Securing support

Kate Bukowski, PMP, healthAlliance, Auckland, New Zealand

Kate Bukowski, PMP, healthAlliance, Auckland, New Zealand



As new business climates upend old forecasts, organizations face a stark choice: Change or risk falling behind. The need for change may be clear to an organization, but it can be threatening to its stakeholders—and earning their buy-in is not optional.

The more that employees, clients and community members support strategic initiatives, the more likely those projects will succeed. Organizations that are highly effective at organizational change management report that 69 percent of their strategic initiatives are successful, compared to only 41 percent at organizations that are minimally effective, according to PMI's 2014 Pulse of the Profession® report.

Seventy percent of respondents report that stakeholder involvement makes an organization highly effective at change management, according to PMI's Pulse of the Profession In-Depth Report: Enabling Organizational Change Through Strategic Initiatives. The report also finds that poor stakeholder management is one of the top three reasons that strategic initiatives fail.

Securing buy-in for change means targeting an organization's top tiers: Strong executive sponsors drive lasting change and ensure it thrives. Giovanni De Angelis, PMP, team manager for IT company Doxee in Goiânia, Brazil, cultivates executive sponsors who can direct resources and training to strategic initiatives as needed. He identifies the most positive and active stakeholders on a change project and lets the executive sponsor know who they are. An informed sponsor thus becomes a much more engaged one, Mr. De Angelis says. “It's a great motivational tool.”

When stakeholders understand the benefits of change, they experience less anxiety about it. When they engage in the change process, they recognize how their performance helps the organization achieve the expected benefits. And when they are encouraged to collaborate, they take ownership and assume responsibility for results.

Plan to Communicate, Communicate the Plan

A project team could roll out a strategic initiative and then simply hope for the best. Or, as in the case of a healthcare organization in New Zealand, the team could first identify the stakeholder challenges that might impede the change and then methodically build a communications plan to address them.

Kate Bukowski, PMP, a project manager at healthAlliance, which provides IT and other services to district health boards, looked before leaping. She anticipated obstacles before the launch of a one-year project to establish a new audit system for general practitioners. The software would help doctors and nurses quickly filter hundreds of pages of electronic patient medical records to find the most pertinent information, such as patients due for immunizations and screening. By improving patient care, the new system could capitalize on financial incentives from the New Zealand government.

To identify potential roadblocks, Ms. Bukowski's team devised a questionnaire and disseminated it to stakeholders. That feedback spotted three major challenges: doctors', nurses' and administrators' lack of time as well as varying degrees of computer literacy and access.

“One of the key obstacles I see with change initiatives is that people are too busy or don't have enough space in their day to embrace them,” says Ms. Bukowski. “I find it is really important to gain a project team's cooperation right from the outset.”

Ms. Bukowski created a detailed communications plan that engaged clinicians and other staff members responsible for introducing the software. To keep stakeholders informed, her team posted regular updates through email and on the organization's intranet.

Sixty-eight percent of respondents reported that strong communication plans make an organization highly effective at organizational change management, according to PMI's Pulse data. Ranked close behind in importance: communicating the intended benefit of the strategic initiative, a factor cited by 62 percent of respondents.

But the project team knew it couldn't ensure adoption of the change on its own. So the team identified stakeholders who would serve as ambassadors for the organizational change—or, as Ms. Bukowski calls them, “clinical champions.” Chosen for their communication and leadership skills, the clinical champions comprised a professor, university dean, general practitioner and nurse practitioner. At continuing-education events, they showed general practitioners and nurses how the software could help them improve their patients' health. In other words, the change agents made clear to their colleagues that the change would be worth the investment of their time.


Comfort Zone Creator


Geno Baruffi, PMP, is project director of the project management office at AXA Tech Services, Tokyo, Japan.

“When I worked as program manager for a major investment bank, we had to relocate about 15 percent of the employees, roughly 250 people, from our Tokyo headquarters to a new office. It was a few miles away and a less convenient location for workers.

It was the first time that the Tokyo operation would be in two locations, so there were quite a few concerns on the impact it would have on people, the operation and the ability to retain talent. Representatives from all departments moving to the new site were invited to join a steering committee to document concerns. One issue we discussed was the loss of face-to-face interaction. To address this, integrated video/IP phones were provided at each desk to give some of the face-to-face interaction that people were used to.

To help workers feel more comfortable with the area surrounding their new office, we printed a pocket-sized fold-out map with listings and location of important services nearby, like the post office, banks and restaurants. Transportation routes from key commuting areas were included, to provide the people in the new office with as much information as possible to ease them into the new environment.

On move-in day, the project team ensured that each person would have a good experience by directing people to the correct elevator. Then members of the logistics team made sure every person was able to find their desk and other services. Breakfast was also provided on that move-in day, to further ease people into the new environment.

That experience changed the way I approach new projects. During the planning of each project, I more carefully look for what impact this project could have on the way an individual works or views their environment, and then develop a rough action plan to address each area. Another lesson learned: Don't be cheap. Sometimes spending a little money—like the pocket-sized maps we printed—can go a long way to making people feel appreciated or comfortable with the new change.”


Around every bend of a strategic initiative lurks a potential derailer. Watching for these likely suspects—and steering past them—helps keep change projects on course.

Culprit: Missing Sponsorship

Without an actively engaged sponsor, a change project can founder once the initial excitement fades. “Often we forget to involve the organization's executive committee on issues related to additional resources and training,” says Giovanni De Angelis, PMP, Doxee, Goiânia, Brazil. He recommends cultivating a strong relationship with a sponsor who will add team members or cover training costs to prevent possible fast-tracking situations and fill skills gaps.

Culprit: Cultural Resistance

Inertia and lack of trust can stop change in its tracks. To overcome resistance, naysayers should be identified early in the project—and then won over by making sure they know their work matters. Mr. De Angelis spots the people who raise objections, then asks them to find solutions to their concerns.

Culprit: Lack of Readiness

Even when stakeholders are willing to change, sometimes they lack the knowledge or skills to do so. Project managers who identify the necessary growth areas at the outset can build training into their plans.

Culprit: Not Enough Time

Lasting change takes time—and organizations can be impatient. A project practitioner who recognizes that change must be deep-rooted—and that it requires repeated messaging—will champion a realistic timetable.


“One of the key obstacles I see with change initiatives is that people are too busy or don't have enough space in their day to embrace them.”

—Kate Bukowski, PMP

In addition, Ms. Bukowski hosted a panel discussion among her clinical champions and uploaded a video of the event to the healthcare organization's education website. Finally, she organized video Moodles—modular, online courses about the audit system—that earned clinicians continuing-education points.

To assess whether doctors and nurses had bought into the change, Ms. Bukowski and her team culled extensive feedback. Through pre- and post-project surveys of the healthcare organization's managers, general practitioners and nurses, the team found that the software had been successfully implemented. Also, by measuring outcomes such as the numbers of patients who quit smoking, managed their diabetes, understood the risk of cardiovascular disease or got their children immunized, the team concluded that the strategic initiative had a positive effect on patient care.


Feedback: A Two-Way Street

If stakeholders know only their own respective parts, any change to the script can seem disruptive. But if they learn how a change in their roles benefits the larger story—or the organization's strategy—they're more likely to appreciate the new direction's value, and support it.

At Tofino Security Inc., a computer-network security firm in Lantzville, British Columbia, Canada, salespeople would often handle customer requests by contacting development engineers, who then had to drop their own project tasks to address the questions. As a result, the engineers fell behind on creating new software. The organization set out to change this workflow structure so that development engineers could focus on what they were hired to do: Develop new products.

“This extracurricular work was disruptive, to say the least, and it would cause great stress on the engineers and the ongoing project's schedule,” says former Tofino project manager Dario Sumano, PMP.

Mr. Sumano realized that employee stakeholders needed to define the differences between technical support and research that could lead to future developments. Technical-support requests would be scheduled on a weekly basis, perhaps using one engineer for a few hours, while development work required a business reason and a plan, and it could be scheduled during slower periods.


At Ease With Ambiguity

“My team has worked through a state of high ambiguity, due to U.S. healthcare reform. We did not have to spend time creating a burning platform for change—the federal government did this by passing the Affordable Care Act. What we did have to do was help our employees become more comfortable with the high rate of change. In a typical project, you would lock down requirements and then you're off to build. Because requirements were changing week to week, we all had to get comfortable with change and ambiguity.

To prepare, we brought in all the key subject matter experts and developed a business conceptual model. Collecting all the information we knew allowed us to highlight what we didn't know. This helped us to acknowledge on an intellectual and emotional level that we didn't have all the answers in the beginning.

We made a constant effort to keep our finger on the pulse of the work and the changes. We were continuously messaging to the teams: It's OK that we don't have all the answers, it's OK that everything won't be perfect, it's OK that we will have more defects. Employees needed this reassurance, and as leaders it was our job to reassure them. On an internally driven project, we typically have more control.

There were an excessive number of hours required. I had to stay close to the leaders to ensure we did not have high employee burnout. There are employees who become deeply involved and attached to their project. Many of them do not want to take time off, and as a result they burn out and become less effective. There were times when I had to say to an employee, ‘You're taking a long weekend.’ And when I heard employees say, ‘I have vacation, but maybe I should put it off,’ I reminded them that they earned their time off and they deserved to enjoy it. During times of unprecedented change, people go through many intellectual cycles and emotional cycles, and they need time to recover.


Samantha Bureau-Johnson is vice president of business process excellence and project management office at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, Durham, North Carolina, USA.

There can be too many integration discussions. When the conversation becomes a rinse-and-repeat exercise, and the team is just hashing out the same things, they are stuck. Sometimes you need to shake things up and have someone not as close to the problem come in to help the team move forward. We had a situation between two teams, one waterfall and one agile, around an integration issue. Each team was kind of entrenched in its solution. We brought in someone from our business-process team, and that helped them find a solution. Teams can get stuck in a pattern if they've been approaching their work the same way for years. Then when the business changes—you go onto a new platform or regulatory environment—it can be difficult for employees to see outside of their established day-to-day patterns. We often bring in business-process consultants to help teams begin thinking about the future.”

“Terminology is akin to culture, and it can change from site to site, even within a company.”

—Dario Sumano, PMP, formerly of Tofino Security Inc., Lantzville, British Columbia, Canada

Mr. Sumano held meetings with all of the stakeholders to ask them about the differences and similarities of the work that, until then, had been jumbled together.

He soon discovered a roadblock: vocabulary. “Terminology is akin to culture, and it can change from site to site, even within a company,” Mr. Sumano says. The choice of words became a source of tension, as employees debated at length the use of terms such as “issue,” “fixing it” and “investigating it.”

Instead of forcing a top-down solution, Mr. Sumano used the stakeholders' feedback to develop consensus. A series of group conversations led to vocabulary that satisfied everyone: “maintenance” for technical support and “rapid development” for research. Once they reached agreement on what to call their activities, the stakeholders could determine which activities to schedule weekly and which to categorize as strategic development projects.

“Had I not cared to explore why some team members were adamant about these terms, the processes and definitions would have been incomplete,” Mr. Sumano says.

Most important, as a result of the feedback process, the entire group—from development engineers and quality-assurance specialists to product and account managers—became aware of how their daily work contributed to the organization's strategic goals, whether by satisfying immediate customer needs or building new software versions for future business growth.

Seven weeks into the project's timeline, Mr. Sumano knew he had secured stakeholder buy-in. Tofino's technical sales leads began to contact him and the product owners to discuss technical support, rather than asking the engineers for help. Meanwhile, the engineers complained less about “extracurricular” requests that distracted them from their scheduled work, and they reported progress on their development projects.

Change can create resistance, but for organizations that devote the resources to securing stakeholder buy-in, it can also lead to substantial benefits. PM


Before a strategic initiative can take off, a communication plan must be set down. These four key communication models, detailed in PMI's Managing Change in Organizations: A Practice Guide, can be used hand in hand:

Steady messaging. Typically delivered by a senior leader, steady messages confidently convey that change is necessary and that team members will benefit from it. This messaging emphasizes goals, plans and expectations.

Cyclical messaging. Like steady messaging, cyclical messaging occurs at planned intervals, but the content of cyclical messages adapts as the change project progresses. It might include, for example, emotional support from a manager working closely with those impacted.

Feedback messaging. How's the change going? How might it go better? Feedback helps answer these questions. Requesting feedback regularly helps to identify risks and craft solutions.

Situational messaging. Something unexpected happens; some new problem arises. Situational messages provide short bursts of information when a stakeholder learns important new information or when a problem is identified and resolved.

The most effective communications plans take advantage of not just one of these messaging approaches, but a combination of them adapted to the varying needs of the strategic initiative and its stakeholders.


Motivation Whisperer

“I was involved in an initiative to optimize the process for handling training evaluations. First, I spent a lot of time understanding the current context and situation, including all the process components and involved stakeholders—not just the people directly involved in the process but also the steering committee members, etc. In particular, I tried to understand each stakeholder in terms of his or her power, interest and role. This was a key point for the rest of the project, and helped determine the right communication and reporting modalities.

To get people on board, it was important to understand their perspectives and propose a clear vision of the optimization process. That time investment definitely paid off when the time came to analyze and to start proposing possible improvements.

Before starting anything, we organized several meetings during one full week with all the stakeholders in order to explain why we were running a design of experiment (DOE) as part of the project. The DOE—where stakeholders are presented with a variety of scenarios to gather information on which would yield the best results—is very challenging and hard to explain. People were lost with all the tasks to be modified, depending on a given scenario. In order to solve the issue, we created a document for process owners that detailed scenarios and related tasks. We also explained to people the ‘why’ associated with each scenario, so they could better understand the related actions. The result was to get people involved with attention and dedication.


Jean-Roch Houllier, PMP, is the international learning director at Thales Université International, Paris, France and the academic development director of the PMI France Chapter, Paris.

People have to be involved immediately, at the beginning of the project, so they understand the ‘why,’ the ‘what’ and the related ‘how’ together. As a consequence, they feel a part of it and better perceive their role, responsibilities and contribution. Based on this project experience, I would suggest that project leaders take the needed time to be sure everyone has really understood the ‘why’ behind the change initiative. It is the key for a good project run and deployment.”

“To get people on board, it was important to understand their perspectives and propose a clear vision of the optimization process.”




Related Content

  • PM Network

    Public Disturbance member content open

    By Parsi, Novid Governments are behind the curve when it comes to digital transformation. As the private sector takes dead aim at projects implementing artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and a wide range of…

  • PM Network

    Bridging the Gap member content open

    By Fister Gale, Sarah Complex road construction projects create detours. But an 18-year, US$2 billion highway improvement program in New Haven, Connecticut, USA, encountered the ultimate roadblock: Nobody wanted to help…

  • PM Network

    In the Zone member content open

    By Fister Gale, Sarah An "industrial park on steroids"—that's what U.K. tech entrepreneur Jean-Paul Gauthier calls special economic zones (SEZs). The zones have become a favorite development tool in countries eager to…

  • PM Network

    Keep Your Guard Up member content open

    By Robinson, Andrew Way back in 1970, David Crosby lamented in a song of the times about how, in a moment of weakness, he almost cut his hair. I can relate. Letting down my guard as COO almost led to regret. I recently…

  • PM Network

    Picture of Health member content open

    By Jones, Tegan First, do no harm. This oath guides a doctor's hand—and is the maxim behind a patient's treatment. But in the modern healthcare system, each doctor plays a relatively small role. As patients shuffle…