28 March, 2024

Change Control 101 – Your Guide to Project Change Control

Change Control? You know your project is going well when a stakeholder comes up to you and says: 

‘We’re very pleased with how your project is going…’ 
‘The only thing is… we’ve changed our minds.’

This is a job for Project Change Control.

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Change Control

Shift Happens!

Things change. So, no matter how much you’d like to nail down your scope from day 1 and never review it… You can’t. Your project needs to respond to changes if you want it to stay relevant.

The problem with changes is that they can create project chaos. As one stakeholder after another requests this change, and then that one… It is hard to keep track. And the temptation will be to say either:

  • ‘Yes, no problem. We’ll sort it.’ or
  • ‘No. We can’t. The scope is fixed.’

…or maybe you just pretend not to hear!

The one thing you need, as a Project Manager, is control. So, we use a project change control process. This gives you the control you crave.

And when you have a contract, let’s not even think about the consequences of not having a solid change control process!

However, within a contract, what we will call a Change Request later in this video may also be known as a Variation Order, or VO (or Contract Variation Order – CVO).

What is Change Control?

Project change control is a process. It starts with requests for changes to the scope, functionality, or capabilities of your project’s products (or deliverables). The process will then:

  1. Capture the request formally
  2. Assess it rapidly
  3. Carry out a full evaluation
  4. Review the options and make a decision
  5. Implement the changes
  6. Track the project changes and learn from the process

In my free glossary, ‘Be on the Inside: Decode the Jargon of Project Management, I define change control as:

‘The process of managing requests for change to make sure decisions are made accountably. The requests are documented on a change request form, and all requests are logged and tracked on a change log. It ensures that where changes are authorized, appropriate additional resources are allocated.’

The Two Artifacts of Project Change Control

…are the Change Request Document and the Change Log.

I have templates for these in my Project Management Templates Kit

Change Request Document

The process starts when someone suggests or requests a change. This is known as a ‘change request’ or a ‘request for change (RfC)’

Either way, your response is simple. Thank them for their request and ask them to document it. You’ll need a simple Change Request document – either paper or online – like the one in our Project Management Templates Kit. It should have three parts:

  1. Proposal 
    – what, precisely, the requested change is, with a Reason for the request – either the benefits it will deliver or the compelling driver
  2. Review 
    – with the Implications of the request – your team will complete this, documenting implications for budget, schedule, risk, functionality, and impacts on any external operations or initiatives..
  3. Decision 
    – with space for the decision-maker to formally record their endorsement (signature usually) and reasons.

The Change Request Process

We have a detailed video on How to Manage the Change Control Process: How to Manage the Change Control Process | Video.

However, in summary, the steps are:

  1. A Request for Change
  2. Change Control Rapid Assessment
  3. Change Request Evaluation – by the project team
  4. Formal Review – by the decision maker/s
    The decision can be to accept the change, reject it, or defer a decision. In the latter case, the delay can be costly, so I would argue that the only reasonable justification would be if the decision-makers do not have sufficient information to make a robust decision. And that is likely to be down to you – the project manager.
  5. Change Implementation
  6. Track and Learn from Project Changes

Change Log

This whole process is recorded in a Change Log, which creates the audit trail that accounts for every decision to incur more cost, greater risk, or a delay. The ideal tool is either a spreadsheet or, if you are using a more sophisticated system for managing your project, some form of database tool.

Change Control in Big, Small, and Agile Projects

What if it’s just a Small Project?

Good judgment is a key part of project management. The bigger, more complex, more strategic, and riskier your project is… The more robust, rigorous, and detailed your change control process will need to be. 

So, if you are working on a small project, with low risk, then you should scale down the complexity and administrative burden of your change control process. Never let your urge to follow some standard process get in the way of doing what is sensible!

What if it’s a Big, Complex Project, with lots of Change?

On the other hand, I’ve managed a large project with a full-time team of change control staff. They fed a constant stream of detailed technical assessments of change requests to our decision-makers.

And the decision-making was carried out by a formal ‘Design Authority Group’ (DAG). This consisted of a small group of very senior executives. At the peak of the project, they met three times a week. They received briefing papers, and sometimes formal presentations by the change control team and by the senior users or technical managers responsible for the change requests. And the team had a full-time administrator to support the process.

What if You Are Using Agile Project Management?

In principle, Agile processes don’t have to deal with change requests, because scope is never locked down. Each iteration or sprint works on a new element of functionality, capability, or scope that it draws down from the Product backlog. So, the changes come as a part of the process, at the start of the iteration, when determining its priorities.

Iterations, or sprints, are short, so within them, there should be no change. However, Principle 2 of the 12 Agile Principles says:

‘The Agile Manifesto welcomes changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes should harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.’

Different Agile frameworks each have their own approach.

Carefully curated video recommendations for you:

What Kit does a Project Manager Need?

I asked Project Managers in a couple of forums what material things you need to have, to do your job as a Project Manager. They responded magnificently. I compiled their answers into a Kit list. I added my own. 

Check out the Kit a Project Manager needs

Note that the links are affiliated.

Learn Still More

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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