Project leadership influences resistance to change

the case of the Canadian Public Service


This article analyzes how leadership affects resistance to change in projects. Using Dulewicz and Higgs’ (2005) leadership framework in the context of the Canadian Public Service, types of resistance and factors influencing them were listed, leading to the identification of competence areas for the project manager. It was found that an engaging leadership style, developed through proper training, effectively reduced resistance to change. Other factors, such as the inclusion of affected people in the decisions, as well as a formal project management methodology, were instrumental in reducing resistance. Finally, upper management support was identified to be a mandatory success factor.

KEYWORDS: project leadership; change; resistance to change; competencies; critical success factors; public service


Project Management Institute's (PMI's) Pulse of the ProfessionTM survey for 2012 (PMI, 2012) has stated that 73% of organizations using project management use change management. This is the highest percentage of all common practices surveyed. The same source identified the skill set of project and program managers as being “a top concern” (PMI, 2012, p. 2). The subject of change and the role of the project manager in increasing its chance for success are, as of today, a priority within this community.

Indeed, successful project management largely depends on the ability of the project team to manage change (Hornstein, 2010; Huntoon, 1998; Jacob, Rondeau, & Normandin, 2008; Schifalacqua, Costello, & Denman, 2009). Much has been written on change and its consequence: resistance. Resistance to change, even in the narrower context of projects, is still a fairly comprehensive subject. This article therefore focuses on the impact of the project leader on the management of resistance to change. Not only is this perspective conducive to a deeper understanding of this aspect of project management change, but it is more useful in terms of providing the research subject, a Department of the Canadian Government, with applicable conclusions.

In this article, literature describing the links between change, resistance to change, and project leadership in the realm of project management is reviewed. Research exploring the differences between public and private sectors, as well as between project and nonproject changes, has been discussed. Finally, the widely recognized concept of project success and the findings from Pinto, Thoms, Trailer, Palmer, and Govekar (1998) on critical success factors are taken into consideration for comparison purposes.

Organizational Change

Change has been the subject of extensive research for many years. Developed in the 1940s, Kurt Lewin's (1952) model of unfreeze, transition, and refreeze has been of major influence. Often referred to as the origin of the planned change approach, Lewin's work was eventually perceived as being more suitable to bureaucratic and relatively predictable environments and its ability to generate rapid change was questioned (Mintzberg & Waters, 1985; Weick & Quinn, 1999). Lewin's model was followed by several structured change models and processes—Kotter's (1996) eight-stage process was one of the most cited. Many of these models still prevail today, providing managers with a methodology to implement changes. Limitations for such approaches are clearly stated in Kotter's work: “First, useful change tends to be associated with a multi-step process that creates power and motivation sufficient to overwhelm all the sources of inertia. Second, this process is never employed effectively unless it is driven by high-quality leadership, not just excellent management—an important distinction” (pp. 20–21).

Regrouped under the banner of emergent change, several other models have since investigated the perspectives of unintentional goals and strategies (Burnes, 2004; Mintzberg & Waters, 1985; Weick & Quinn, 1999), looking for potentially more effective ways to manage certain types of organizational change. These models generally not only introduce the concept of intentionality but also refer to the pace and type of change, with emergent changes tending to be more gradual, continuous, and systemic (Senge, 1990). Burnes (2004), in an effort to determine which approach is the best, concluded, “Whilst there is a growing chorus of disapproval of planned change over the last 20 years, and increasing support for a more emergent view of change, there is also a view that just one approach to change may be sub-optimal” (p. 890).

Van de Ven and Sun (2011), while making a valuable contribution in providing the management community with an integrated conceptual framework of organizational change, introduced the concepts of action and reflection in the change strategies. Action represents the formal, logical side of the intervention, whereas reflection focuses on the making sense of and the socially constructed side of the change process. Their model described resistance to change as the expected result from regulated change or imposed change, in a life cycle theory perspective. Discussing the value of various schools of thought, change strategies, and models, they came to the conclusion that a “contingency theory of organization change process” (p. 71) is the best perspective. This point of view has been supported by many other researchers, including Gareis (2010) and Partington (1996).

Further illustrating the wide spectrum of change models, Weick and Quinn (1999) observed that, despite considerable recent research on change, there seems to be no long-term direction and coherence among those models.

Change Complexity

There has been a general consensus in the literature that complexity is a major determinant of change strategy (Erwin & Garman, 2010; Jaafari, 2003; Williams, 2005), which is why organizational change can be an even bigger challenge when it happens in the public sector (Corby, 2005; Hornstein, 2010; Jacob et al., 2008; McNulty & Ferlie, 2004).

In a meta-analysis based on 47 studies comparing the outcomes of planned organizational change in the public versus the private sector, Robertson and Seneviratne (1995) concluded that even though “there is not much compelling evidence from which to conclude that public organizations differ in ways that could restrict planned change success… it does appear that it is more difficult to generate consistent, high levels of change in the organizing arrangements, technology, and physical setting sub-systems of public organizations” (p. 555).

Turner and Müller (2001) also stressed that goals in the public service are typically longer term on one hand, politically influenced, and the subject of public scrutiny on the other hand. Furthermore, changes happening in governmental organizations are usually more global and imply a shift in paradigms, and are therefore more complicated to manage (Arnaboldi, Azzone, & Savoldelli, 2004; Haringa, 2009; Hornstein, 2010). These transformations are of cultural and systemic nature and also require a greater time investment (Jacob et al., 2008; Laframboise, Nelson, & Schmaltz, 2003). Further empirical studies by Andersen (2010a, 2010b), Heres and Lasthuizen (2012), Nawab, Ahmad, and Khuram (2011), and Nutt (1999) consistently supported those differences, specifically in the areas of leadership and decision-making styles, motivation, and ethical conduct. Explanations for such differences are numerous and can be summarized by the added complexity of these typically large systems.

Change Project

In recent years, the project management community and its broader management vis-à-vis largely have developed independently, creating a gap between the two perspectives (Williams, 2005). This article partly addresses this concern because the literature, models, and tools chosen are from both environments.

Not only do projects generate change (Crawford, Costello, Pollack, & Bentley, 2003; Thoms & Pinto, 1999), but they can also be used to formally manage change (Fiedler, 2010; Gareis, 2010; Gilley, Godek, & Gilley, 2009; Lehmann, 2010; Schifalacqua et al., 2009). Winch, Meunier, Head, and Russ (2012) referred to the first concept as being the content of change and the second one as the process of change. These two perspectives are used in identifying issues facilitating the change process.

The concept of “change project” as used by Krysinski and Reed (1994), is defined by Lehmann (2010): “By ‘changes as projects,’ we bring up here this idea that (all) changes depending of their objects could be processed as projects are” (p. 329). Change projects generate systemic impacts, affecting the organization overall (Morin, 2008). Systemic changes are long-term, continuous engagements organized in phases, linked in unrestrained time frames (Jaafari, 2003; Krysinski & Reed, 1994; Morin, 2008).

Project management is often seen as a natural when implementing planned changes (Alsène, 1998; Schifalacqua et al., 2009), but this does not imply that the methodology guarantees success: “Project management is increasingly used to manage organizational change initiatives and there is evidence of the use of inappropriate systems for the management of such projects” (Partington, 1996, p. 13). Its ability to generate radical changes, as for planned changes in general, is particularly limited (Lehtonen & Martinsuo, 2008).

Literature on change, more specifically on change created by projects in an organization, is extensive (Collerette, Delisle, & Richard, 1997; Jacob et al., 2008; Krysinski & Reed, 1994; Legris & Collerette, 2006; Lehmann, 2010). The concept of project change has been studied for decades through theoretical and/or empirical studies (Lehmann, 2010). The effect of change in an organization and its impact inside and outside of the organization has also been well documented (Gilley et al., 2009; Szabla, 2007; Vas, 2005).

Change affects both the organization as a whole and how it manages its projects. When change occurs, a series of events and reactions follow, such as organizational restructuring, modified work and decision processes, transition in work dynamics, resistance from affected individuals, and so forth (Jacob et al., 2008; Langley & Denis, 2008; Legris & Collerette, 2006).

But, the limitations of a strictly positivist interpretation of change projects are clear: traditional methodologies are appropriate to reach specific objectives but are not capable of delivering results at the corporate strategy level (Love, Holt, Shen, Li, & Irani, 2002) unless they incorporate tools to facilitate innovativeness and communication (Kapsali, 2011).

Because of its complexity, three factors influence the possibility of a successful outcome to a change project: (a) the nature of the change, which could be occasional, progressive, or both (Collerette et al., 1997; Langley & Denis, 2008); (b) the strategy for implementing change, like adopting a stepped approach (Laframboise et al., 2003); and (c) the structure of a global change seen as the sum of specific critical stakes (Jacob et al., 2008). Those factors, when appropriately managed, will increase stakeholders’ understanding and perception of legitimacy of the change (Jacob et al., 2008; Krysinski & Reed, 1994; Truong & Swierczek, 2009). Diagnosing, planning, and reviewing a change action plan with clear objectives and implementing that plan has historically been an agreed-upon way to go about managing change (Gilley et al., 2009; Jacob et al., 2008). Not only do the steps for undertaking change—the “how”—need to be well defined, but the motivations and objectives—the “why”—should also be communicated (Jacob et al., 2008; Laframboise et al., 2003).

The dilemma between using planned or emergent change strategies finds echo in the project management community in the concepts of change control and change leadership, where change control mainly refers to the activities required to perform the change, and change leadership refers to the human aspects of change initiatives (Griffith-Cooper & King, 2007). Seemingly prisoner of its dominant being ontology, much of the project management research and practice has not readily considered the “soft,” human side of organizational change.

Resistance to Change

More than two thirds of change projects fail (Burnes, 2004) and resistance is often identified as a reason for failure (Erwin & Garman, 2010). The next concept, resistance to change, is therefore considered an essential aspect of change management (Gale, 2012; Gilley et al., 2009; Jacob et al., 2008; Karp & Helgø, 2008; Laframboise et al., 2003; Mabin, Forgeson, & Green, 2001; Maire & Collerette, 2011; Saksvik & Hetland, 2009).

Sometimes viewed as a positive factor (Morin, 2007; Waddell & Sohal, 1998), resistance is generally considered to be a problem, something to be overcome. It is also a familiar concept, examined by several researchers and authors in the project management field (Fiedler, 2010; Pinto et al., 1998). Despite the abundance of research on the subject, very few studies have been performed in the context of governmental organizations (Hornstein, 2010; Laframboise et al., 2003). Even fewer studies have examined the resistance level resulting from changes created by projects (Laframboise et al., 2003). Moreover, Erwin and Garman (2010), just as in the case of organizational change, state that “we would characterize the research of the last decade [on resistance] as more divergent than convergent… [suggesting] the complexity of studying resistance, individuals, and the relationship to each other” (p. 42). Notwithstanding work by Mabin et al. (2001) and Fiedler (2010) proposing a multi-phased process for managing resistance, there is still a lack of clear guidelines on how to reduce the level of resistance to change in the context of a change project in public administrations, especially from a human resource perspective. (Hornstein, 2010; Laframboise et al., 2003; Partington, 1996; Vann, 2004).

There are several reasons for resisting change: uncertainties about the unknown, novelty, routine distraction, culture change, loss of status/control/power/security, and so forth (Gilley et al., 2009; Kanter, 1985; Krysinski & Reed, 1994; Laframboise et al., 2003). The level of acceptance and the forms of resistance of the affected stakeholders were therefore examined in this research. The understanding of the “whys” and the “by which means” resistance happens is the first step in identifying ways to reduce it (Vann, 2004; Winch et al., 2012).

When associating change with resistance to change, three observations ought to be kept in mind: first, change enablers can change projects and organizations, but in return, projects and organizations can modify the nature of these change interventions while being implemented (Langley & Denis, 2008); second, resistance sometimes translates into a benign uneasy feeling rather than the dreaded rise of a human shield against change (Jacob et al., 2008; Laframboise et al., 2003); and third, change and resistance to change are dynamic phenomena.

Project Leadership

Leadership has been the subject of thousands of books and references for the past 80 years (Turner & Müller, 2005). In the project management literature, some consideration has been given to leadership styles, but little has been written on the overall impact of the leadership of a project manager on a project and its stakeholders (Pinto et al., 1998; Turner & Müller, 2005; Yang, Huang, & Wu, 2011). Research on the concept of project leadership is now growing (Müller & Turner, 2010; Pinto et al., 1998; Thoms & Pinto, 1999). It is now accepted that project leadership, among other things, facilitates changes in the human aspects of a project (Battilana, Gilmartin, Sengul, Pache, & Alexander, 2010; Bejestani, 2011; Müller & Turner, 2007; Schifalacqua et al., 2009; Turner & Müller, 2005). Hence the human side of leading change is becoming an essential aspect that should be considered when referring to project leadership (Battilana et al., 2010; Clarke, 2010; Partington, 1996; Schifalacqua et al., 2009). “Change leadership refers to a set of principles, techniques, or activities applied to the human aspects of executing change to influence intrinsic acceptance while reducing resistance” (Griffith-Cooper & King, 2007, p. 14).

In that respect, project managers play a central role in their organizations, namely in linking a variety of stakeholders, in trying to keep a unified project team spirit, and in aiming to balance the requirements, time, and cost constraints throughout the project life cycle (Curran, Niedergassel, Picker, & Leker, 2009; Thoms & Pinto, 1999). This is why numerous authors have considered leadership skills to be essential to project success (Pinto et al., 1998; Thoms & Pinto, 1999). “Successful transformation is 70% to 90% leadership and only 10% to 30% management” (Kotter, 1996, p. 23). It is therefore interesting to further investigate which aspects of leadership affect project performance; despite this interest, however, the impact of leadership styles on project success is vastly under-researched (Williams, 2005).


Leadership competencies are central to project success to the point at which the extent of the change is a function of available individual and collective change competencies (Gareis, 2010).

Reinforcing the concepts of change control and change leadership, Crawford and Nahmias (2010) distinguished between activities and competencies required to manage change, as they identify them in two separate lists. Among the competencies, leadership stands on top. Even though not specifically defined, leadership is seen as distinct from stakeholder management, planning, communication, decision making, problem solving, and cultural skills competencies, for example.

The International Project Management Association (IPMA) specifically addresses leadership as one of 46 competencies seen as instrumental to project managers’ success (ICB-IPMA, 2006; PMI, 2007). In their description of the process to develop this competence, selecting the appropriate leadership style is required, and the methodology to do so is left to the reader, opening the door to further investigation of this aspect of the concept.

For the purpose of the current research, leadership was examined through the lens of the competence school (Dulewicz & Higgs, 2005; Gehring, 2007; Geoghegan & Dulewicz, 2008; Müller & Turner, 2010; PMI, 2007; Turner & Müller, 2005). The competence school, introduced in the 1990s, includes most of the previous leadership schools (i.e., behavior school, contingency school, visionary and charismatic sch ool, emotional intelligence school) (Müller & Turner, 2010). Competence is generally defined as being a combination of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors that trigger work performance (Gehring, 2007; Müller & Turner, 2010). The focus of this research was therefore to assess the influence and impact of leaders’ competencies on change projects.

In 2003, Dulewicz and Higgs developed an assessment model and a tool called the Leadership Development Questionnaire (LDQ; Dulewicz & Higgs, 2004). These have been used in several recent studies on leadership in project management. The questionnaire is well known and recognized for its scientific thoroughness (Geoghegan & Dulewicz, 2008; Müller & Turner, 2010). In their model, Dulewicz and Higgs (2005) used 15 leadership dimensions, defining three leadership styles:

  1. Goal oriented: a leader-centric style focused on delivery of clearly understood results in a relatively stable context
  2. Involving: a more participative style for transitional organizations that face significant but not necessarily radical changes in their business model or way of working
  3. Engaging: a style based on empowerment and involvement in highly transformational context. This leadership style is focused on producing radical change through engagement and commitment.

These dimensions and leadership profiles are listed in Table 1.

These dimensions and leadership profiles have been compared and analyzed with the gathered information from this research. Similar leadership components between Dulewicz and Higgs’ study and the interviews conducted for the current study have been extracted and are the basis of the analysis of the evaluation of the impact of these leadership components on change and the resistance of change found in the results section.

Leadership competencies and leadership profiles of Dulewicz and Higgs’ tool

A theoretical framework is provided in Figure 1, and the main authors addressing the concepts are indicated in parentheses. The table numbers resulting from the research are also indicated in the appropriate locations.

Project Success

Project success has been explored in project management literature since the early 1970s, leading to different schools of thought (Geoghegan & Dulewicz, 2008; Turner & Müller, 2005). In this research, an aspect of project success, more specifically, critical success factors, was explored and compared with previous project management studies and literature. The well-known findings from Pinto et al. (1988; 1998) on project success and the 10 critical success factors are still considered a milestone in project management's body of knowledge. Recent research found that the influence of the project manager or project leadership should be added to the list of critical success factors (Dulewicz & Higgs, 2005; Geoghegan & Dulewicz, 2008; Turner & Müller, 2005). Indeed, the competence school and, even more so, the leadership competence findings consider leadership as an essential component of project success (Crawford, 2003; Dulewicz & Higgs, 2005; Gehring, 2007; Geoghegan & Dulewicz, 2008; Müller & Turner, 2010; Turner & Müller, 2005).

Research Methodology

Literature Review

The literature search has been conducted on the last 30 years of publications, using two major university search engines: one from the Université du Québec en Outaouais and the second one from the École des Hautes Études Commerciales in Montreal. They access 147 major databases; including the following 13 databases, which mainly cover the domains of administration science (including project management), finance, and economics: ABI/INFORM Complete, Academic Search Complete, Business Source Complete, Cambridge Journals Online, Emerald, Érudit, JSTOR Business Collection, Regional Business News, Sage Journals Online, ScienceDirect, Scopus, Vente et Gestion, Wiley InterScience. Other sources were used, including government reports, theses, school research papers, and specialized textbooks. The main keywords used were project change, project management, change organization, change management, resistance to change, leadership, project leadership, leadership-resistance, federal government, public service, and government of Canada; they were used independently or in combination.

Theoretical framework
Case Study, Qualitative Research

The case study methodology was chosen for this research because it allowed for a more holistic, in-depth investigation of the subject matter (Yin, 2009). This approach provided the subjective reality of the current state of the organization, its projects, and the research concepts, as perceived by the interviewees.

Based on the constructivist paradigm, this study is a phenomenological qualitative research. Jacob et al. (2008) posited that a case study is a good vehicle to highlight key success factors for implementing change in the public service. It is therefore believed that knowledge development might be more significant because of this.

Semi-Structured Interviews

Semi-structured interviews were performed on 16 employees of Environment Canada's Information Management/Information Technology branch, at three hierarchical levels. Since one of the researchers is a current employee of the studied organization, observation was used as an additional tool to get a better understanding of the answers. Independence between the participants and this researcher was scrupulously respected. No Information Management/Information Technology employee who might have had any direct line of authority with the researcher was interviewed or observed.

An interview guide provided a reliable, comparable qualitative database for the research. The information sought in this case study had the potential to be intricate and multifactorial; therefore, the semi-structured interview allowed the participants to supply some direction with open questions and also allowed for the measurement of specific dimensions through indicators. Among those dimensions were current project delivery context, description of perceived change, impacts of change, resistance to change, consequences of resistance to change, project leadership, and impacts of project leadership.

Selection of Participants

Because the focus of this study was on information management and information management organization, the interviewees were selected from the computer systems (CS) work classification group. The majority of the employees in the branch were classified as CS and were mostly involved in the project delivery process. The computer systems levels go from CS1 to CS5. CS1s are considered junior in their computer systems expertise; CS2s are usually computer systems expert technicians; CS3s are team leaders and/or project leaders; CS4s are usually managers and/or project managers; and, finally, CS5s are on the director level doing executive tasks. CSs account for approximately 80% of the branch's pool of employees, the remaining 20% were other work classifications providing services outside the discipline of computer science. A minimum of 5 years of project experience was required for an employee to be considered for an interview. In the federal system, 5 years of experience in the same position or within a similar field is also considered a minimum to access senior level. For this reason, CS1s were not considered for this case study. To ensure a good project management sampling pool representation of the interviewees’ in the context of the branch, the following sample of participants has been chosen: four CS5s, recruited in two directorates; seven CS4s, recruited in all directorates; three CS3s, recruited in one directorate; and two CS2s, recruited in two directorates. The majority of the participants were recruited at the CS5–CS4 level, because the impact of the changes was anticipated to be at a maximum at these levels.

On average, their work experience in the government of Canada varied from 15 to 19 years, and their experience in the domain of project management ranged from 10 to 14 years. This considerable experience guaranteed that their overall knowledge of the general practice of project management and, more specifically, their understanding of the context and reality of the federal government when it pertains to managing projects was appropriate.

Sixteen interviews were necessary to reach data saturation; they were all performed within the same month to ensure uniformity.

Data Gathering, Links With Literature, and Analysis

Analysis was performed using two main techniques. The first one was a direct data gathering and interpretation from the researchers via an iterative process of cleaning-grouping-summarizing the data. In the process, the reasoning behind the inclusion or exclusion of each observation was documented. The second technique was to use the data processing tool NVivo, version 8. Analyses were made on the basis of the most frequently used keywords. The queries also included “wildcards” (e.g., “structure,” which would include “structures” and “structured,” and so forth).

Using those tools, project leadership competencies, based on Dulewicz and Higgs’ (2005) model, were assessed and analyzed. The results were compared with pre-established criteria, namely the situational context in which the defined leadership competence occurred, the relationship of the participant with the source of project leadership, and the impact on change and resistance to change.

Research Validity and Limitations


Reliability was a concern for the researchers throughout this project (Gagnon, 2005). Internal reliability of the research findings was ensured by using concrete and precise descriptive terms, by protecting the raw data, and by using informants. The academic researcher and at least one employee from the Information Management/Information Technology branch were asked to validate the data and review their analysis. The internal reliability was also optimized by controlling the researcher's impartial position. External reliability was ensured by describing the informant's selection, the identification of the characteristics of the case study environment, the study concepts, constructs, and theoretical framework, and the data-gathering strategy.


The internal validity is fundamental in a case study and represents its main advantage (Gagnon, 2005). The internal validity of this study was addressed by controlling the influence of the presence of the researcher on the nature of the collected data via the interviewer's corroboration notes by using a representative selection of participants, by making sure that any potential change would not influence the data-gathering procedure and by cleaning any challenging information using confirming or contradicting information or data by means of triangulation (McNulty & Ferlie, 2004). The triangulation was made between the information gathered from the semi-structured interviews, literature reviews, and other studies when available. Other validity tools were used when needed. For example, interview sampling, respondent validation, extended engagement of participants, and recordings of the interviews were used. The external validity was addressed by making sure of the applicability of the concluding constructs and results to other contexts. Idiosyncratic positions were avoided, promoting instead possible parallels with other circumstances (Gagnon, 2005). Overexposure of the study environment was not permitted in order to avoid saturation applied to one site. History of the gathered information has been tracked, with its explanation. Confidentiality and ethics in general were also continuous concerns.

Research Questions and Context

There have been few studies on the impact of project leadership on project change in organizations (Battilana et al., 2010; Gehring, 2007); even fewer on the impact of project leadership on resistance to change (Kan & Ken, 2004; Oreg & Berson, 2009); and no studies linking the impact of project leadership on change and resistance to change were found. Obviously, this is true for studies on the same subject performed in the public sector in general (Brown, Waterhouse & Flynn, 2003; Crawford et al., 2003) and more specifically in the context of the Canadian public service (Hornstein, 2010; Laframboise et al., 2003).

The Canadian federal government will spend considerable time and money on implementing changes in the way projects are created, chosen, managed, tracked, and reported. It is expected that these changes will create resistance, and there is a need to examine whether and how this resistance can be reduced or eliminated. The role of the project manager is of particular interest, because the change projects have reached their administrative levels and are to be implemented. This leads to the following research questions:

  • What is the influence of the project manager, if any, on the change process and on the potential resistance resulting from it?
  • What actions, behaviors, and attitudes of the project manager, if any, can potentially reduce resistance and facilitate the change?

The Canadian Federal Government

Public sector organizations worldwide are expected to increase efficiency while simultaneously providing improved and integrated services (Brown et al., 2003; Crawford et al., 2003). The Canadian public sector is no exception. The government of Canada has been using project management for many years. Up until the end of 2007, federal projects were chosen, planned, tracked, and reported based on their return on investment, estimated using their total cost of ownership. It has been recognized by the Canadian Treasury Board that this return on investment–based approach needed to be reviewed. Reports issued by the Auditor General in 1981, 2004, and 2005 on federal government research and development organizations have criticized project management practices (Procca, 2008). Some of the concerns raised by the Auditor General were (a) the limited use of formal project management processes and documentation; (b) a general inconsistency in the use and application of project management principles within federal organizations; and (c) a low level of maturity in the overall practice of project management (Procca, 2008). Consequently, a more efficient and modern approach was required to assist federal departments in their quest for better project management processes and practices. The goal of the revised approach was to ultimately increase project success within the government of Canada.

For that purpose, the Canadian Treasury Board came up with a new policy in October 2007 called Policy of the Management of Projects (Treasury Board Secretariat, 2009a). It was expected to bring a more relevant evaluation procedure for projects. A new perspective was thereby introduced in the assessment process of federal projects. Instead of the previous return on investment–based project evaluation, projects would now be evaluated according to their level of risk and feasibility (Treasury Board Secretariat, 2009). A project assessment tool to support the Treasury Board's project management policy and the Standard for Project Complexity and Risk (Treasury Board Secretariat, 2008) was developed by the Canadian Treasury Board Secretariat. This instrument is called the “Project Complexity and Risk Assessment Tool” (Treasury Board Secretariat, 2009b). As the name implies, the Treasury Board Secretariat assessment tool evaluates the risk and complexity level of a government of Canada project based on seven project focus areas: (a) project characteristics, (b) strategic management risks, (c) procurement risks, (d) human resource risks, (e) business risks, (f) project management integration risks, and (g) project requirements risks.

Canadian Federal Public Administration organizational chart

The Canadian Treasury Board Secretariat was chosen to lead and manage the implementation of this new project management policy across all Canadian departments. Starting in 2007, Treasury Board Secretariat chose to implement this new policy in phases (October 1, 2007, Treasury Board Secretariat, 2009a). For the first phase, ending in early 2008, four departments were invited to implement the new policy in the management process of their major projects.

The Canadian federal government structure is quite complex; a high-level representation of the essential components of the organization is shown in Figure 2. The decision-making process of the federal public administration follows a firmly established, hierarchical, bureaucratic structure. The Treasury Board has the mandate to manage the Canadian government by translating the policies and programs approved by Cabinet into a context proper for its implementation at the federal department's level. Even though the Treasury Board Secretariat has the mandate to manage and administer the applicability of the policy of project management it does not serve the function of the project management office.

Established in 1867, Treasury Board of Canada is a Cabinet committee. A Cabinet committee is basically a committee of federal government ministers. It plays a central role in the overall performance of the Canadian public sector. The Treasury Board is responsible for (a) providing accountability to the Canadian population; (b) maintaining proper values and ethics in all departments; (c) managing the federal budget and financial reporting; (d) approving regulations; and (e) communicating administrative decisions issued by the Governor General of Canada. In essence, the Treasury Board manages the Canadian public sector by translating the policies and programs approved by the Cabinet into the proper context for their implementation in the federal departments. It also provides resources and administrative tools to departments in order to facilitate their work. The Treasury Board has an administrative wing, the Secretariat (Treasury Board Secretariat). The Treasury Board Secretariat was established as a department in 1966 (Treasury Board Secre tariat, 2007a). The Treasury Board Secretariat supports the Treasury Board with its committee of ministers; it also carries out its mandated statutory respon sibilities of a central government agency (Treasury Board Secretariat, 2006a, 2006b). By being the central government agency of the federal government, the Treasury Board Secretariat is the employer of the core public admini stration (i.e., the federal depart ments and the other parts of the federal public administration).

Because of these responsibilities, the Treasury Board Secretariat has decided it should make the overall project management practice and the reporting process more efficient, transparent, and part of an established work process (Treasury Board Secretariat, 2009b, 2009c, 2010b). This imposed change has an immediate impact on all federal departments and their related branches. It is therefore within the Treasury Board Secretariat's mission to be familiar with the challenges confronting the management of projects in the Canadian government under the present project evaluation procedure and prepare for the next. Typically, these challenges were found to be related to the implementation and management of project management standards and procedures and perceived to be even more complex in the case of soft projects. Because of this, having the Information Management/Information Technology branch of Environment Canada as a case to study makes good sense. Indeed, the forthcoming change in the project evaluation criteria, focusing on risk and feasibility, is expected to have a major impact on Environment Canada. As an example, one of the consequences of the change is to impose formal project reporting, on a regular basis, compliant with Treasury Board Secretariat project management directives and reporting expectations related to projects (Treasury Board Secretariat, 2007b, 2007c, 2008, 2010a). Even if the new procedures are expected to deliver better long-term results, they are also expected to create some significant short-term resistance (Gilley et al., 2009; Jacob et al., 2008; Nodeson, Beleya, Raman, & Ramendran, 2012; Saksvik et al., 2009.

In order to adequately identify the stakeholders in that change, further explanation of the branch setting follows. An assistant deputy minister plays the role of a chief executive officer. Under his or her authority, at the time of this research, there were about 840 full-time public servants in the branch, divided into five directorates, each under a director general. Under each directorate are divisions, each lead by a director.

For the purpose of this study, any branch within a federal department affected by the change has been considered as an independent organization (Hornstein, 2010). This should prove to be useful, because the new procedure should foster the creation of new conceptual frameworks at the department level, reflecting a shift from a centralized bureaucracy to a more flexible, contextualized model (Crawford et al., 2003). Under this model, it is expected that the need for new conceptual frameworks will arise locally and that the frameworks will include a focus both on strategic issues and structured managerial processes. Again, the specific federal organization under study is the Information Management/Information Technology branch of Environment Canada.

Summary of Findings

Project Management Methodology and Change

The first question of the interview questionnaire was about the participants’ project management methodology. All participants at all responsibility levels recognized the value of a structured project management methodology. According to them, this structured approach is required to properly manage projects, on the one hand, and to create measurable business value and return on investment, on the other. A majority of participants expected the existing PRINCE® methodology (Office of Government Commerce, 2007) would have an impact on how they manage their projects and, specifically, on how the project team would be structured. Often, PMI's A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) was mentioned in reference to the participants’ former project management approach or because they still used parts of it within PRINCE®. It should be noted that most participants used one of the terms “people, stakeholder,* team,* member,* staff, employee,*” in their answers; this illustrates their human resources focus even at the pre-project stage.

The second, third, and fourth questions were about the nature of the change imposed by the new procedure. The purpose was to evaluate the interviewees’ perceptions of this change, how it affected them, and what would be required to face these changes. All interviewees understood the goal and purposes behind the policy addressing the reality of failed information technology (IT) projects (Treasury Board Secretariat, 1994, 2009a) and providing standardized expectations on what to report. It was almost unanimous that this was a positive requirement because it didn't require major changes in an organization already using a standardized project management methodology. However, one common issue raised was about how the project management methodology and its practice would be implemented in the branch. The use of a specific methodology was often perceived as a “filling project management template documents” exercise rather than a tool that could be tailored to each project.

One manager summed up the recent reality of IT projects and how the Treasury Board Secretariat project management policy affected the employees:

IT department shops across the government are forced to become more conscious of how they run projects, how they express business value, [how they] do cost analysis and business cases, and to express it in such a way that it's clear to management of the IT side and it can actually be explained in such a way that the business side can understand it.

How the change affected the participants’ daily work has been summarized and classified according to their hierarchical levels and is shown in Table 2.

Half of the participants thought that the implementation of the new Treasury Board Secretariat project management policy affected their daily work in a positive way, whereas the other half did not perceive that it would have a major impact on their daily work.

However, even considering their generally positive evaluation of the impact of the change, participants considered that using only a formal project management methodology was not enough to guarantee success. Participants believed that planning and handling projects on the basis of a structured methodology could potentially encourage bureaucracy or become a futile administrative exercise if no resources and time were to be allocated to further integrating the methodology; hence, management should consider this change from a more holistic perspective. According to the participants, at some point, projects should be evaluated through the lens of their ability to generate business value and return on investment for the department as a whole. Therefore, the new system based on risks and feasibility was perceived to be a logical step in making sure that projects are eventually completed and reach their objectives. It was also perceived that the procedure should be transparent; in order to achieve this the human resources aspect and the related work processes should be assessed before formalizing and using a project management methodology. As mentioned by one of the interviewees, “Culture change is the hardest thing to achieve.” Consequently, facing this specific change calls for the inclusion of affected people, as well as clients, in the change management process by creating:

  • a comprehensive project management training program;
  • a robust project management support/guidance mechanism;
  • a structured and enforced communication mechanism, including messages on communicating the reasons and benefits and the whys behind the change, and not only the how to go about the change;
  • an avenue for employees to be able to provide feedback and find information about the change, leaving room for a possible continuous improvement function to track and monitor improvement and success; and
  • a clear upper management support, including an overall incremental, stepped approach.

Project Leadership and Its Impact on Change

Impact of the Project Manager

When answering the question regarding the impact of the project manager on resistance to change, a majority of participants considered the project manager as having an important impact on how change is implemented, and therefore, a direct impact on its success. The project manager, using people management soft skills, should foster the more holistic approach necessary to manage projects that involve several stakeholders from different programs.

One participant summarized the answers: “An experienced project leader with a positive attitude, who believes in and understands the change, will typically create positive reactions from team members and stakeholders, thereby reducing resistance.”

But, interestingly, half of the participants insisted on the fact that, regardless of how good a project manager is, his or her impact is as good as nil in the absence of clear senior management support. This fact is not surprising according to one of the interviewees, because it is a consequence of the governmental culture and hierarchical structure.

Resistance to Change

The first two questions regarding resistance to change were about the interviewees’ perceptions of available resources and their expectations about support from the organization to face these changes. A majority of interviewees did not believe they had the required resources to face the changes.

Level of acceptance

A participant on the director level summarized the answers: “Resistance to change is all about how you communicate, who you communicate to, how often, and what the message is.” For example, many interviewees thought that the change and implementation strategy used when PRINCE2® was introduced were either under-planned or not done properly. One of the often-mentioned flaws was the exclusion of the clients, mainly at lower management levels, in the implementation process. To somewhat mitigate that issue, project managers had to become salespeople, ambassadors, and/or educators to clients about the new project management approach. This was a challenge. Not only did available project managers in the Chief Information Officer branch not necessarily have the additional required project management or soft competencies to take on these tasks; in addition, clients usually did not care much about the methodology, but rather focused on results. Table 3 summarizes what participants considered was missing or would be a source of support from the organization:

Expected Resistance and Its Related Decreasing/Increasing Factors

The last two questions were on the kinds of resistance, if any, the participants were expecting from employees and what would potentially increase or decrease this resistance. All participants expected resistance whenever there is change. As one interviewee stated, “There is always resistance to change, because a change impacts the way a person views the world and the way this person interacts with the world.” The types of resistance the participants expected were essentially based on human resources issues: the employees’ personalities, their motivations, the nature of the businesses they work in, their hierarchical levels, and their age groups. These often lead to a reference to the “type of employee” when faced with change. Reference was made to Rogers's model (2003) (cited in Gilley et al., 2009), namely, those who embrace change (early adopters); those who eventually go for the change (middle adopters); those who are indifferent (lurkers); and, finally, those who will not embrace it (despisers of change).

One point raised by a majority of participants as one of the main sources of the possible resistance is the perception of an increased workload. For example, the volume of project management documentation to be filled “on top” of managing or directing a project is seen as an additional burden and creates resistance. This resistance will take on different forms, depending on the hierarchical level. Table 4 illustrates the several types of resistance.

Table 5 summarizes the factors decreasing resistance as seen by the participants.

Those participants who mentioned that some resistance would come from management or senior management expected a high level of resistance from that group. Participants who thought resistance would come from employees expected a medium to high level of resistance. Participants who mentioned that resistance would come from the clients expected a low to medium level of resistance.

The Role of the Project Manager and Its Competencies Related to Change

The first, third, and fourth questions on this concept explored the participants’ perceptions of the role of the project manager and of his or her competencies. There was a consensus on what is required from the project manager to facilitate change, presented in Table 6:

  • Leadership competencies, including several people management related soft skills;
  • Communication skills; and
  • Positive involvement and commitment.

Analysis and Discussion

Empirical data support the theoretical framework facilitating change described earlier (i.e., the nature of the change, the adoption of a stepped approach, and the identification of specific critical objectives). Jacob et al.’s (2008) model on the concepts of change and resistance to change has also been validated by the participants’ answers to the questions.

As previously mentioned, all interviewees expected resistance whenever there is change. The kinds of resistance they depicted based on types of personalities are directly in line with those of Gilley (Gilley et al., 2009). The only significant difference in the case of the empirical data was the absence of the innovators category described in the model. In a federal department, because of its intricate and rigid bureaucracy, the opportunities to initiate a change before any prior indication or plan are indeed quite rare.

Change management: Implementation strategy to provide consistency and governance

Visible commitment to provide adequate resources

Project delivery and/or management office (PDO/PMO)

Proper training

Inclusion and collaboration with client

Project management expertise for guidance and mentorship purposes

Open communication: Communication strategy and plan

Clear roles and responsibilities for the change enablers

Table 3: Source of organization support to face the changes.

Hierarchical Level

Types of Resistance

Middle Management and Top Management

Reduced participation/change seen as a threat because of inherent increase in the required responsibilities and/or workload

Unwillingness to provide human resources for projects/reduction of active involvement and accountability

Inappropriate selection of human resources to address the change

Unwillingness to provide time for employees’ learning curves


Active opposition/stubbornness/lengthy discussions/visible frustration

Increased delays/focus on other tasks

Reduced participation/change seen as a threat because of inherent increase in the required responsibilities and/or workload

Passive aggressiveness (e.g., do not volunteer as project managers; continue usual daily work)

Sabotage/make themselves unavailable, negative advice to high management or being a problem to a project


Complaints to demonstrate the resistance

Say one thing, do another


Objection to new or external procedures

Undue delays; do not understand the usefulness of project management policy

Table 4: Types of resistance.

Clear communication/communication strategy, including presenting clear intentions/vision and set desired outcomes

Supply of adequate resources, including appropriate human resources, time allocation, proper funding, and tools

People seeing themselves as part of the solution, being clear about “what's in it for them,” building a sense of ownership

A change implementation strategy and good planning including change management techniques

A clear commitment from high management and clear leadership from proper people and leadership by example

Organized training, adapted to audience

A clear demonstration of the value of the change in terms of increased efficiency, effectiveness

A people management approach including psychological techniques and being empathetic to employees’ context and reality

Table 5: Factors decreasing resistance to change.

The interviewees highlighted five main dimensions of project manager's competencies within Dulewicz and Higgs’ (2005) leadership model (Table 7). To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers looked into each of the 15 leadership dimensions and graded their level of importance, based on the content of the interviews. Every time a particular dimension was mentioned by a significant number of participants, this dimension was highlighted in bold characters in the Dulewicz and Higgs tool.

The results of the interviews indicated that participants considered four leadership dimensions under the goal-oriented leadership style to be important. Ten leadership dimensions fell under the involving leadership style, and 13 dimensions were under the engaging leadership style. Therefore, the conclusion can be drawn that the engaging leadership style is perceived to be the most effective for reducing the resistance to change.

To determine the corresponding factors that would reduce the resistance to change, the same exercise was performed on the 13 highlighted leadership dimensions under the engaging leadership style, considering their level of importance:

  • Mandatory Factors (9): Engaging communication, empowering, self-awareness, emotional resilience, motivation, interpersonal sensitivity, influencing, intuitiveness, conscientiousness

Leadership competencies including an important number of human, people, and social management–related soft skills; skills required to create cohesion and trust with team members and stakeholders while making decisions on time to align with project end goal; inspire by example

Good and clear communication

Positive commitment in leading the change

Structured yet flexible attitude in applying phased approach to introduce the change; clear definitions of roles and responsibilities

Knowledge and expertise related to project management process and strategy, contextualization of the change

Transparent strategy within departments to implement the project management methodology change

Project leadership competencies related to analysis and judgment considered only “nice to have” in helping a project manager to reduce resistance to change

Critical analysis and judgment a less significant competence

Table 6: Project manager competencies facilitating change.

Project leadership competencies mapped into the Dulewicz and Higgs leadership model
  • Significant Factors (3): Vision and imagination, strategic perspective, achieving
  • Less Significant Factor (1): Critical analysis and judgment

With these results, the interviewees were stressing the importance of the project leadership competencies related to emotions, as found under Dulewicz and Higgs's emotional competencies grouping. The project leadership competencies related to management skills, as found under Dulewicz and Higgs's managerial competencies grouping, are clearly valuable, whereas the project leadership competencies related to analysis and judgment, as found under Dulewicz and Higgs's intellectual competencies grouping, seem to be more “nice to have.”

Summary of the case study research key findings

As confirmed by the participants, the quality of communication is highly important when dealing with resistance to change. Without good communication, there can be no exchange of information on objectives, goals, implementation strategy, and status updates to and from the various stakeholders. These stakeholders include the directly affected people, such as the employees and the project team, and the indirectly affected people, such as the clients and administrative resources.

Table 8 summarizes the main findings of this research; they are listed in order of their importance according to the participants’ answers.

A conceptual model based on the top eight findings is proposed in Figure 3 as a tool for implementing change while reducing resistance. The model starts at the center, representing the change itself. From the center, the stepped approach of the implementation is developed, including: the strategic considerations, the planning of the change, the management, the direction, and the implementation. Each concentric circle represents an implementation phase. The four arrows stemming out from the center represent the four main continuous activities that should be part of the overall change implementation process. These activities are the concentric quadrants of the model. Each arrow has opposite ends to reflect the iterative nature of the change process in a continuous improvement perspective. This retroactive approach allows stakeholders impacted by the change to share observations and questions. The change is fully implemented when no further concentric implementation phases are necessary.


Answering Research Questions

The participants unanimously perceived that the project manager has a direct impact on change and resistance to change. They also thought that a combination of skills, attitudes, and behaviors on the leader's part would effectively reduce resistance to change. Not only do communication and social skills play important roles, they believed, but specific actions are also instrumental in facilitating change. They also stated that all projects do have at least one team member who can be identified as the project leader. Consequently, there always is an individual who can act as a change facilitator (Stummer & Zuchi, 2010). With this conclusion in mind, other factors affecting change should also be considered.

Incremental project management methodology change implementation model
Other Research Findings

The preceding results were not unexpected; in fact, they empirically confirm literature findings, this time in the specific context of a project management methodology and in a public service environment. They add the dimension of a preferred management style, namely, the engaging style. Through data compilation and analysis of the findings, this research identified additional conclusions worth emphasizing:

  1. The project manager will maximize his or her positive impact on the resistance level to change only if he or she has useful and engaging social behaviors. According to the participants, this ability to relate to fellow workers is not based on the leader's personality per se; it has been described as a set of behaviors that can be acquired through proper training (Arnaboldi et al., 2002).
  2. According to the participants, no matter what the project manager's qualities and positive attitude are, his or her success in reducing the resistance to change will be conditional to upper management support provided early in the project, at the conception phase, and is perceived as being a prerequisite to his or her success. This is a distinct and interesting perspective; a complement to Pinto et al.’s (1998) well-known findings on project success (Kenny, 2003; Partington, 1996).
  3. There are differences between the public and private sectors influencing the resistance to change. In government, the credibility of the project manager and his or her ability to influence resistance to change is closely linked to a combination of the dollar value of his or her portfolio and the visible support from top management. (Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2011; Samina, Jawwad, & Khuram, 2011). This would be different from the private sector, in which project profitability is typically central (Joseph, 2001; Kragh & Andersen, 2009; Procca, 2008).

The preceding statements are thought to be distinct from previous project management studies because this research was performed in the context of the Canadian government. In view of the current government of Canada reality, many departments will undergo a series of change projects in order to implement the new procedures. It is hoped that findings from this research and proposed conceptual model will prove to be usable, practical tools in addressing some of the challenges government of Canada employees will be facing (Public Service Alliance of Canada, 2011).

By implementing change through change projects, using the model and conclusions of this research, the creation of a “comprehensive project management implementation management process” is now possible (Legris & Collerette, 2006).

Contribution to Project Management Knowledge and Implications for Future Research

The originality and relevance of this research lie in its context, namely a project management methodology within the public sector, more specifically the Canadian federal government. The key findings, including references to Dulewicz and Higgs’ (2004, 2005) competence framework and to Pinto et al.’s (1998) project success findings, are perceived to be useful and should be taken into consideration when addressing change and resistance to change in a governmental environment.

Future studies in the public service in Canada or abroad could compare the results from this study with other mainstream leadership models. Also, the hierarchical and functional roles of the project leader could be further investigated, because the current research revealed that the project leader may not necessarily be the project manager (Edmonds, 2011).

Project management is increasingly being recognized for its usefulness and value in the public sector. In this research we have seen that a bureaucratic system, where measurable performance and credible reporting are essential practices, has its own set of rules when confronted with resistance to change. Leadership competencies were found to be important in managing those resistances, but, in order to increase the likelihood of success in governmental projects, there is also a need to identify an organizational structure capable of providing comprehensive planning and management tools right from the start of the project. A holistic perspective, inclusive of all affected stakeholders, also has a major influence. Finally, the use of an existing change model, such as that of Lewin, Ulrich, or Kotter (Gilley et al., 2009), is perceived to be a potentially profitable proposition.

We think that further research on the applicability of the article's conclusions and model to the broader field of complex projects in contexts other than public organizations would be interesting. Further links between project management and existing knowledge in other disciplines should also be investigated. img


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Valerie Lundy manages major projects in the Canadian federal government. She has been employed in the high technology field since 2006 and is responsible for program management and special change assignments. Working in the federal government structure since 2001, her research activities have practical objectives and lead to sustained innovations. She holds an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from the École Polytechnique de Montréal and a master's degree in project management from the University du Québec en Outaouais.

Pierre-Paul Morin holds a doctoral degree in industrial project management. Since 1974, he has been president and manager of several high-tech firms and has managed his own consulting firm, specializing in business performance and project management. He has been a full-time teacher at the master and doctoral levels at the Université du Québec en Outaouais for 12 years, where he directs the Master in Project Management program. His research focuses on the management of high uncertainty projects and change.

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.

Project Management Journal, Vol. 44, No. 4, 45–64
© 2013 by the Project Management Institute
Published online in Wiley Online Library
( DOI: 10.1002/pmj.21355



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