Project Management Institute

Change and the project manager

by Steve Pascale, PMP, and JoAnn Carland

CHANGE IS INEVITABLE. It will happen. Effecting change (as opposed to letting it happen) is often the difference between success and failure.

Persistence and change exist together. The symbiotic and paradoxical relationship between change and constancy can be confusing and maddening. Even objects or entities that appear constant on some scales are actually in a constant state of flux. Change is so continuous that it has been said that “the only constant in life is change.”

One way of thinking about change is to imagine that you are standing in the surf on a beach. As the waves roll back, you feel the water attempt to pull you out. The longer you stand, the stronger the pull. If you go with the pull, more than likely you will glide over the crest of the next wave, avoiding it as it crashes on the beach. Resist the pull, and eventually there won't be any more pull, only the next wave crashing over you. Most new product development companies recognize that they must either move toward changing the way projects are currently managed, and successfully negotiate the change, or resist it and have change crash over them like a large ocean wave.

The Two-Tiered Model of Change. One model of thinking about change divides types of changes into “orders” or tiers. In the first order, change involves shifts between members in the same class. Consider, for example, a change closely related to project management: In creating a data-entry system for a public-opinion polling company, a project team selects a given software package as the best one to improve the productivity of the company's surveyors. After a few months, however, research suggests that the surveyors’ productivity has actually declined with the new software. At this point, the project team has a variety of options. One possible first-order choice is to select another software package. A second level in this hierarchy of change is referred to as second-order change. Where first-order change involves moving from member to member (software to software), a second-order change would be to move away from the computer system entirely and abandon the existing framework.

The differences between first- and second-order change are greater than just change of class versus change of member. First-order change is the change that intuitively comes to mind when we identify a problem. First-order change is commonsensical. It's also the lowest common denominator of change. First-order change focuses on solving the problem itself, and is most concerned with the reasons behind a problem. Consequently, attempting to place blame for a problem is a common first-order trait.


On the other hand, second-order change is usually considered radical. While first-order change is commonsensical, second-order change is often counterintuitive. A very practical second-order change may at first seem impractical or ridiculous.

Imagine that you are standing in the surf on a beach. As the waves roll back, you feel the water attempt to pull you out. If you go with the pull, more than likely you will glide over the crest of the next wave. Resist the pull, and the next wave comes crashing over you. Most new product d evelopment companies recognize that they must either move toward changing the way projects are managed and successfully negotiate the change, or resist it and have change crash over them like an ocean wave.

In addition to being counterintuitive, second-order change is also not directly concerned with affecting the problem itself. First-order change attempts to alter the problem, but second-order change attempts to alter the solution. Second-order focuses not on the “why” of a problem, but only on “what” is wrong. The problem with this two-tiered model is that whether change is first- or second-order depends exclusively on perspective.

Obstacles to Change. The project manager faces countless obstacles to change. Change represents at its most basic the unknown. The flow of change represents perhaps the greatest arena where our ability to manipulate cannot prevail.

One benefit to stasis is that it is virtually free. Change in the way companies manage projects exacts a heavy cost in terms of time, money, and effort. When examining the costs (or potential costs) of change, project managers will be tempted to just leave well enough alone; after all, it's so much cheaper to wait and see what happens. The problem with this approach is that while change appears to be expensive now, it is the resistance to changing the way projects are managed that will actually end up costing a company more. Changing project management processes can be expensive, but the alternative of not changing may be even more expensive.

Yet another “advantage” of stasis is the ability to focus on the now. There is an expression in project management that the only success that matters is the one today. Unfortunately, that sort of thinking, while successful in the short term, will ultimately lead to failure. If project managers in new product development fail to see the need to continually change and refine the way in which projects are managed, there will be no support of the effort to plan for change, and for the future. Future project management success depends on today's planning.


In order to be effective, change must be of the right kind, at the right time. Attempting the wrong kind of change to the way projects are managed, at an inappropriate time, will result in failure and contribute to the argument that change is not necessary, when, in fact, it may be needed desperately.

Change and the Project Manager. What does this mean to a project manager? The answer is simple—change happens. Whether it is natural or man-made, first-order or second-order, change comes to everything. Recognizing that change will happen allows for a choice between proaction and reaction. Success results from proactively effecting change and the way projects are managed; failure often follows a decision to let “just let it [change] happen.”

Change Must Start at the Top. In most corporations, those in charge rule. The impetus to change is rarely the result of the cries of the masses in middle management. Rarely does it begin as a grassroots movement on the factory floor. In the book Better Change (by the Price Waterhouse Change Integration Team, Irwin Profession Publishing, 1995), the authors note that “Change in the company comes from those in power. Hence, every successful change project has a sponsor whose position becomes entwined with the success of the effort.” Moreover, even if a middle-manager has developed the ultimate plan for a company's success, without support from upper-management the plan will ultimately fail.

If a change is to succeed, it must have the widespread support of corporate public opinion. While it is important for upper-management to support change, if it is to succeed, it is expressly not important for them to understand how that change works. Executive management's concern is the strategic vision of the company, and not the particulars of every project on which the company is working. Executives don't need to know exactly how a solution works. Their problem is determining when and how to employ it. The fact that it works must be accepted as a given.

Change Needs a Road Map. The purpose of this article is to remind project managers that success flows from realizing that change will happen, and attempting to influence that change in a proactive manner. Successful change absolutely must be planned. The likely success of a mix of short-term and long-term strategies will be enhanced by having a cogent plan, which includes step-by-step implementation tasks and schedules. (For more on this, see William B. Rouse's Catalysts for Change, Wiley Interscience, 1993.) This plan must include a clear definition of the scope and a list of objectives for the plan. Without a definition of the scope it is tough to know exactly what needs to be changed. Without clearly defined objectives the manager cannot determine if success has been achieved or not. A plan is required to outline a blueprint for future success while ensuring the ability to compete today.

Project managers provide the strategies for change. But that is not to say that the master plan for success must be created in one day. Most often, the best strategies start as good ideas that evolve over time into a unified plan.

Knowing When, How to Change. Project managers with a desire to effect change must be able to anticipate the need for change before it arises—proaction versus reaction. By anticipating change the project manager is able to take control of a situation and act to diminish future problems or to maximize future opportunities. Of equal importance to anticipation is the ability to execute the appropriate type of change at the appropriate time. Change may be attempted, but if it is the wrong kind of change the problem will remain. Conversely, attempting second-order change when it is not needed amounts to attempting to solve a problem that does not exist. Very often such an attempt will create a new problem. In either situation, attempting change at the wrong time will generally make things worse than they were before. Attempt change too early and not only is the effort wasted but a larger problem may result. Attempt change too late and it may be too late for anything else.

CHANGE IS A NATURAL CONDITION and is necessary for our existence. Disequilibrium in our economy and the ability to take advantage of the chaos created by this disequilibrium is the source of wealth for our businesses. Managers must be able to identify the orders of change required and proactively plan for success. To help get through this change, project managers need a model of how their role evolves in a team environment and what skills they must develop.

Obstacles to change—fear of the unknown, loss of the status quo, failure in the ability to identify and exact appropriate change, and personal loss of power—deter many companies from taking advantage of opportunities presented to them. “No decision” is a decision for the status quo, and often the inability of companies to respond in a timely fashion ultimately results in failure. Yet the role of a project manager may well be as a change agent for an organization.

Change is most successful when begun at the top or supported by top-management; failure often results when such is not the case. The role of project managers should be to provide top-management with a road map to the future, and to shine a light on the path for top-management to follow in making the right decisions for successful change. ■

Steven Pascal, PMP, is business planning and operations manager with Digital Equipment Corporation. He has 10 years of experience working extensively in managing new product development projects.

JoAnn Carland, Ph.D., is a computer information systems professor at Western Carolina University. She is also a Certified Data Processing Professional. A prolific researcher, she has published more than 75 articles and papers and is a recognized expert in small business.


This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • October 1997



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