This post was originally published on September 4, 2019, and updated most recently on April 17, 2021.
As humans, we naturally resist change. You’ve probably experienced this reluctance yourself. It can be hard to adjust, whether it’s to something minor like when a social media site suddenly changes its layout, or something major like learning a complex new process or system at work.
Some respond with immediate enthusiasm, ready to learn and master everything there is know as fast as possible. Others put off dealing with changes for as long as possible, sometimes refusing to ever abide by them.
If you’re a project manager, you’ll have to deal with a variety of reactions to change. Which means you’ll need to be flexible and patient. Implementing an effective change management process can help. There are lots of frameworks available to help you navigate these choppy waters. But whichever you choose, there are a few important things to bear in mind.
What is change management?
Change management is an overarching term that refers to any procedure implemented to support organizational change. In the context of project management, it refers to a control process that involves defined steps and formal approvals. It’s usually built around four main stages:
- Deciding there is a need for change
- Preparing and planning for change
- Implementing change
- Sustaining change
Change can take many shapes and forms, as can people’s reactions to it. But having a clearly defined change management process in place will help provide focus and stability.
Different types of change management
Change management is a broad topic, but it generally comes down to three strategies.
1. Individual change management
This route focuses on placing people at the heart of the strategy. This includes communicating changes effectively and providing lots of support throughout the transition. This approach is psychological: People deal with change in different ways, so if you find out the most effective way to steer people, your transition will be smoother and more productive.
2. Organizational change management
For this approach, leaders focus on changing company culture, looking beyond individual teams to the wider organization. You first identify which groups will be affected by the change, then lead the transition through training and coaching while driving the project.
3. Enterprise change management
This is one level above organizational change management. It encompasses all areas of an organization and involves all roles, projects, processes, and structures.
Change management terminology
The concept of change management dates back to the early to mid-1900s, but it wasn’t until the ‘90s that it gained widespread traction in the business world. It’s evolved over the years, and now the multitude of approaches generally fall into three distinct categories: change management models, processes, and plans.
- Change management models focus on managing change within an organization. Most change management models come with a supporting process that can help you implement the model.
- Change management processes detail a sequence of steps that move a change from its inception to delivery.
- Change management plans are usually created before the change management process and outline how the shift will take place.
How to implement change in 8 steps
Change management processes have evolved over the years, but Dr. John P. Kotter, a professor of leadership and the Harvard Business School, has defined eight general steps for leading change that have become something of the gold standard.
1. Create a sense of urgency: People are naturally averse to change, so help them see the need through a clear, compelling case. It should inspire people to want the change, rather than just feel as though they’re enduring it.
2. Build a coalition: It’s easier to implement change when you have people fighting your corner. Gather a close team of effective communicators to help you.
3. Form a vision: Think of this as your elevator pitch. Find a succinct way to explain why the future will and should be different and how you can make it happen. This needs to be easy for everyone involved to understand.
4. Enlist volunteers: Large-scale change can only happen when lots of people are working toward a common goal. It might help to think of it as a cultural movement rather than a simple project.
5. Remove barriers: Removing inefficient processes gives people the necessary freedom to move forward and have an impact.
6. Generate short-term wins: Record your small successes and use these to gain buy-in. It’s easier to convince people when you have concrete results to show them — no matter how small.
7. Maintain momentum: Don’t rest on your laurels after the first success. Keep building on what you’ve achieved and use your improved credibility to improve systems and structures until you reach your goal.
8. Secure the change: Make sure the change sticks by embedding it in the company culture and operating processes. Continue to demonstrate the connection between these changes and organizational success until they replace the old way of doing things.
Common challenges when implementing change
Change management is an ever-evolving science. Economies rise and fall, and customer expectations change, as do company cultures. Implementing a new way of doing things is difficult, but having an awareness of the main pitfalls can help you prepare.
As we mentioned before, people don’t like change. It’s not so tricky to manage on an individual level, but when you have a whole team of people digging their heels in and complaining, that’s when things get difficult. Assertive communication skills are a must if you’re to get buy-in and convince people this change isn’t just necessary – it’s something they personally will benefit from.
Processes can be cumbersome to adjust, and initially, the transition will almost certainly be a drain on time and resources. How you justify that investment and manage project dependencies is key here.
Change is an ongoing thing, so ongoing evaluation is a must. It’s important to treat change management like any other kind of project and regularly check-in to ensure everything (and everyone) is on track.
How to choose the right tools for the job
Some teams use spreadsheets to track and manage processes, and that’s fine. But when the change is significant or it will affect a large portion of the organization, then it becomes a project in its own right.
In this instance, project management software is a good option to help keep things moving forward. Dashboards and automatic tracking help you and the wider organization see progress and efficiency at-a-glance (something that’s especially important if you have to supply reports to stakeholders or upper management), while real-time notifications help you stream documentation and see requests, priorities, and notes as they happen.
Using project management software also helps your team members share their ideas and track their own progress via an accessible, collaborative platform — something that’s especially useful when trying to get everyone on board and working cohesively together toward a common goal.