Project Management Institute

Navigating Friction

What Makes Change Stick?





Think about the project failures that have happened in the past 12 months. Now think about why they happened. When that question was put to senior project leaders in a survey for PMI's 2018 Pulse of the Profession® report, 28 percent cited poor change management as a primary cause of failure.

It's a cliché for a reason: Change can be hard. But it doesn't have to be. Three project professionals plumb their experiences to share lessons learned and good practices when managing change.


Fred Wenger, PMP, associate vice president of program and construction services, Louis Berger, Washington, D.C., USA


Alejandro Gabriel Aramburu, PMP, co-founder and director, Innova PMO, San Luis, Argentina


Jan Mandrup, PMP, head of agile transformation Asia, Manulife, Hong Kong, China

What's an “Aha!” moment that stands out for you in terms of challenges you've encountered during change initiatives?

Mr. Wenger: I was the project manager on a transformation team working to improve an organization's performance in a specific functional area. We had a very large group of stakeholders, with differing views on the project. After one team meeting early in the project, one of the senior stakeholders asked me: “Are we really trying to change or just spend money to make ourselves feel better?” I realized then that some people involved in the project weren't as committed to the outcome as the executive sponsor—and that's probably true of all organizational transformation projects.

“One of the biggest mistakes we can make with transformation projects is to expect that everyone's reaction will be like the project leader's reaction or the executive sponsor's reaction.”

—Alejandro Gabriel Aramburu, PMP, Innova PMO, San Luis, Argentina

Mr. Aramburu: I've found that one of the biggest mistakes we can make with transformation projects is to expect that everyone's reaction will be like the project leader's reaction or the executive sponsor's reaction. People are different, and they approach and respond to changes very differently—both professionally and emotionally. I had the opportunity to work on a change initiative in a government organization. Managing the changes themselves was very straightforward. But to prepare the affected people to really understand and be part of the organizational change, we had to prepare them in a psychological way. So the project plan included change workshops led by psychologists to work through any fears these stakeholders had.

What's a common misperception about change management that can derail projects?

Mr. Mandrup: In my experience, change management is too often thought of as a checklist. It's like, okay, we need a stakeholder assessment and we need a communication plan. But once the project is in full swing, people are so focused on executing their deliverables that there's less focus on executing true change management. Someone will say: “I did an assessment. Carl is a key stakeholder, and he's resistant to change.” Fantastic. What did you do about it? You spend time prepping the methodology steps but once you get into executing, it sometimes gets forgotten.



Why do you think a focus on change management can lose steam once the project is in execution mode?

Mr. Mandrup: It's often a capacity issue. I have often seen large plan-driven projects aren't properly resourced, or timelines are too tight. Perhaps the project manager has to gather detailed information from certain stakeholders about the change being implemented—but those people don't have the time to provide lots of detail. Also, often the project manager has to take on the role of change manager—and then change management tasks will be deprioritized. The project manager must insist on the adequate focus and resources to support the change management work.

Mr. Aramburu: Yes, that's such a common point of failure, right in the planning stage. Either for political reasons or external requirements, the project manager agrees to really tight and unrealistic timelines. But how change unfolds can be affected by so many factors—right down to the resources distributed to the team. If you have senior stakeholders who are millennials, the ability to deal with change is almost in their genes. But in certain industries, and often with older stakeholders, any change can feel painful. Building buy-in requires more actions—and the project schedule needs to reflect that.

3 Warning Signs

In a survey for PMI's 2018 Pulse of the Profession® report, 72 percent of senior executives said that creating a change-ready culture in the organization was a very high, somewhat high or medium priority. At many organizations, there's still plenty of work to be done. These red flags signal that an organization isn't change-ready, says Fred Wenger, PMP, associate vice president, program and construction services, Louis Berger, Washington, D.C., USA.

1 Silence at the top: For change initiatives to succeed, those in the C-suite must be vocal champions—before, during and after a particular initiative is announced. “If the organization's leadership isn't actually committed to changing the organization, it becomes readily apparent to the staff and stakeholders,” he says.

2 Too much outsourcing: There's nothing wrong with leveraging outside experts to strengthen skills or identify weak spots in an organization. But when executives believe they can outsource the entire change management process, alarm bells should start ringing. “Leadership of a change process should belong to the organization because the organization must do the hard work if it is to generate and implement real transformation,” he says.

3 Devalued project management: Do project sponsors act as partners and advocates when a project is under pressure? Are project managers handed a set of directions rather than brought into the decision-making process early? If a project professional is working in an environment where project management isn't respected, then change management likely won't be either, he says.

Mr. Wenger: Speaking of time, I think project managers can be more empowered in terms of how they leverage the executive sponsor's time and attention. Project managers are closest to the process, the stakeholders and the challenges—they're in the best position to know when the executive sponsor should be engaged. You want the highest return for whatever time a sponsor spends with the project team. The easiest way to achieve that is to clearly delineate from the beginning what requires sponsor presence and what the project manager has authority on. After that senior stakeholder asked if we were “really trying to change,” I should have asked the sponsor to directly intervene to reinforce the need for change. It could have improved the outcome of the change initiative.

“In my experience, change management is too often thought of as a checklist. It's like, okay, we need a stakeholder assessment and we need a communication plan.”

—Jan Mandrup, PMP, Manulife, Hong Kong, China



What final words would you offer to project professionals who are struggling with or intimidated by change management?

Mr. Aramburu: Always remember that the process very rarely goes as planned. If you've hit an issue, the secret to change is to keep pushing forward—but only after you stop, review, replan and then restart stronger than before. If you do all of that before diving back in, you'll know something you didn't know before.

Mr. Mandrup: With so many projects today being executed with agile approaches, it's probably worth noting that within the agile world there's a completely different way of looking at change. It's less about figuring out where the resistance is and how to mitigate it, and more about involving the right stakeholders in the iterative way of working. This includes providing constant feedback to stakeholders on both the product that is being built and the process. It's interesting to see how some people respond to the level of involvement and transparency that agile projects involve.

“People need to know what is happening and why, and even more important, they need to be able to provide feedback to the project team.”

—Fred Wenger, PMP, Louis Berger, Washington, D.C., USA

Mr. Wenger: This is a small point, but I've seen it make a real difference: People need to know what is happening and why, and even more important, they need to be able to provide feedback to the project team. Sometimes communication plans include detailed guidance for pushing information out, but they don't make clear how people affected by change can deliver feedback to the team leading the change process. When you address the issues raised by those who are affected, you gain buy-in and support. And that's often where “the rubber meets the road” on a change initiative. PM


The Art of Persuasion


Ana Paula Severino, PMP, is a change management consultant and project manager at AP Elvas Consulting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

In Brazil, we are just beginning to see change management as a necessary skill. It's not part of organizational cultures yet. The great challenge is that many organizations do not make enough time to understand people's needs. Those pushing change have difficulty building trust with employees.

When I worked at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, I managed a project to put a new business operations system in place at a client's plant in the south of Brazil. The big challenge was that this plant's workforce was relatively isolated from the organization's other facilities around the country. Employees were far from the company's leadership in Brazil, and they were using their own system to track operations in a decentralized way. Adopting the new system would mean their plant's operations would be tracked in tandem with other company facilities—it was a huge change for them.

The challenge was to convince them of the benefits of the change and show them the problems the company would face if the status quo continued. It took months just to convince employees how the change would work, why it was important and why they should prioritize it. My team had to hold many, many meetings to explain what was needed.

Our training period was very long. My team created a practical plan to help employees transition to the new system. After each weekly training session, we would introduce an exercise that would require people to spend at least an hour in the computer lab practicing the new system. They had to present evidence that they used the system and understood how it worked.

Regular communication beyond meetings throughout the project was very important. We kept the project progress as clear as possible, maximizing face-to-face interactions and regularly announcing project news, events and challenges. Every month we emphasized a different project need.

What I have come to realize is that effective change management requires becoming a part of the team that will experience the change. Very often, leading a successful change requires altering a company culture. That takes time. On this project we had to help people feel integrated into the broader company before they would embrace the new centralized system.

While challenging, the project was ultimately successful. Sometimes change management comes down to taking the time to convince people. It's hard work. But if you believe in the project and in people, it's worth it.

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