Project Management Institute

Change that endures


Project management and change management are inseparable. Yet, frequently insufficient attention is given to the process of managing the change and the individuals affected by the change, beyond the initial stages of the project.

This paper takes the form of a guided design session in which participants will identify the primary barriers to change, and then assess alternative approaches to implement a change program. While working with a specific case study, the strategies and concepts covered form the foundation of a “change campaign” rooted in trust and the development of Influence Equity™, which allows project leaders to sell sustainable change. The paper provides the conceptual foundation on which the case and guided design session are structured.


And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. (Machiavelli, The Prince, 1515, Chapter 6)

Machiavelli's warning can well be aimed at modern project managers, because projects are by definition concerned with bringing about some form of change. This makes the management of that change a critical component in the overall project management process. Many failed projects can trace their problems back to inadequate change management, where the users of the new product, service, or result do not embrace the project output, thus negatively impacting the delivery of the envisaged project benefits.

Change can be introduced and managed in multiple ways, and with varying degrees of effectiveness. Some approaches deliver short-term results, some deliver results over time, and yet others fail to deliver any value at all.

This paper explores some of the crucial barriers to change, briefly examines the actual change process, and draws on the growing “influence” literature to suggest an approach that is designed to build lasting change through the development of Influence Equity™. It expands on a paper presented at the 2007 Asia Pacific Global Congress, and provides the conceptual underpinnings for a guided design session that examines a specific case study, identifies and evaluates alternate change and influence strategies, and develops a “change campaign” to deliver the required outcomes.

Barriers to Change

Introducing change is seldom simple, and the more significant the change required, the more challenging the process will be. Attempts to bring about change need to overcome various barriers, ranging from human nature, to institutional and organizational factors, to barriers linked to the actual change methodology used.

Barriers Caused by Institutional and Organizational Factors

Organizational Culture, Structure, and Politics

Culture (“the way things work around here”) and structure shape the ethos of an organization; some will be more flexible and adaptable to change, while more structured and politically active organizations would create significant resistance to any type of change.

Continual Restructuring

The frequency and scale of change being imposed on modern workers also presents barriers; constant change has dulled the senses and led to a somewhat cynical view of the value and durability of change. It is widely expected that when new executives come on board they will make sweeping changes in an attempt to justify their appointment. Many of these changes are dictated without further thought to their consequence, or their value to the organization.

Anecdotal evidence given to the author suggests that many organizations restructure themselves in some way every 12–18 months. Employees, jaded by constant and seemingly random change, often adopt an attitude of waiting out the tenure of the new executives before resorting to life “as it once was.” A shrug, a sighed “Whatever…,” and they continue doing what they have always done. Or, they might pretend to go along with the change at a surface level, but without any commitment to making the change permanent.

Unclear Purpose and Sponsorship

Change for the sake of change is often counter-productive. The absence of real drivers for change, or incentives for the organization to pursue such change, can inhibit progress.

It is essential to have clearly defined benefits resulting from the change being proposed, and executives need to support the initiative in word and deed. This means understanding the true problem that the change seeks to address, and selling the problem or opportunity (rather than the solution) to the people. It should be obvious that the appropriate level of executive sponsorship is equally critical in driving the change initiative.

Inconsistent Communication

There is frequently a gap between directives and actions (that is, what people say and what people do). This inconsistency is a very common problem in many organizations, and often appears in the reward structure, both direct and indirect. A change initiative to develop a paperless work environment is more likely to fail if it requires masses of status reports to be printed in accordance with official corporate policy. Yet, such inconsistencies happen with alarming regularity.

Other Factors

The above are by no means the only institutional factors. Other possible factors include the scarcity or availability of resources, and a range of historical factors, particularly previous failures.

Barriers Inherent in Human Nature and the Change Process

Another set of barriers comes from how humans deal with change. Since Kübler-Ross's groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying (1969), change experts have developed numerous models of the change process (see below). One feature the various models have in common is that change consists of various stages, through which all people must pass.

Speed at Which People Pass Through Various Stages of Change

People pass through the stages at varying speeds, depending on the type of change; their perception of the value and magnitude of the change and its impact; their past experiences; and characteristics related to their personality types, behavioral patterns, and levels of tolerance for ambiguity (this dimension will be explored more fully in a paper to be presented at the PMI New Zealand conference in October 2007). In any change scenario, it is quite probable to find some people are still in the denial phase, while others have already proceeded though to acceptance. There is no such thing as an “average” employee where change is concerned; consequently, any change campaign that does not take individual drivers and motivators into account is more likely to encounter major obstacles.

Failing to Understand the Losses Involved

Another common barrier is the lack of understanding and appreciation at senior levels of the whole change process and the losses involved. Some losses are tangible—jobs, time, expertise related to the old way of doing things, and so on. But other losses are intangible, and affect the attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations that make up an individual's worldview. According to Bridges (2003), “These inner elements of ‘the way things are’ are what make us feel at home in our world. When they disappear, we've lost something very important, although to someone else it may seem as though nothing has changed” (p. 25). Failing to recognize and acknowledge these losses destroys the morale and trust of the people affected by the change.

Misunderstandings About the Value or Purpose of the Change

Resistance to change could be related to a misunderstanding of the change and its implications, or because users don't believe the rationale given for the change. Top-down initiatives that do not consult and engage in open communication run a major risk that the initiative will not be adopted and owned by the people affected; in these cases the approach, rather than the change itself, creates the barrier.

The Way the Brain Functions

A further complication to this model is the way in which humans assimilate data and learn from it. Research into the functioning of the brain (see, for example, Taylor, 2004) refers to the mental schemas that are developed and refined over time, and against which all information is processed. As people develop through the stages of unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence, their responses to certain stimuli become instinctive and habitual. The more ingrained a belief, value, or attitude is in the subconscious mind, the more difficult it will be to alter that belief, and the more complex the web of interrelated beliefs that will be impacted as a result. This is a common theme in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) techniques and much of the modern “influence literature” (see Oschadleus, 2007b).

Attempting to change people's beliefs is consequently very difficult, and is morally questionable. It is also difficult to change people's perceptions and the filters through which they gather and process information. But, suggests Mackay (1994): “If we want people to behave differently, we must create the conditions under which it will be both easy and attractive for them to do so” (p. 224).

This idea is illustrated in the “broken window” concept introduced in Gladwell's The Tipping Point (2001). Using examples such as the crime wave in New York in the 1990s and problems on the city's rail network, he demonstrates how small changes in the environment can have major impacts on the behavior of people. In essence, when people see certain behaviors accepted within their society, they are more likely to behave in similar fashion. Cialdini (1994, 2001) offers a similar influence principle, namely that of social proof.

While lasting change happens primarily in the mind, it should be our focus to change behavior, and provide the environment in which people can question (and possibly change) their beliefs and attitudes themselves.

Principles of Managing Sustainable Change

Models of Change

From earliest times, humans have sought to influence and change the minds and behavior of others. And over the years, a multitude of models and theories of change have emerged. Van de Ven & Poole's (1995) taxonomy provides four categories of models, ranging from the biologically oriented lifecycle (prescribed and deterministic) and evolutionary (prescribed and probabilistic) approaches, to the teleological (move towards a desired goal) and dialectical (change resulting from a clash of opposing forces) approaches. As Craddock (2007) notes, the latter two categories are particularly suited to project-related change.

However, these models, like Lewin's well-known three-stage model (unfreeze, move, refreeze; see Lewin, 1951) assume a specific start and end in a stable environment. Vaill (1989) argues that the reality is more like taking a 40-foot raft on a continuous, uncharted series of white-water rapids, in the dark, and with a crew that has some crew members replaced at irregular intervals. Change is thus a natural state, and managing that change is a never-ending process, requiring strong, yet flexible, leadership.

From a project perspective, it is appropriate to combine both views of change. The project manager is directly concerned with the incremental and/or transformational changes resulting from the project itself, but he or she also lives in a world of constant change, much of which impacts every project, either directly or indirectly.

For the purpose of the guided design session, the transition model depicted in Exhibit 1 will be used. It is a consolidation of models developed by Davis and Dean (2000) and Bridges (2003), and depicts three broad phases through which all change-affected parties must pass.

Stages in the Change Process

Exhibit 1 – Stages in the Change Process

  • The “Ending, Losing, Letting Go” Phase: This is where the change event (#2) disrupts the routine. After initial denial, the change is eventually acknowledged, and productivity goes into decline as people process what the change actually means, and struggle to come to terms with the endings and the loss that this entails.
  • The “Neutral Zone”: Once individuals accept the inevitability of the change, they embark on a period of confusion and creativity, as they attempt to replace the old paradigm with a new one. The duration of this stage depends on the person and his or her ability to deal with transition, and the intensity of the change event.
  • A Time of New Beginnings: At some point people receive insight—literally a breakthrough or vision of what can be. New beginnings emerge. Again, the process is not always a simple one, but goes through various iterations, and needs constant reinforcement to consolidate the changed process or behavior until it becomes cemented as new routine.

It's important to recognize that everyone has to pass through each of these stages, and that people do so at their own pace. One of the challenges is that managers are generally able to step through the changes much faster than lower-level employees can. As a consequence, they've already processed the impact of the change, while employees are struggling with the denial phase (Davis & Dean, 2000). And, of course, people are undergoing multiple changes in different aspects of their lives, so the actual experience of change is not as neat as the model suggests.

Hierarchies of Persuasion

Whatever change model is used, the challenge for project managers and change agents is how to get lead people through the various stages of change—and how to make that change stick.

Mortensen (2004) identifies a five-level hierarchy of persuasion categories that have varying degrees of effectiveness over time. Approaches that seek to control people (for example, force, fear, or threats) or to coerce them (through pressure, manipulation, or intimidation) deliver short-term results. Because the change drivers are externally enforced, such initiatives usually build up resentment and opposition, leading to rejection of the change, either immediately or over time. Attempts to promote compliance (through providing incentives and offering rewards or benefits) are more effective, but as with the previous categories, they rely on external controls. Once that control is removed, people are likely to revert to earlier behaviors.

At the other end of the scale, change initiatives that focus on building cooperation (through convincing, encouraging, and coaxing) and commitment (rooted in respect, honor, and trust) have a far greater likelihood of introducing sustainable and lasting change, because they seek to engage the people being impacted by it. The reason these changes are more effective is that they affect not only behavior, but win over the “hearts and minds” of the people being influenced.

The Principle of Influence Equity™

It is appropriate at this point to refer to the principle of Influence Equity™, the ability we have to influence others over time (see Oschadleus, 2004, 2007a, 2007b). How we communicate change is an essential component in how successful we will be. Aristotle (trans. 1984) identified a combination of three elements necessary to make a speech persuasive, namely:

  • Ethos – that is, the moral character and credibility of the speaker
  • Pathos –the ability to invoke in others a passionate desire, or to place people in the required “state of mind”
  • Logos – the logic or proof of the argument.

The more closely aligned these three elements are, the higher the trust a speaker evokes in the audience, and the greater the ability the speaker has to persuade and influence them. This is true not only of orations, but also of a change management program; a “change campaign” that demonstrates character and credibility (through concern for the individuals affected by it) is able to inspire and enthuse its intended audience, and develops a clear, logical reason (in the eyes of the recipients) for the change, along with its associated benefits, and is far more likely to achieve its objectives.

Developing Effective Change Campaigns

Change campaigns, like the influence campaign concept outlined in Oschadleus (2004), are systematic approaches to achieving specific outcomes with selected stakeholders, in this case the people being asked to accept or implement some form of change. Developing an effective change campaign requires a solid stakeholder analysis, and the use of appropriate strategies and tactics that are designed to engage the people impacted by the change.

Identify and Prioritize All Stakeholders

Identifying and analyzing all stakeholders is very similar to traditional stakeholder analysis conducted within project management. However, its focus is always proactive: to understand who the people are who are being asked to undertake change, who are the best people to lead the way, and how should this be managed most effectively? Consequently, it addresses issues such as:

  • Who will be affected by the change?
  • How important and influential are each of the people and groups within the organization? Are there any “Connectors,” “Mavens,” and “Salespeople” among them (these are terms coined by Gladwell (2001) to describe the small number of people who have inordinate abilities to generate action)?
  • What do they stand to lose and gain (that is, what are the forces driving and resisting change)? Some of the more common forces driving change (and which should therefore be strengthened) include personal gain, the desire for new challenges, the recognition that change is required, and the ability to participate in and contribute to the process.
  • What are their perceived interests and alternatives?
  • Are they likely to be active or passive supporters or opponents of the proposed change?
  • What communication styles and methods are most likely to get the necessary concepts understood and acted upon?

Principles to Build Commitment

After identifying and analyzing all stakeholders, appropriate strategies need to be developed to engage each person in the change required. The following principles should be taken into account in doing so:

  • Lead by example: Senior executives should model the desired behavior, and ensure alignment of words and deeds.
  • Make it personal: The catchphrase of the American television series, The Apprentice, was: “It's nothing personal; it's just business.” To the people affected by decisions and changes, everything is personal, and must be acknowledged as such in order to gain their support and respect.
  • Give them understanding: An effective leader and change manager never argues about the reality and importance of subjective losses. Belittling the person builds further resistance and barriers; disagreement stops conversation and the ability to discover more about the inner workings of the people whose world is being changed. Telling them to be rational and “get over it” cannot convince them that you either understand them, or care about them and their feelings. It is necessary to start from their mental paradigm.
  • Help them to let go of the old: This step is essential before people can fully embrace the new.
  • Compensate them for their loss: Seek ways of compensating them for their loss. This does not have to be financial in nature; converting functional experts into trainers or change champions would give back something in terms of prestige or recognition.
  • Treat the past with respect: Change managers must also be careful to treat the past with respect because in past events lie the seeds of the future. Major successful change initiatives have used association with the past to drive the future.
  • Involve them: Get their input on the changes and how best to implement them.
  • Focus on behavior: It is always easier to accept a change in behavior than a change of mind or attitude.
  • Look for quick wins: Identify areas of change that can be implemented quickly. Deep change takes time, and having to endure extended periods with no positive outcomes can be very demotivating, even to committed people.
  • Symbolize the new identity or start: As Bridges (2003) notes: “During highly charged times of transition, everything takes on a symbolic hue – everything means something. That can trip you up because you don't intend to mean something with everything you do” (p. 72). Make sure the symbols used are appropriate to the situation.
  • Paint clear pictures of what the new environment or outcomes will be, how it will be achieved, and what part each individual must play in the process. It is equally important that managers are consistent in the verbal and nonverbal messages they are communicating to their staff.
  • Communicate: Frequently, honestly, and consistently. Not only in words, but in deeds as well, leading by example. Leaders who communicate honestly about what they know and don't know are generally far more respected, particularly if they take the trouble to connect with individuals, and to communicate directly to their employees rather than through multiple hierarchical intermediaries.


Change is an inevitable part of projects, as it is of life in the 21st-century knowledge economy. The challenge that project and organizational leaders face is how to overcome the barriers of constant change, and how to ensure that the changes people undergo are not dependant on the external controls of the relatively stable 20th-century economy, but are sustainable and appropriate to the dynamic nature of the modern world.

This paper has identified key barriers to change, and outlined the principles of sustainable change. It serves as a conceptual checklist against which change campaigns can be assessed to ensure that change initiatives deliver lasting results, rather than temporary, externally controlled change. The related presentation puts the concepts into practice in a guided design session that implements the concepts against a given case study.


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© 2007, Jürgen Oschadleus
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Atlanta, GA, USA



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