p 148)

The individual capacity to change is based on two factors (Connor, 1992, p 127):

  • Competence is having the requisite knowledge and skills to accept and adopt the change.
  • Motivation is the drive to accept and adopt the change.

Deficiencies in either area will affect how quickly individuals move through each phase. Consider two examples:

  1. An employee at a health insurance company is willing to participate in the launch of a project management community of practice to codify and promote good project management practices within the company, but lacks the background and skills necessary to write articles on project management topics or to answer questions from others with confidence.
  2. A more experienced project manager is able to write articles on a range of topics and answer many questions with a high degree of confidence, but sees no good reason or opportunity to do so given her many other responsibilities.

Both are limited in their capacity to change, but the nature of those limitations is fundamentally different. In the first case, high motivation is constrained by limited competence; and in the second case, high competence is constrained by low motivation. Further, individual motivation and competence are not static and do not exist in a vacuum; they are influenced by a number of dynamic factors present in the organization, which form a complex system, depicted in Exhibit 2:

Richardson Consulting Group Change Management Framework

Exhibit 2. Richardson Consulting Group Change Management Framework.

The above Change Management Framework (Richardson Consulting Group, 2006) illustrates the connection among the organizational (leadership, organization, business, culture), individual (motivation, competence), and component elements (organization structure, process improvement, communication, coaching, etc.) of a change initiative. The component elements are both areas of inquiry during a change assessment and areas of intervention that can be planned, managed, and executed as part of a change management plan. The change assessment looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the current state for each element. The change plan details the target interventions and timing as well as the resources required. The change plan is integrated into the overall project/program plan. The assessment and planning considerations are summarized in Table 1 as follows

Table 1. Change Plan Assessment and Planning Considerations

Component Change Assessment Considerations Change Planning, Design, and Implementation Considerations
  • Degree to which change is viewed as threat vs. opportunity
  • Level of organic support or resistance
  • Description of target attitudes
  • Approach to be used to achieve the target attitudes
  • Priority of the change
  • Degree to which change aligns to or conflicts with existing personal goals and aspirations
  • Align change design and change messaging with individual goals
  • Approach and resources to align individual goals with the change
Critical Behaviors
  • Existing behaviors which align to or conflict with the change
  • Target behaviors
  • Approach to be used to achieve the target(s)
  • Personal understanding of the change
  • Personal understanding of the personal impact of the change
  • Knowledge requirements
  • Approach and resources to build and reinforce required knowledge
  • Capacity to carry out the roles and tasks required by the change
  • Target skills required by the change
  • Approach and resources to build and reinforce required skills
  • Ability to acquire the knowledge and skills required to adopt the change
  • Identification of stakeholder groups with aptitude deficits
  • Mitigation approach for at-risk groups
  • Approach and resources to expand and remediate aptitudes
  • Formal and informal methods to improve skills and behaviors via inquiry, reflection and discussion
    1. Individual
    2. Team
  • Existing methods, relationships, and resources
  • Coaching methods, relationships, and resources required
  • Approach and resources to design, build, and implement target coaching interventions
  • Formal and informal methods to provide feedback to individuals:
    1. 360 feedback
    2. Manager to employee
    3. Peer to peer
    4. Automated
  • Existing methods, relationships, and resources
  • Feedback methods, relationships, and resources required
  • Approach and resources to design, build, and implement target feedback
  • Champions, advocates, and supporters of the change
  • Breadth of sponsorship vs. breadth of change impact
  • Depth of sponsorship vs. depth of change impact
  • Risks associated with sponsorship
  • Sponsorship requirements
  • Mitigation for sponsorship risks
  • Approach and resources to build and sustain required sponsorship
  • Systems and processes to recognize positive behavior and contribution:
    1. Manager to employee
    2. Employee to manager
    3. Peer to peer
  • Existing recognition programs and methods
  • Target recognition
  • Approach and resources to recognize positive behavior and contribution
Role Definition
  • Jobs and roles affected by the change
  • Existing job and role definitions
  • Accuracy of role descriptions
  • Process and resources to add or change roles
  • New and modified jobs and roles required
  • Approach and resources to design, build, and implement target jobs and roles
Organization Structure
  • How jobs and roles relate to one another
  • Formal structures that support or inhibit the change
  • Informal structures that support or inhibit the change
  • Structures affected by the change
  • Process and resources to modify organization structure
  • New and modified formal and informal structures required by the change
  • Approach and resources to design, build, and implement target structure
Performance Management
  • Performance criteria and standards
  • Process to measure and manage performance
  • Process and resources to modify performance criteria and standards
  • New and modified performance criteria and standards required by the change
  • Approach and resources to design, build and implement target performance management
  • How performance is rewarded in both monetary and non-monetary terms
  • Current incentives that support or run counter to behavior expected from change
  • Process and resources to modify incentives
  • New and modified incentives to support the change
  • Approach and resources to design, build, and implement target incentives
Process Improvement
  • Processes affected by the change
  • Processes that support or inhibit the change
  • Process and resources to change business process, to improve effectiveness, and/or efficiency
  • New and modified processes required by the change
  • Approach and resources to design, build, and implement target processes
  • Learning interventions to impart new or improved skills
  • Existing training affected by the change
  • Process and resources to create or modify training
  • New and modified training required by the change
  • Approach and resources to design, build, and implement training
Performance Support
  • On-the-job task support tools, such as job aids or online reference
  • Existing performance support tools affected by the change
  • Process and resources to create or change performance support
  • New and modified performance support tools required by the change
  • Approach and resources to design, build, and implement target performance support
Knowledge Management
  • Strategies, systems, and practices to acquire, develop, retain, and distribute knowledge and insights
  • Existing strategies, systems, and practices affected by the change
  • Existing strategies, systems, and practices that support or inhibit the change
  • New and modified strategies, systems and practices required to support the change
  • Approach and resources to design, build and implement target knowledge management
  • Formal and informal processes and vehicles to exchange information
  • Communication practices and tendencies:
    1. Direct vs. indirect
    2. Hierarchical vs. non-hierarchical
    3. One-way vs. two-way
  • Benefits messaging by audience
  • Senders and receivers
  • Communication channels to be used
  • Approach and resources to design, build, and deliver target communication
  • Process and criteria to select individuals into the organization
  • Process to select individuals for project/program team
  • Approach to involve individuals and groups in change design and implementation
Diversity Management
  • Breadth of perspectives present in the organization
  • Extent to which multiple perspectives are brought to bear on problems and initiatives
  • Approach to include diversity of perspectives in change design
  • Approach to include diversity of perspectives in change implementation
  • Extent to which individuals are expected to take initiative vs. follow instructions
  • Level of control granted to individuals and groups to customize the change design
  • Level of control granted to individuals and groups to determine time and manner of change implementation

All aspects of the framework are interconnected, interdependent, and dynamic. As a system, each of the organizational factors (Leadership, Organization, Business Process, and Culture) affects both the individual factors (Competence, Motivation) as well as the other organizational factors. As an example, a new senior leader in a traditionally command-and-control culture may model and expect more open, inclusive, and collaborative behaviors, which will change the culture over time. As the change takes hold, the organization structure, roles, process, and performance expectations, and business processes will also adapt to incorporate these behaviors. Individuals who are unable or unwilling to adapt will leave the organization, and individuals predisposed to the new culture will be attracted to it, further strengthening the cultural change. Changes that may have been very easy to implement in the past, such as policy and procedure changes requiring only cascading communication and training, may require a more robust approach in an organization where change invites constant questioning, collaboration, and discussion. Changes that would have been difficult or impossible to implement before, such as team-based sales and service, may now find more natural or organic support. While the relationship between the factors and elements is fluid, the framework provides a way to view and deal with them systematically to ensure important areas are addressed.

Planning for Change

During the initiation and planning phases of the project/program, it is best practice to assign a professional change manager to create and manage the change management plan, which begins with project initiation and extends through post-implementation. Even for projects where this role is part-time, success is more likely when someone dedicated to the change aspects of the overall effort is part of the project/program team. As with project management, change management is a professional discipline, and assigning a professional practitioner to the project team improves the chance of success. In the initiation and planning phase, the change manager will:

1) Conduct a change readiness assessment to identify potential change barriers and enablers.

2) Develop a change management plan to leverage the change enablers and address the barriers through a coordinated series of interventions.

Depending on the complexity and degree of change, conducting the assessment may be as simple as asking stakeholder representatives and the project team to identify potential barriers and enablers to the change or could involve multiple stakeholder interviews, focus groups, surveys or other analysis tasks to assess attitudes toward the change and to answer questions such as:

  • What benefits to the organization are expected from the project/program?

  • What individual benefits are expected for members of each of the target stakeholder groups?

  • What attitudes, aptitudes, skills and behaviors exist to support the change?

  • What attitudes, aptitudes, skills and behaviors exist that resist the change?

Benefits realization is the heart of change management—ensuring that the expected benefits are likely to be achieved. It is critical that these are defined and understood, not only in terms of benefits to the organization, but to individuals. Many change efforts define benefits to the organization such as cost savings or revenue growth and assume these will be persuasive to everyone in the organization. Individuals are interested in benefits for the organization, but need to also understand the change in terms of personal impact and personal benefit in order to contextualize, internalize, and commit to the effort. Because change happens at the individual level, it is important that benefits are defined and articulated in individual terms, that is, “What's in it for me?” (WIIFM).

Scanning the organizational landscape for structural barriers and enablers is another important aspect of the readiness assessment. This scan will answer questions such as:

  • What aspects of the organization culture support or inhibit the change?

  • What aspects of the organization structure support or inhibit the change?

  • What existing elements or infrastructure within the organization might inhibit or help accelerate the change?

  • What is the breadth and depth of sponsorship within the organization?

For example, a customer-centric culture may enable implementation of a new customer service process if the benefits to the customer are clearly articulated and understood; yet the sensitivity to impact on the customer will be high and may be a source of resistance in the form of demands for very detailed information on how the change will be implemented. An honest assessment of the sponsorship for the change is crucial. Weak sponsorship indicates a lack of urgency and represents a significant risk to success of the change initiative. Whether the root cause is insufficient benefits, weak messaging, or competing, higher priority change initiatives, the project/program team should look at all available options to address the issue. Options may include cancelling the change, deferring the change, or redesigning the change initiative to achieve more benefits and sponsorship.

As part of the analysis of the assessment results, project/program risks will be identified, and changes may be required to the project charter. The change management plan is created to lay out the tasks and deliverables required to achieve buy-in and adoption, which is incorporated into the overall project/program plan.

Detect, Diagnose and Overcome Resistance

Once the plan is established, execution can begin. Change management activities take place throughout the project life cycle and extend beyond the implementation date. As the project moves forward, there is constant interaction with all levels of stakeholders who provide direct or second-hand feedback regarding the change. Project team members should be alert to both positive and negative feedback and pass along information to the project leadership and the change manager so that they can assess if action is required.

  • Are certain groups or individuals enthusiastic about the change? If so, what reasons and benefits do they cite? Is there a way to recruit these groups and individuals to help design, test, promote, and support the change?

  • Are certain groups or individuals openly negative about the change? If so, what reasons do they cite? Do the reasons cited indicate a deficit in competence, motivation, or both? Is there a way to recruit these groups to help design, test, promote, and support the change?

The most vocal proponents and opponents of the change are a valuable source of information on how to best design and implement the change, because they exhibit a sense of urgency. Proponents can provide perspective on individual-level benefits, provide input on the design of the change, and are good candidates to be early pilot participants, champions, or mentors. Vocal critics are also valuable as they articulate concerns and objections likely held by others who are less vocal. The fact that they are vocal indicates that they are motivated and engaged. Critics whose concerns are listened to and addressed can channel that motivation to become powerful advocates for the change. Even if they are not entirely won over, engaging critics in a direct and honest dialogue ensures their input is heard, and steps are taken to improve the design and implementation of the change to the extent possible.

When dealing with resistance to change, motivation and competence issues are addressed differently, and selecting the appropriate intervention(s) is critical to improving change capacity. Training interventions, for example, are designed to improve competence, while incentives are designed to address motivation. Training a stakeholder with a motivation issue or changing incentives for someone lacking key skills is not likely to improve change capacity. Determining the correct intervention begins with diagnosing the root cause of resistance. One way to begin to diagnose root causes is to pay attention to the language that stakeholders use when they respond to the change. The way stakeholder feedback is expressed provides clues as to whether the issue is motivation or competence. Keep in mind that people often express resistance indirectly, and it takes time and dialogue to narrow in on the true root cause, however Table 2 provides some guidance on how to recognize motivation vs. competence issues and how to address them:

Table 2. Motivation vs competence issues.

Component Feedback Primary Interventions
Motivation This change is a low priority Organization
  This change is not necessary • Incentives
  This is not the right time • Performance management
  This change is not a good use of my time • Role definition
  I do not know why we are doing this Leadership
  I'm not sure we are solving the real problem • Coaching
  This change is not practical • Feedback
  Have you considered… • Sponsorship
  Are you aware that… • Recognition
  I'm hearing that . Culture
  Where is the data that says that . • Communication
  Anger • Empowerment
  Silence • Recruiting
  Defensiveness • Diversity management
  Repeating questions or explanations  
Competence I don't understand… Organization
  I am not clear on… • Organizational structure
  I don't know what to do next Business Process
  I don't know how this affects me • Process improvement
  When is this happening? • Training
  How will this be implemented? • Performance support
  What is the plan for… • Knowledge management
  I need more information about… Leadership
    • Coaching
    • Feedback
    • Communication

While Table 2 provides some guidance, dealing with resistance, particularly deficits in motivation, is not performed according to a simple formula of inputs and outputs. Engaging resistant stakeholders in honest dialogue—expressing a desire to understand what is troubling to them about the change effort and soliciting their suggestions for improvement—is the core technique to deal with resistance. As the nature of the resistance is better understood, selecting appropriate intervention(s) becomes easier.

In summary, sound change management planning and execution is highly correlated with project success. The change management framework discussed in this paper is a powerful and versatile tool to assist in planning, managing, and executing the change aspects of any project or program.


Project Management Institute. (2008) A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (4th ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Connor, Daryl. (1992) Managing at the speed of change: How resilient managers succeed and prosper where others fail. New York: Villard Books.

IBM Global Services. (2008). Making change work. Retrieved on 7/1/10 from

Richardson Consulting Group, Inc. (2006). Richardson Consulting Group Change Management Framework. Retrieved on 7/1/10 from

© 2010-11, Brian Richardson
Published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dublin, Ireland



Related Content

  • Project Management Journal

    Navigating Tensions to Create Value member content locked

    By Farid, Parinaz | Waldorff, Susanne Boche This article employs institutional logics to explore the change program–organizational context interface, and investigates how program management actors navigate the interface to create value.

  • A Roadmap to PMO Excellence member content open

    By Farid, Sam In the world of the PMO, strategic thinking is not enough—agility and adaptability are crucial for overall survival and sustainable growth.

  • PM Network

    Corregir fallas member content open

    By Scott, Lindsay Lindsay Scott da consejos sobre cómo mejorar la efectividad, superar una evaluación de desempeño deficiente y compartir intereses externos en un currículum.

  • PM Network

    Reparar falhas member content open

    By Scott, Lindsay Lindsay Scott dá conselhos sobre como melhorar a eficácia, superar uma avaliação de desempenho ruim e compartilhar interesses externos em um currículo.

  • PM Network

    Agility Amplified member content open

    Organizations that adapt to new expectations in a post-pandemic world are gaining a competitive advantage in The Project Economy.