Every team's captain

leading the organizational change game


Director, Client Solutions, ESI International


Whether small, localized, or spread across an entire enterprise, change impacts every level of an organization, including every project. As integral players to a team, project and program managers are sometimes perceived as leaders of a company’s organizational change. But, a deeper review of that role reveals an oxymoron. At the core, project and program managers are charged with providing a deliverable to the organization: a tangible product or intangible service. But organizational change isn’t a product or service, it’s a theory. Leadership qualities are not program deliverables; therefore project and program managers occasionally need direction in fulfilling organizational change leadership obligations.

Here’s where the two theories meet on the playing field: even though project and program managers are charged with delivery of products and services, they must extend their capabilities and perform as effective corporate leaders if they want to be a part of the organizational change.

This paper will discuss the leadership role project managers and program managers play in the face of unrelenting organizational change and will also touch upon the challenges and opportunities for these players. It will introduce processes and techniques that enable project managers and program managers to be high-performance change agents, including a tactical three-step approach to organizational change leadership.


Every project and program in an organization changes the way the organization, or the customer, operates. Ultimately, the success of a project or program is judged by how the project or program deliverable is accepted and used by the receiving customers, sponsors, and stakeholders.

Within this context, the people leading the project or program have what they believe to be their greatest imperative—to deliver the project deliverables. But an additional imperative looms and creates a seemingly irresolvable dilemma: the need to deliver the deliverable and ensure the successful adoption of that deliverable.

While the focus of project and program management training has been on successful delivery techniques, further attention must be given to the project/program manager’s role in successful project deliverable adoption activities and efforts. That is what this paper explores through the following questions:

  • What do we need to know about change in organizations?
  • How can change be successfully accomplished?
  • What are our roles during change to ensure success?

What Do We Need to Know About Change in Organizations?

Change, as a phenomenon and a word, is ubiquitous and pervasive today. As project and program managers who want to deliver successful projects, we need to understand how our deliverables will impact the organization, particularly the people who will be living with the changes that our projects introduce.

As previously mentioned, projects inject change into an organization. A new tool, a new process, a new software application, you name it, brings with it a new set of actions that people will have to take in order to use the new “thing.” When faced with this newly changed way of doing something, human beings respond in certain ways. Some aspects of a human’s response to change are unique from person to person, and some are universal for anyone who has a brain. Let’s look at a universal human response to change that we all have experienced or witnessed in someone else—resistance to change.

A change—any change—is a difference between what we’re doing now and how we’re doing it, versus what we will do in the future and how we will do it. Let’s look at a common change affecting organizations today. The leader of your organization announces in a corporate-wide e-mail:

“We’re going to reorganize our company, effective next Monday.”

Along with the call for a “re-org” comes a new organizational structure, new titles, new reporting relationships and, usually, fewer people to do the increasing work volume; somewhere in the announcement, the statement is made that “around here, we’re going to do more with less, because new technology is available.” Most people in organizations who have experienced this type of change can attest to having some reaction to this statement, and that reaction is based on a very common and well documented, yet relatively unknown, physiological process.

“All change is personal” and “all change is emotional” are the mantras used by organization change consultants, and both are true. At the individual level, change is personal, and the first response that most human beings have to a change is an emotional one. It has been said that the emotional response that someone in an organization has to a significant change is very similar to the stages of grieving that someone who has just been diagnosed with a terminal disease goes through—denial, anger, fatigue, introspection, and, finally, acceptance.

We’ve certainly all witnessed these emotions in others (perhaps even in ourselves) as change is wrestled with. But in each of us, our response to change goes even deeper than this. The prevailing contemporary research confirms that, while change is personal and emotional, it is neurological as well. Here’s what we now know about the physiological/neurological response that occurs as we encounter change as it has been defined above (Schwartz & Rock, 2006):

  1. A new condition (a change) is created, introduced, and transmitted (“We’re going to reorganize”).
  2. The pre-frontal cortex region of the brain—the brain’s “executive center”—receives the transmission through one or more of the physical senses (sight, smell, hearing, touch).
  3. The pre-frontal cortex compares the new condition to the current condition by accessing another region of the brain, the basal ganglia—the data storage device that stores all the data we receive and contains all the wiring of the habits we have.
  4. If a difference between the new condition and the existing condition is detected, an “error” signal is produced and sent throughout the brain.
  5. The “error” signal is received by the amygdale, the prehistoric part of the brain that tells us to be wary of a saber-toothed tiger.
  6. The amygdala places a value to the changed condition and sounds an alarm (“This is bad—watch out!”), producing the emotion of fear.
  7. The pre-frontal cortex receives the fear signal from the amygdala and creates what it believes to be a necessary response (“Avoid/resist the reorganization!”).
  8. The new condition is resisted by the pre-frontal cortex and, by extension, the person.

For project/program managers, the keys to adopting a new project deliverable into an organization is to be aware of this natural human response to a change, to not use logic to overcome the effects of the amygdala, and to build strategies that work with the brain rather than fight it. These strategies will be discussed while answering the next question.

How Can Change Be Successfully Accomplished?

Once we understand the mechanisms by which a change is typically resisted, we as project/program managers can devise change adoption strategies that have a chance of creating new behaviors and actions in the people who need to embody them. There is a simple, three-step process for successfully adopting change in any environment. And within each of the three steps are several techniques that will work in support of—rather than against—the way we naturally deal with change.

Step 1: Identify the Change

While it seems obvious, identifying the change is an absolutely fundamental first step in successful change adoption. Remember that everybody’s brain and, in particular, their pre-frontal cortex and basal ganglia, have been conditioned by the arc of their lives, and that arc is drastically different from person to person. So it’s important that the changed condition be described in a common, consistent language that is evenly translated by everyone.

Consider the change statement previously uttered by our leader: “We’re going to reorganize.” Everyone in the organization, upon hearing that statement, uploads from their basal ganglia some mental picture of “reorganize” that depicts their own experience with reorganizations, from “No big deal” to “I’m going to lose my job.” Therefore, a very important part of identifying the impending (or already made) change is to articulate the new condition in terms that everyone can align with, in language that is clear and unambiguous. In essence, what we’re trying to do is align everyone’s change resistance circuit (as previously described) and get everyone’s amygdala to “sing the same song.” As project/program managers delivering a new deliverable, we need to help everyone understand the changed condition in the same way, so that their pre-frontal cortex can respond in an appropriate and reasonable way to the fear signals being sent by their amygdalas.

A technique for aligning the way people in organizations view a change is to conduct a series of change-alignment workshops throughout the various levels of project/program executives, sponsors, implementers, and end users. This gives people at all levels a chance to hear the clear change message, to activate their resistance circuitry in a somewhat controlled setting, and to agree on what the intended change really means to them. The greatest obstacle to conducting these workshops, voiced countless times in organizations across thousands of projects and programs, is that these interventions take too much time. As agents/captains of change in organizations, we need to gently but firmly push back by helping the organization realize that effective change adoption often takes more time than we originally thought.

Step 2: Engage the Organization in the Response to Change

Once people’s disturbance from a change has been identified and aligned, the next critical step in the successful adoption of a project/program deliverable is to engage them in planning for the organization’s response to the change. In a recent process change effort, an external consultant developed the new process (with little input from the organization, and many requirements from executives) down to a very detailed level, and proudly handed over the process design and documentation to the team that was responsible for implementing the new process within the organization. The obvious result was the user team’s passive acceptance of the process and aggressive refusal to implement the process. The user team had no energy or enthusiasm to implement a process that they had no emotional equity in; as a matter of fact, they told executives in the project post mortem that they actively sabotaged the new process because “the consultants developed the process, even though we’re the experts.”

General George Patton once said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” Wise project and program managers know that successful deliverable adoption depends on engaging the hearts and minds, as well as the bodies, of the people facing a changed condition. We need to engage the energy and enthusiasm that comes from people having their own insights, for this is where true commitment to change comes from, and where the ownership of results are truly developed (Koch, 2006).

To develop the requisite ownership necessary for true adoption of a change within the people faced with the change, one technique is to conduct response/adoption alignment workshops across the affected organization. When practiced effectively, these sessions allow folks to contribute their own ideas as to how a deliverable should be used within the organization. Once these contributions are aligned—through multi-party conversations (where much thrashing may occur!)—an aligned approach to dealing with the change will emerge. Again, these workshops take time and organizational resources, so everyone in the organization should be aware of this potential obstacle.

Step 3: Implement the Change

Most organizational change failures occur because insufficient time and attention was given to the first two steps we have discussed: identifying the change and engaging the organization in the response to change. On the other hand, most organizations spend the majority of their time, effort, and attention here, in the implementation phase. But, as we’ve already seen, without the proper alignment of the humans and their response to a changed condition, successful adoption rarely occurs, and if it does occur, a lot of luck is usually involved.

If we’ve successfully completed the first two steps in adopting a new deliverable, the implementation phase becomes a monitoring activity to assure that:

  • Change-oriented tasks are being accomplished as planned
  • Energy and enthusiasm are present
  • Alignment still exists among the people

For project managers, a challenge during this phase may be that they have finished the actual project deliverable implementation, so their attention to the adoption of the change may be distracted by new projects elsewhere. Project/program managers should be very vigilant during change implementation to keep everyone focused on the project and change success criteria. This helps to ensure that the project/program deliverables are accepted and deemed a success by all stakeholders.

What Are Our Roles During Change to Ensure Success?

As was mentioned earlier, the project/program manager is faced with a dilemma when delivering a project/program: the explicit role of the project/program manager is to deliver the deliverables according to the expectations set by sponsors, customers, and the organization, but an implicit role also exists for assuring project success through adoption of the deliverable into the organization.

Greater project/program success is achievable when we understand what’s expected of us, yet role clarity is a major challenge in many organizations. One crucial role that the project/program manager plays during the adoption of a new deliverable is helping the organization make the link between a successful project deliverable and the deliverable’s adoption. We must also understand, and help others to understand as well, the natural reactions people have to a changed condition. This leads to our role in aligning not only the disturbances that people experience, but also the responses required to successfully move a deliverable into an organization. Finally, our role should include monitoring and reinforcing the activities needed to successfully implement the change within the organization so that project success is assured.


Koch, C. (2006, September 15). Change management – Understanding the science of change. CIO [Electronic Version]. Retrieved June 20, 2008 from http://www.cio.com/article/24975/Change_Management_Understanding_the_Science_of_Change.

Schwartz, J., & Rock, D. (2006, June). The neuroscience of leadership. Strategy + Business (43), 71-80.

© 2008, Jonathan Gilbert
Originally published as part of 2008 PMI® Global Congress Proceedings — Denver, Colorado, USA



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