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It might be cliche, but it’s true, the only constant in life is change. Right? If you’re a digital project manager (or aspire to be one) you probably know all too well how important it is to have an effective change management process.  

As a contract project manager and project management consultant, I help teams and digital agencies put change management practices into place every day. I understand how important good organizational change management can be and how it can impact both team performance and company culture. 

That’s why I am excited to share some tips and show you ways you can be a change agent in your company or project team.

What Is Change Management?

Let’s start at the very beginning, and make sure we’re all on the same page about what change management even is. Within the worlds of project management and change management, there is more than one definition floating around—and there is a lot of good information we can draw from all of them to create effective change management. 

Project Management Institute says, “Change management is an organized, systematic application of the knowledge, tools, and resources of change that provides organizations with a key process to achieve their business strategy.” 

They further explain that change management is the systematic approach to dealing with change, both from the perspective of an organization and on the individual level. They go on to say that change management is a somewhat ambiguous term. 

It has at least three different aspects, including adapting to change, controlling change, and effecting change. It’s important to understand that a proactive approach to dealing with change is at the core of all three aspects. In the next few sections, we’ll look at ways to be proactive when it comes to change. 

Another definition we’ll look at is from PROSCI, they’re the organization responsible for certifying change management professionals. They define change management like this:  Change management is an enabling framework for managing the people side of change. 

You’ll notice that their emphasis is on the people side - which is an interesting contrast to PMI’s definition. PMI’s definition focuses more on the organization and the process.

While these are general definitions of change management, you’ll want to note that change management frameworks can be used for short-term, long-term, and even transformational change. You may need to add or streamline steps depending on the nature of the change and if it’s a major change or a minor change. 

What Is A Change Management Process?

Like the definition of change management, how organizations define their change management process can vary. For our purposes, a change management process is simply the framework for how an organization or a team manages change. The process and workflows may vary depending on the type of organizational change.

For example, the change initiative that a team of four people working on a website for a client might undertake to accommodate a client’s request to change one page of a website might be much less complex than say, a Fortune 500 company looking to change their entire CRM system and train all 1200 sales reps and leaders on the new technology.

Find out more about the importance of change management here.

Why Do Project Managers Need A Change Management Process?

As with most things we do as project managers, having a documented process is important. But, having a change management process as a project manager may be critical to a complex project’s success. 

According to PROSCI, having a process means:

  • Employees are 6 times more likely to meet project objectives
  • Five times more likely to stay on schedule 
  • Two times more likely to stay on budget

Because the schedule, scope, and budget are three of the most important things a good project manager focuses on when running a project or initiative, these data points should help you understand why it’s so important we buy-in to having a formal process.

Another important reason why project managers need to have a change management process is team morale. 

Think about it—when working on a long and complex project with a lot of change, you can get whiplash (metaphorically speaking) if the change isn’t implemented and then managed in a methodical way. 

Sometimes you need to slow down a little and really process the change to keep the project moving efficiently and avoid burning hours or overwhelming your team. 

As the project manager, it's your responsibility to lead the team through change. This means building a change management strategy that consists of three parts.

  1. Explaining the change
  2. Facilitating the development of a change management plan
  3. Answering questions, and providing feedback

Having a consistent framework to do this will help you to be more successful.  You can even find (or create) your own template for this process to make it more repeatable. And, as you get more comfortable, you may even want to automate it.

In a long project, there can easily be changes to the scope, budget, timeline, and even the project team. The great resignation of 2021 really drove home the last point for a lot of project managers. 

In my own work, I saw this when a project I was brought in to manage started with a core team of four people. Since the timeline shifted, two of the original team members were staffed to other projects and one left the company for another opportunity. 

This led to delays in the project kick-off as I needed to onboard new team members and help set expectations around roles and responsibilities.

As we got the project underway, two more project team members were transitioned off the project. This led to more delays as I needed to organize work, get new team members on board, and manage client expectations.

As you can imagine this added hours and complexity to the project. Having a process for communicating change internally and externally and managing all of the onboarding and offboarding was a huge help in keeping everyone informed and keeping the project on track. 

While there was no way to completely avoid adjusting the timeline, this project continued to move as smoothly as it could. 

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Example Of A Change Management Process

There are several methodologies that you can use when creating a change management plan. For the purpose of this post, we’ll look at PROSCI’s. They use two models to create a change management process that enables successful change management in an organization or project team. The first is the Prosci Change Triangle (PCT) and the second is the ADKAR model

Prosci Change Triangle (PCT) has three cornerstone roles that make up the change management team. They are leadership/sponsorship, project management, and change management. The center of the triangle is the common definition of success. This model tells us that we need the three roles to support the change and a common definition of how we’re defining a successful change. 

triangle with leadership/sponsorship, project management, and change management at each corner and success in the middle
The Prosci Change Triangle (PCT).

ADKAR is an acronym for:

  • A: awareness of the need for change 
  • D: desire to participate in and support the change
  • K: knowledge of how to make the change needed 
  • A: ability to implement the desired skills and behaviors
  • R: reinforcement to sustain the change once it’s been made 
ADKAR model of change from PROSCI
The ADKAR model for change management.

Whether you use these PROSCI frameworks to build a change management model or use your own, it’s important to integrate this work into your business processes. The type of change and metrics for success should be considered when creating your framework and preparing to implement it.

3-Step Change Management Process

While the frameworks tell us who and what we’ll need to implement change, the process will tell us how. These three steps will have you well on your way to implementing a successful change in your organization. 

1. Define and prepare for your change 

During this phase, you’re going to want to define success. 

  • What does your project look like if the change has been successfully implemented?
  • Which KPIs will you use to tell you that you’ve been successful? 
  • How far is your ideal state from the current state? 

You’ll also need to define the impact of your change. 

  • Who or what will be impacted and how? 
  • Could there be any unintended consequences of making this change? 
  • How might you mitigate this? 
  • Are there any roadblocks you or your team will need to overcome? 

And finally, you’ll want to define your approach to change. How will you make the change and who needs to be involved? Like managing your project timeline, you may also wish to create a change timeline with some milestones defined.

During this phase, you will need to ensure you have buy-in from all of your stakeholders. While most of this article focuses on agencies, if you work in-house, this will be your project team as well as any sponsors or other leaders who have an interest in the success of your project.

2. Implement and manage change

Once you’ve defined your change and made a plan, it’s go time! During this phase, you’ll implement the plan. Monitor your progress so that as questions or issues arise, you can solve them before they become too large or impediments to successful change. 

Think of yourself as a coach here, you have a playbook (your plans) but you want to adapt as the game goes on. Remember, it's important not to celebrate your win too soon! You might need to plan some new “plays” as the situation evolves.  

Remember those KPIs (key performance indicators) you set back in step 1? Tracking your progress against them in this phase is really important. It will give you the data you need to know how your change implementation is progressing.

3. Maintain your change (adoption)

Once the change has successfully been implemented, you’ll want to make sure it sticks.  Remember that it takes a while to build a routine. So, expect old ways and habits to occasionally creep in and have a process to gently point them out and redirect team members back to the new way of doing things. 

It can also be really helpful to recognize those who are really committed to embracing the change you’ve made. Whether that’s informally in a standup or team meeting or formally with an award, bonus, or even a promotion, rewarding team members for embracing change is a good way to help make changes stick. 

If it takes time for a change to take hold, have some patience. Remember to celebrate your successes along the way. That can help the team continue to build on the progress they’ve already made. 

Two Examples of Change Processes in Action 

As a project manager, knowing how, and when to apply the change process is part of the role. Here, we’ll look at two examples of project managers using change processes (or needing better change processes as the case may be) in real life. Find more change management examples here.

Example 1

Josephine, a digital project manager at a web agency had a challenge. Her wonderful client had gone out on maternity leave, and when she came back, communication was looking a little different. 

Deadlines were being missed and feedback was not as comprehensive or actionable as it was prior to her client’s leave. And while she could have berated the client and held a meeting to discuss how challenging it was to work with her, she did the opposite. 

She asked her client to explain the challenge with review cycles and feedback from her perspective. The client shared that it was challenging to meet deadlines and provide comprehensive feedback while caring for a newborn. This provided Josephine with great context and the root cause of the issue her client was having when trying to provide feedback on designs. 

So, Josephine and her team decided to be the ones to make a change. They came up with a new system to streamline the process and make things easier for everyone. Instead of having a big meeting for design reviews and asking the client and her team to provide comments back in Figma (as is a typical agency process), the team tried something different. 

They sent a video walk-through of the design review that the client could review at a convenient time. She could pause and repeat sections of the review as needed (no need for notes or remembering the logic behind a design choice) and she could provide feedback as a voice note for the team. This is a fantastic example of managing change and supporting a valued member of the project team! 

Example 2

About a year ago, I was hired to project manage a website launch for an agency. When I was meeting with the resource manager for the agency, the need was described as managing the project team as they got a mostly complete project over the finish line.

But, that’s not what happened. In a shuffle of personnel changes, it turns out the client had never signed off on the designs. So, development couldn’t continue as scheduled. There was a significant change to the schedule and scope of the project I now needed to manage.

The design team took a few iterations and the copy and wireframes needed to be adjusted. And, to make matters worse the design elements were slated to be used in a refresh of the client’s eComm store. 

So the timeline that was supposed to be about 12-14 weeks ballooned to about 7 months to complete all of the work. Why did this happen? Because a good change management process wasn’t implemented. The additional designs were not really considered a change since the original account managers did not have formal approval. 

What lessons did my client learn from this challenge? 

  1. Make sure to get sign-off from the client in writing 
  2. Consider limiting the design and feedback rounds in the Statement of Work (SOW)
  3. Create a formal process for executing change orders that clearly details the increased cost for an increased level of effort

While all of these lessons are important, let’s focus on the third lesson. Having a formal process to initiate a change would have allowed the team to bill our client for the additional work needed to get the designs to their liking and the adjustment to the copy and wireframes.

Software To Help PMs Manage Change

Just like you use software to manage your projects, you may also want to adopt software for change management purposes. There are many change management tools available depending on your needs and organizational structure. 

If you’re looking for something collaborative, Wrike is a good option (it's also good for project management and maybe a tool you already know). For adopting new software, you might try Whatfix. If you’re managing change for both internal employees and external customers, consider WalkMe. 

Become a Change Management Expert 

If you find the human side of change fascinating, you may want to dive deeper. Consider reading one of John Kotter’s books, like Leading Change, participating in a live or on-demand webinar, or getting certified as a change practitioner through Kotter Training or PROSCI

If you hold a project management certification like the PMP, these activities (including reading this blog post) can count for your continuing education hours. 

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Marissa Taffer
By Marissa Taffer

Marissa Taffer, PMP, A-CSM is the founder and president of M. Taffer Consulting. In her consulting practice, she helps organizations with project management processes and tools. She also serves as a fractional project manager supporting digital agencies, marketing departments, and other consultancies.