Project Management Institute

The most important aspect of project management today

determining readiness for change

Debra Herrli, Sr. Project Manager, State of Oregon Department of Human Services


No business is immune to the pressures of organizational change. Although projects and project managers have always been responsible for delivering change, this role has only recently been considered critical to the discipline, and with the new role come new expectations. Gone are the days of determining success as “on time, on budget, and on scope.” Today's project manager is responsible for not only the triple constraints, but, importantly, the effective transformation of the business. To be successful, the project manager relies on many tools. Unfortunately, not all tools are fully matured to consistently deliver success. The track record for successful change endeavors supports this claim with upwards of 80% of all change projects failing to meet targeted objectives. This is an issue of paramount concern. As organizational leaders demand greater results from change endeavors, project managers seek better tools to facilitate success. This paper details recent research and subsequent application regarding important tools used among project managers today to assure project completion in accordance with the triple constraints and, importantly, the effective transformation of the business.


Many companies are experiencing severe pressure to transform their product mix, operations, and workforce capabilities to compete in increasingly competitive markets. Certainly, organizations cannot remain static in today's ever-changing business environments. To do so would eventually result in the extinction of the business. No sector is immune to these pressures of change, and it is the project manager who is being looked upon in all sectors to address the needs of organizational transformation.

Although most business leaders and project managers recognize the need for change, there remains uncertainty regarding how to efficiently, effectively, and consistently produce change. According to Karp (2006), the records of successful change management endeavors “have been poor” (p. 19). This something of an understatement if compared with Burke's (2002) claim that most efforts to change an organization simply “do not work” (p. 1) and, according to Kotter (1996), who has observed that on the rare occasions that they do work, results are often less than expected. Kotter (1998) noted that fewer than 15% of companies successfully transform themselves to address the pressures of change. Similarly, Prosci's (2006) research determined that only 18% of companies meet or exceed change objectives.

Projects serve as means to achieve a new state of organizational being. Thus, projects bring about organizational change to help assure competitiveness, effectiveness, and generally survivability. As such, the role of the project manager is that of organizational change agent. The project manager is responsible for delivering solutions that address organizational problems from external market pressures (such as competition, regulation, legal developments, and shifting customer demands) and internal operational pressures (such as performance discrepancies, financial standings, product and operational efficiencies, and workforce dynamics).

Although projects and project managers have always been responsible for delivering change, this role has only recently been considered (in earnest) to be critical to the discipline of project management. With the new role comes new responsibility. Gone are the days of determining project and project manager success as simply on time, on budget, and on scope. Today's successful project manager is responsible for not only the triple constraints, but also the effective transformation of the business, including reengineering of processes, integrating the product into the operational work of the business, and facilitating acceptance of the changes brought on by the project endeavor. The project manager relies on many people among the project team (e.g., business transition managers, communication officers, executive sponsors, analysts, coordinators) to deliver successful change.

Effectively assessing and managing change is a key to project success. There are pressures from, and implications for, markets and internal operations based on project outcomes, which are directly related to organizational effectiveness. As organizational leaders demand greater results from change endeavors in an attempt to address market and internal pressures, project managers seek better tools to facilitate success. Certainly there are a number of tools that make up the project manager's toolbox. All of them are important when used in the appropriate context. However, with the increased demands on the project manager today, coupled with the fact that projects are the means by which organizations transform and realize greater organizational effectiveness, one tool rises to the top and deserves special attention. A well-designed and well-executed readiness for change assessment is proving to be a critical project management tool in fulfilling the triple constraints and bringing about the effective transformational change of the business. This paper outlines the research method and findings to further support this argument.


Two research endeavors were undertaken to determine the means necessary to better plan, lead, and sustain project-based organizational change. The research was executed in tandem. First, by a grounded theory approach, secondly, by an ethnographic case study. The details of each are outlined hereto.

Grounded Theory

Following a constructivist knowledge claim position, grounded theory protocols (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) were used to help determine the most important aspects of project management today. Appropriate due to its systematic methodology, this strategy studied rich experiential human conditions of project managers and sponsors to generate “relevant, plausible theory” (Hutchinson, 1988, pp. 126-127). Due to the nature of the method, the sample was emergent, but was determined purposefully (Patton, 2002) based on experiential knowledge and a contextualized understanding that project managers today are organizational change agents and therefore are concerned about the project success as determined by organizational effectiveness, and not simply by the triple constraints of the project.

Each member of the sample was identified by senior managers in their organization as a change agent and as having at least 5 years of organizational change experience. The criterion sampling initiated the study with 14 experts. Through the use of multiple semi-structured interviews with these experts, another 12 people were identified by means of theoretical sampling (Patton, 2002), at which point data saturation was reached. The sample consisted of 11 women and 15 men, closely resembling the percentages of the overall organization and thus mitigating gender bias. All of the participants in the sample represented government sector business and were located in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. The reason for this delimitation is due to relative criticality.

Walker (2005) noted that “the daunting challenges that face the nation in the 21st century establish the need for the transformation of government and demand fundamental changes” in government business (para 1). Walker added that government agencies “need to change their cultures” and that “agencies must fundamentally reexamine their business processes, outmoded organizational structures, management approaches, and, in some cases, missions” (para 1). This is a calling for significant change in a sector that historically lags in the effective use of technology and in efficient business practices, and which struggles with successfully enduring change. This is supported by Walker, who concluded, “Agencies do not yet have sufficient abilities, leadership, and management capabilities to transform their cultures and operations” (p. 8).

To further purport the rationale for the public sector delimitation, Mihm (2006) noted public sector businesses are forecasting significant change due to fiscal imbalances, shifts in workforce and national demographics, a changing economy, and changing governance structures. Moreover, most studies of change focus on the private sector (Coram & Burnes, 2001). While change has been determined as a ubiquitous organizational challenge (Beer & Nohria, 2000), and therefore the results of these studies may be practical for both public and private sector businesses, the aforementioned observations and sentiments stress the need to focus on organizational change in the public sector.

Each member of the sample participated in semi-structured interviews followed by e-mail–based Delphi activities used to confirm interview data and build the theoretical understanding of the findings. Structured layering techniques (Flick, 2002) were employed as a means to review interview notes and provide feedback, thus mitigating the risk of researcher bias and supporting data validity and subsequent findings. Further, this approach mitigated possible data manipulation from social facilitation (Bandura, 1986) and groupthink (Janis, 1972).

Adhering to the grounded theory protocols as recommended by Strauss and Corbin (1998), data from the 26-person sample were analyzed by means of a) open, b) axial, and c) selective coding. Data categories resulting from coding yielded nine propositions. Together, the propositions serve as “best practices” in planning, leading, and sustaining organizational change by means of project-based work. Of the nine propositions, one is of special interest relative to this manuscript and is highlighted here:

Project leaders that design, execute, and use an appropriate readiness for change assessment among stakeholders involved and impacted by the change endeavor increase the likelihood of implementing that change successfully and effectively as measured by project and business metrics. (p. 134)

On the surface, there is no real surprise with this proposition. Schein (1987, 1988, 1999) has indicated for years that failure of effective organizational change occurs due to the organization's inability to unfreeze current conditions and create a readiness for change. The sample confirmed that “there should be regular assessments throughout the project to diagnose the readiness for change” among employees impacted by any change project. “Activities [interventions] should be conducted to help enhance the readiness for change.” Another member of the sample concluded that “we need to assess readiness for change at ‘day zero’ of the project and then [at least] every six months thereafter as an indicator of project and organizational success relative to preparation for a change initiative.”

Literature supports the sample's sentiments as critical success factors. Lewin (1952) loosely noted the importance of a readiness assessment during projects, observing that problem diagnosis and alternative examination must be used continually to plan, monitor, and adjust in order to assure having a prepared workforce at the time of change implementation. Thus, organizations successful in implementing change are competent in diagnostics and building a readiness for change.

The problem, however, as recognized by the sample is in the planning and execution of such work. “It is recognized that it should be done, but vague roles and responsibilities and time constraints impinge the realization of this work,” noted a member from the sample. “What ends up as our focus is the technology roll-out. We ensure users are trained, but that does not ensure ‘readiness’ for the change,” noted another member. “Our projects often require new technology, which causes changes in business processes, practices, and sometimes policies, not to mention individual work and team and organizational structures.” Herein is the root issue. Having readiness tested against technology usability and having people trained regarding the technology is but one (perhaps minor) component of organizational change endeavors. An effective readiness assessment tool must be able to address all components of the change endeavor dynamically (in that readiness determination at project kickoff is very different from that at project “go-live” and project closeout). Essentially, the issue is having readiness of one aspect of the project, but not having understanding of that aspect relative to other aspects of change associated with the project. The sample concluded that the readiness assessment should serve as a barometer measuring all aspects of the change, and that based on the readings, or readiness, for change at certain times relative to the project's life cycle, work plans and facilitation should occur in concert with one another to progress the organization's readiness in harmony with the project work. Exhibit 1 illustrates this concept.

The dynamic of readiness assessments during project work

Exhibit 1: The dynamic of readiness assessments during project work.

The notion of readiness is associated with not only the technology, process, and procedural aspects of organizational work, but importantly includes individual concerns relative to motivation, social activity, and perception. This is consistent with Beer and Walton's (1987) idea that readiness for change “refers to the social, technical, or systematic ability of a group or organization to change or try new things” (p. 360) and Powelson's (1995) claim that readiness for change is an “attitude based on trust, personality, history, and other factors preceding acceptance or resistance of change” (p. 8). Thus, readiness for change is an individual, and collectively an organizational, precondition associated with a future-oriented state, which is a change from the current state of conditions. An individual's readiness for change can be viewed as an attitude about a particular change, at a particular point in time, and incorporates not only attitudes about the future state, but also one's attitude about transitioning from the current state to the future state. With this understanding, the sample summarized readiness for change as:

an attitude determined at a point in time and in the characteristics of the individual, the content of the change, expected change process, and the internal organizational context of the change endeavor.

This definition operationalizes the construct readiness for change. It is grounded in literature and incorporates many aspects in the existing definitions as well as from content from existing instruments (which are detailed in the subsequent section). Further, the definition denotes readiness for change as an attitude, a level of awareness, or a state of existence. When this level of readiness for change is high, the likelihood of an effective change project is also high. Conversely, when the level of readiness for change is low, so too is the likelihood of an effective change project low. It is importantly noted in the definition that readiness for change is determined at a point in time and that it is an attitude. An attitude is distinguished from a trait and as such, readiness for change is teachable. This determination highlights the importance of assessing readiness for change with a valid and reliable instrument.

The conclusion of the sample was that there was a need for a readiness for change assessment. As a result, a practical experiment of designing and implementing a readiness for change was done. This process was captured using an ethnographic case study design.

Ethnographic Case Study

With the experts in the sample identifying the need for a readiness assessment, the authors here engaged in an ethnographic case study. The study is based on a US$60 million government project focused to deliver greater efficiencies within a state-operated child welfare program. The efficiencies are expected from leveraging technology. New technology will require modifying business processes and practices among internal government employees and public and private partners throughout the state. Based on the comments from the sample, this project involves the components necessary to work toward a dynamic readiness assessment—technology, process, practice, and structure of personnel.

The identification of need was the first step in building the assessment. [An important point of clarification is that a member from the grounded theory sample is the project manager in charge of the child welfare project.] Within the state agency of this project there is a division called The Process Center of Excellence (PCoE). This PCoE is essentially a project office. In fact, it was a project office until 2008 when it started to take on work beyond project management including LEAN activities, organizational change management, training, process management and reengineering, and other works. “This is a natural migration from the project office concept” opined the PCoE manager. “We help the business be more successful. Certainly we continue supporting core project management activities, but the scope is much broader due to the needs of our business.” Exhibit 2 illustrates the working relationship between the PCoE and projects [project teams]. As needs arise from project work, the PCoE engages in staff augmentation, audits, and other consultancy-based work. Additionally, the PCoE helps to design and develop usable tools for project managers and their teams and as needed, and leverages partners and peers for support.

PCoE working relationship and project support model

Exhibit 2: PCoE working relationship and project support model.

With the child welfare project team engaging the PCoE for readiness assessment tool development, research followed as the second major step. Contacting industry partners and government peers from other states, and scouring academic and public databases was the mode of data gathering and literature review. A great deal was uncovered from this work. Findings from industry partners and government peers concluded that similar needs may be ubiquitous across government project work and across industry sectors. Peers similarly had struggled and had little in the way of a working readiness assessment beyond implementation planning checklists and traceability matrices primarily used in technology system and application user acceptance.

Academic studies uncovered from the literature review were a bit more hopeful. There are a number of instruments claiming to measure readiness for change. A university library database search and general internet search queries for readiness for change instruments yielded the finding of nearly 50 instruments. The instruments identified are published in an array of academic journals, trade publications, popular press magazines, and other business manuscripts. The instruments identified span a host of business sectors, the healthcare arena, government agencies, and academia. Most of the readiness models were in use by various consultancies, and many of them were built upon change management theory (Bridges, 1991; Lewin, 1952; Kotter, 1996). However, most lacked components deemed necessary by the project team, which served as the sample for this study.

Academic theories about readiness were also uncovered. Stewart (1994) suggested that assessing readiness for change should include six questions. First, the assessment should determine the shared understanding and alignment of the change. This includes understanding how employees see the connection of their current job and their future job. Second, the assessment should measure the competencies of employee knowledge, skills, and abilities to effectively reach the desired change and be effective after the change is established. A third question used should yield findings that determine whether there are clear consequences of the change as measured by performance management and reward systems. The fourth question is associated with the leaders of the change and seeks data to understand the effectiveness of the governance structure in place to lead the change, any new policies and procedures, and communication. The fifth question should provide answers as to whether or not the organization has the capacity for change as determined by its history and culture. Lastly, the readiness for change assessment should determine if organizational leadership is sufficient to make the change. This is starting to outline a framework, but lacks depth, detail, and the dynamic notion of time and multiple change components determined paramount by the sample.

Besides Stewart (1994), Sudharatna and Li (2004) noted, “organizational readiness is required for survival and prosperity in a rapidly changing business environment” (p. 168). They likened readiness for change with learning organization characteristics whereby organizational values, leadership commitment and empowerment, communication, and knowledge are synonymous with organizations having a high capacity for and readiness to change. While these constructs are valuable, they are not sufficient to determine a project's or a person's readiness for change. For assessing readiness for change, Sudharatna and Li more specifically recommended an instrument consolidated from the work of Trahant and Burke (1996), Laczniak and Lusch (1997), Parker (1997), Smith and Mourier (1999), Maurer (2001), Rowden (2001), and Coutu (2002). Stemming from these and other sources, organizational, project, and individual variables associated with a readiness for change should include:

• Organizational history of change • Communication • Direction
• Organizational direction commitment and strategy • Organizational context
• Internal cooperation • Knowledge transfer • Process/function
• Trust • Customer focus • Competitor benchmarking
• Risk tolerance • Measurement • Organizational structuring
• Culture • Management • Morale
• Resilience • Sponsorship • Innovation
• Reward systems • Leadership • Decision making
• Implementation support • Motivation

To be sure, there are a number of readiness assessments, covering many variables, available for use. Collectively, these assessments measure and report change readiness based on a) change content, b) change process, c) internal context, and d) individual factors. Change content is the “what” of change. What is going to change? What will be different? What is in it for me? Those instruments designed to assess change process highlight the importance of organizational leader perceptions and activities that in turn facilitate change and influence employee readiness for change. The change process describes the “how” of the change. How will the change be implemented? How can I be involved? How will we determine success? Instruments designed to assess internal context note that perception of coworker support and management support influence readiness for change. The internal context component of the change is associated with organizational culture. Is the history of the organization's change efforts positive or negative? Does the organization actively learn and freely adapt to change? Is the communication within the organization open, honest, trusting, and inclusive? The instruments focused on individual factors suggest that the dimension of one's self-efficacy regarding the change is critical to readiness for change. The individual factor regarding readiness for change addresses the “who” regarding the change. Who will be impacted? Who will have to change? Who will lead the change? Who will be involved with the change?

Although there are a number of instruments that exist to measure readiness for change, only a few have enrolled scientific rigor in their development to help ensure validity. Of these few, limitations such as myopic focus, limited empirical results, and limited sample sizes diminish their validity, reliability, ability to be generally applied, and overall effectiveness. Hence the reason that Sudharatna and Li (2004) recommended consolidating instruments and thus the reason the PCoE was requested to design a workable readiness assessment for the child welfare project team. Building such a tool is not easy. PCoE followed DeVellis' (1991) seven-step outline for instrument development, short of including Step five, social desirability indexes. First, the grounded theory research coupled with the case study literature review determined what to measure. Second, an item pool was determined by the case study sample. At the categorical level, the sample labeled the assessment items with the acronym READI. Exhibit 3 outlines each category.

READIness categorical items

Exhibit 3: READIness categorical items.

Each of the categories has an associated list of items. The items are determined based on the phase of the project's life cycle—initiating, planning, and executing, with the executing phase having dynamic variations from the point of project executing kick-off to the point of pre-go-live determination. As such, the items relative resources in the initiating phase are different than the total item pool in the executing phase and the items associated with kickoff are very different as compared to 30, 90, and 180 days prior to go-live.

The third step was to determine the measurement format. The format is a binary response (yes/no) until the readiness go-live assessments commence, at which point the binary scale is traded for a Likert scale, which allows for determination of absolute “no-go” item responses to “nice-to-have” responses, “fix-within-30-days-post-go-live” responses, and the like. These items were all reviewed, tested, and vetted among the sample of project experts, thus addressing the fourth step in the DeVellis model, which specifically addresses face validity, and the sixth step, administering the item pool to a sample.

The seventh step in model development is analysis. The effectiveness of the instrument is being determined in part by the features that make it applicable for use. Specifically, the instruments must be a) easy to use in an organizational setting, b) able to facilitate change, c) consistent with existing change management and organizational change theories, and d) representative of specific factors most influential to readiness for change. The child welfare project team, in their use of this model, continues to vet the applicability of the model, thus analyzing its effectiveness. (Statistical review, such as factor analysis, is to follow from which, scale optimization, the eighth step will follow.)

Application of Results and Conclusion

The management of the large child welfare information system project referenced in this paper is employing a robust business transition plan that includes a multifaceted communication plan, mapping of existing and future state business processes, process engineering, development and monitoring of project metrics, training that integrates use of the system with supporting business processes, modification of business policies, and evaluation of job descriptions and organization structures. The use of readiness assessments is an important component of this complete package of business transition activities.

Stemming from the research and the design of the READIness for change tool, coupled with the context of the project needs, the project's management found that there were two significant types of readiness that they needed to assess with formal readiness tools: technical readiness and cultural readiness. It was determined that these two types of readiness were disparate enough to require separate assessment tools.

Using the aforementioned research and surveys, a technical readiness assessment and an end-user survey (developed to assess awareness and cultural readiness) were developed. The technical readiness assessment has been designed to be administered selectively by a proctor on a carefully targeted audience where potential gaps in technical expertise have been identified. It is meant to be used one time for the selected participants, to be followed by appropriate training where indicated by the assessment. The training will be accompanied by a survey of training participants to allow them to self-assess their comfort level with the material presented and request additional training if they wish. Although the project's management recommended a broader technical assessment and more thorough follow-up, the executive management from the business strongly supported the more low-key approach as outlined here.

The end-user survey, on the other hand, has been developed to be administered periodically throughout the project life cycle, as previously mentioned, to assess the state of readiness. The initial assessment is considered the baseline measure. Subsequent assessments will be compared to the baseline to assess growth, to be used to gauge the effectiveness of business transition activities during the project, and to evolve and focus them as appropriate. Ultimately, the final assessment information will be a key component of the “go/no-go” decision during preparation for implementation.

Each of these assessments has a key role in assisting the project's management in measuring the attitudes, cultural readiness, and effectiveness of business transition activities. Without the READIness tool, the data needed to ensure that appropriate business activities are occurring and to make decisions regarding implementation that could spell the success or failure of the project would not be available. Thus, the use of an appropriate readiness for change assessment among stakeholders involved and impacted by the change project increases the likelihood of implementing that change successfully and effectively as measured by project and business metrics


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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 or any listed author.

© 2009 Tim Rahschulte, Wayne Herrli, Debra Herrli
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida



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