Expect the Unexpected: Project Managers Who Think They Know Exactly What's Going to Happen in the Course of Their Projects are in for a Surprise–or Two





Change, no matter how small, can have a debilitating effect on a project. Altering objectives, resources or personnel can be enough to send any task off the rails. To be truly effective, project managers need to accept—and even expect—change every day of a project's life.

Change will always happen, and dealing with it is a necessary part of running any project, says Edward J. Hoffman, Ph.D., director of the Academy of Program, Project and Engineering Leadership at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Washington, D.C., USA.

This maxim is especially true in high-tech industries. Projects that set out to push the boundaries of what is achievable—the development of new scientific ideas or computer codes—will inevitably include unpredictable elements.

“If you've trained for project management as a profession where you follow specific steps and everything goes perfectly, then you'll run into trouble,” Dr. Hoffman says. “As a project manager, the first requirement is to be focused on what it is you're trying to achieve. Then you need the openness to be able to anticipate and respond to things that could go wrong.”

Building a little of what Dr. Hoffman calls “social capital” may help the cause. In late 2005, NASA was gearing up for the launch of New Horizons, the first spacecraft to venture to Pluto and the outer Kuiper Belt. To take advantage of a speed-boosting gravity assist by flying past Jupiter, the New Horizons team had a 22-day window in January 2006 to launch the grand-piano-sized vessel. The chief engineer and the NASA Office of Safety and Mission Assurance voiced their concerns about the safety of the spacecraft, however. The engineers requested further review, potentially postponing the launch and delaying the spacecraft's encounter with Pluto by three years, or worse, canceling it altogether.

But respect, trust and a strong relationship between the project team and engineers facilitated a thorough review to address the safety concerns, and NASA gave the mission a green light. On 19 January 2006, the spacecraft was launched on its five-billion kilometer journey, taking advantage of the gravity assist to reach Pluto by 2015.

“There has to be trust and a strong social network to get the data on the table and make informed decisions on time,” Dr. Hoffman says. “You need to have the right social capital around your network. If you have a strong human dimension, the chances are you can work out a solution.”

Working out a solution gets more complicated when people aren't sure what they actually want out of the project, so they just keep demanding changes, says Jennifer Stapleton, a consultant based in Maidenhead, U.K. She dubs it “IKIWISI” or “I'll Know It When I See It.”

“It is difficult for clients to understand the impact of what they're asking for,” she says. “They will change their requirements because they don't know what they want until they see it. Therefore, all you can do is show them something that's partially complete so they can say whether they like it or not and move toward understanding what they actually want.”

Ms. Stapleton is the author of several books on the dynamic systems development method, a technique she says facilitates this kind of feedback by splitting projects into smaller goals. This means that when change occurs, the project team isn't committed to an unproductive direction that will require further resources to terminate or realign.

There are other benefits to this technique, too. “By keeping things small, the project manager can deliver smaller scale but significant wins in a shorter period of time,” she says. “If disaster does strike and you need to abandon the project, you don't have too many costs to worry about. It is easier to drop everything and move on.”

There's also a good chance something of value will have been delivered before the project is abandoned.

Sprint Nextel uses a complexity model to predict the difficulty of projects before work commences and flag those that should be broken down into more manageable chunks. One project, for example, was divided into 13 smaller ones—some overlapping or running alongside each other, other parts designed to run consecutively.


Not everyone takes changes in stride. Here's what to do when change threatens to tear apart your team:

Stop. Before the divisions become destructive, stop working and start talking.

Take stock. Discuss what the change means to all areas of the project in terms of processes and outcomes. Identify whether extra resources are required and identify where they will come from. “Many things influence how you will manage change,” says Valentino Weststrate at Avenade. “The size, sector and complexity of the project must all be considered. By understanding these elements, you will be able to decide how to move the project forward successfully.”

Communicate. Ensure all team members, stakeholders and clients are aware of the changes. Expectations must be managed from all sides. “You really have to take the time to sit down with the business areas affected and make sure there is a clear grasp about what the change means to them,” says Ed Albrigo at Freddie Mac. “Depending on where the change came from—internal or external to the organization—parts of the business area may want to drive the change, others may simply be reacting to it.”

Motivate. Change is often an opportunity—the chance to start afresh, the introduction of new resources—so position it that way.

Every project is also run through a strict governance structure to ensure it stays on track, says Paul Sapenaro, PMP, vice president of the company's enterprise program management office in Overland Park, Kan., USA. A committee of vice presidents from around the company meets every week and listens to formal stage gate reviews for the 70 to 100 projects in progress.

“The governance model keeps the project on track and virtually guarantees that it will not fail due to mismanagement,” he says.

Everyone at the review meetings—legal affairs, human resources and other departments—has a stake in ongoing projects because their resources are being used. But at the end of the day, every project has a clearly identified chief sponsor, who claims ultimate responsibility. This means a project cannot be driven off course by changes made by more minor stakeholders. “If someone on the project is making new demands or wants to include additional features, they have to negotiate with the chief sponsor,” he says. “This prevents anybody from [disrupting the process] unexpectedly.”

Small changes might be acceptable, but a major change can require the original salesperson to step in and renegotiate the terms of the project. You might even want to stop work on the project for a few days while you decide how to continue.


If a shift does indeed become necessary, companies should follow a formal change process, says Valentino Weststrate, an Almere, the Netherlands-based project manager with Microsoft technology integrator Avanade.

At Avanade, this means carrying out a comprehensive impact analysis to assess what the changes mean and whether the revised targets can be met with the original resources.

“If you accept that change is going to happen, you need to make sure the resources are there to cope,” he says. “Small changes might be acceptable, but a major change can require the original salesperson to step in and renegotiate the terms of the project. You might even want to stop work on the project for a few days while you decide how to continue. The most important thing is to communicate with the client, and consequently everyone involved in the project, about the complexities of any change made.”

Freddie Mac, McLean Va., USA, has a motto: “Any loan, any customer, in a day.” To deliver on that promise, though, the home ownership finance organization had to replace its IT system. Kicked off in 2001, the ongoing project has involved 300 to 400 people, with representatives drawn from diverse departments to work on the system, offer feedback and help integrate the change into the company's workflow.

Each year, the project team has delivered three to four releases of new software consisting of both upgrades and new elements. The releases always include features affecting the system's functionality, so the business can see real progress, says Ed Albrigo, vice president of change management.

Still, he says, there were some things he'd change about his change management process. “In retrospect, I would have broken it down further to have more releases a year,” he says. “That way if we dropped one, we would still be seen to be doing significant work. With three releases, if you miss one, it appears to be a bigger problem.”


There has to be a clear understanding of what that change means to the outcome of each new release as well as the project as a whole.


The project did manage to survive a complete regime change of company executives who decided to alter the project's methodology. The team went from creating the IT infrastructure in-house to purchasing and integrating off-the-shelf packages.

“When something like that happens, you have to take time out and discuss the impact this has across all the business areas,” Mr. Albrigo says. “There has to be a clear understanding of what that change means to the outcome of each new release as well as the project as a whole.”

Project managers must achieve a productive balance between flexibility and discipline—or, as Mr. Sapenaro says, between chaos and bureaucracy.

To do that, team members should be given a level of autonomy to be able to respond proactively to changes without having to wait for decisions to be passed up and down the organization's hierarchy, Dr. Hoffman says.

“NASA is working on a governance model for project management,” he says. “We want to be sure we're always listening to the people who know what we need to do and that we have a good disciplined balance between engineering and management to ensure the right things take place at the right time.”

Accepting and implementing a project piece by piece, rather than tackling it wholesale, may be the biggest hurdle project managers must overcome to make themselves ready to respond to change. Stakeholder pressure and the desire to prove oneself can be great motivators for targeting big goals, but left unchecked, they can also lead to a project thrown off target if even the smallest thing does not go according to plan. And that's not much of a plan. PM

Simon Kent is a U.K.-based freelance writer who specializes in human resources, IT and training.




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