Projects create change for the people in the organization where we are working. And the success of your projects will often depend on how well you manage that change process.
But dealing with emotions, arguments, and resistance is uncomfortable. So, too many project managers shy away from it. They either leave it to a ‘change manager’, or worse: they ignore it.
That is a big mistake. So, in this feature article, we’re offering a primer in Change Management. We’ll tell you what it is, how people respond to change, and the main pointers you’ll need to manage change effectively.
We will start by defining our terms and then look at how people respond to change.
The next section will show you the essential of what you need to do and we’ll conclude with a few important tips.
First, we need to clear up a mess. Because there are two different types of change you’ll need to manage, as a project manager.
And this leads to a common confusion between ‘Change Management’ and ‘Change Control’. I shan’t pretend the distinction I will give you below is universal. But it is consistent.
In the real world, if you are not sure, from the context, which one someone is referring to… it’s best to ask. But here is my distinction:
These are changes to the specification, functionality, or requirements of your project. I prefer to refer to this discipline as ‘Change Control’. Because, un-regulated, the pressures for scope creep within your product set will rapidly get out of hand, and you’ll have no control over your timelines or budget.
These are all the changes that flow from the implementation of your project. The danger of calling it organizational change is that we can easily lose sight of a simple fact. This is fundamentally the outcome of each individual within your organization going through the changes in their own way. It’s the cumulative effect of all the people, who create the culture of an organization. I refer to this discipline as ‘Change Management’.
This article is about the second of these: Organizational Change. We’ll look at how people respond to change, and what you need to do to manage your project, to make it as easy and effective as you can.
If you want to learn about the first of these, Change Control, we have you covered here, too. Check out our comprehensive guide:
We know that change can create resistance And nobody enjoys dealing with that!
So, you need a tool to help you both understand and predict the reactions of people to the changes you create.
Many people have developed different approaches to explaining the sequence of states we go through. Most of them use the metaphor of a curve: we follow a path that goes up and down.
A good model will explain what you observe and will predict what will happen. An excellent model will do this accurately – but in a very simple way. Each different change curve model aims at a different point of balance between complexity and detail on the one hand, and simplicity and ease of understanding on the other.
We humans are complicated beasts. And change is a testing time for us. So, that’s why a good change curve model is so important.
In fact, we published a short video ‘What is the Change Curve?’ in our ‘Project Management – What is…’ video series. So, let’s take a look at that, to get is started…
As we saw in the video, there are a fair few models we can use. Here is a montage of the images. You can click on each one, to see a larger version.
In addition, the internet is full of alternative versions. I like to clip the best into one of my Pinterest boards. If you’re a Pinterest user (or want to take a casual look), I have what I believe to be the best set of themed Project Management Boards on Pinterest. But for Change curves, take a look at my Change Management for PMs board. There, you’ll find lots of variants.
For an interesting assessment of the Kübler-Ross model, and it’s relevance to business, do take a look at an excellent article on the Cleverism site.
I recommend you take the time to understand a variety of different models. One of them will make the most sense to you. It will chime with your way of thinking and accord with your experiences. Take this as your base model, and then work on it, to develop it into a tool that helps you to understand change, and plan your part in managing it.
Obviously, I prefer the model I developed. I created it out of my own experiences as a working Project Manager. And I have road-tested it in seminars, coaching sessions, and training with many hundreds of project managers, business professionals, and front-line managers and business leaders. It works.
For this reason (and no other), that’s the model I’ll use for the rest of this article.
As a project manager, you will encounter people going through changes all the time: from tiny, to small, to big, to wholly transformational. People won’t always need your help, and you won’t always need to do anything. But when your intervention is valuable, then adopt a light touch.
If, however, you are leading an organizational change, I recommend you make a ‘Progression Plan’. This is a plan that will move people from one state to the next. From:
Change hasn’t started for people who are still in denial. You’ll hear them say things like:
To start people on the journey, you need to overcome this kind of denial. Present them with facts, let them talk to people, show them graphs, give them experiences that demonstrate change will happen.
You need to make the change appear:
When you get them into the reaction stage, you’ll have to face a series of emotions. You won’t be able to predict what they will be, but you can certainly expect one thing… It won’t be comfortable.
The best way to move people on is to give them time to process their emotions. You need to be respectful and honor the reality of what they are feeling.
One way to respect people’s emotional responses, and still accelerate them through the process, is to ask them to share what they are feeling. And then get them to analyze their emotions and what it is that is triggering them. This moves them from emotion to reason with minimal friction.
Once people start to move on from the reaction stage, it gets even tougher.
When people get into the Resistance stage, it feels like you have moved out of the frying pan and into the fire. Before: they may have been angry, but they were probably a little incoherent. Now, they are in a rational state. So they can marshal a logical argument. And they will. You’ll get a dozen good reasons why the change is wrong.
And probably they will doubt your competence as a result. Oops.
But, at least their logical minds are engaged, and that’s a good thing. So, now they can process a structured argument. If your case is strong, and you put it effectively, you’ll start to persuade them about the benefits of the change.
This is the stage where people explore the benefits, to them, of the change. If there is a net benefit, then they will be prepared to change.
But, being prepared to change is not the same as making the change. We only do that when the case rings true emotionally. And that can take time.
There’s often little you can do to accelerate this. But, the one thing that may work is if you can find a link between the changes that will happen and something the individual wants, at an emotional level. If they can see that link, then the switch from rational to emotional engagement can be almost instant.
Note, by the way, that there won’t always be a case for change for every individual – no matter how strong the case is organization-wide. Your integrity means you must not lie to people in that situation. You must accept that the change may disadvantage them and work with them to help them make the choices they need to make.
Acceptance is the final place for many people. They accept the change and start to get on with their working life under the new conditions. They figure out how to survive, and even thrive.
However, for some, the change has such profound meaning that they will do more than just accept it. They will see it as an opportunity to truly thrive and will become an advocate for the changes.
That level of commitment, where people actively support and advocate the change is what you really want… at least from a few people. Cherry-pick the big winners under the changes and engage with them actively. Give them a role and some influence. Consult and listen to them. Use them to Woo and Win other stakeholders.
All of these principles work very well. But I’d also like to share a few of my practical top tips, speaking as a practitioner who has done this stuff a number of times.
First and foremost, this is just a model. It is a very good one, but it’s just a model nonetheless. And all the subtlety and complexity of real people in the real world won’t always match the model.
Let’s start by looking at some of the ways you’ll need to be flexible in your understanding of the change curve.
Here are four practical tips for when you want people to progress along the curve.
Have you experienced organizational change, as a leader or recipient? Do tell us about your experiences and reflections.
Or are you expecting to lead change in the future? What are your worries and what questions do you have?
I love getting comments below and respond to them all.
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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