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Change can stir up a lot of emotion in people. It can be exciting, like buying a new home or car or getting a big promotion and a hefty raise. It can be devastating, like losing a pet or family member or having your job impacted by a round of layoffs. 

Whether it's a good or a negative change, it can be overwhelming, and that’s why change needs to be managed effectively.

As a project manager, you've likely had to manage a lot of change at work. These change efforts may have included:

  • Implementing new technologies, methodologies, or processes
  • Onboarding or offboarding a team member
  • Writing a change order for a project

Managing change well is one thing that can separate an adequate project manager from an exceptional project manager. But if you're new to project management, that's okay; I’ll explain why change management is so important and give you some ideas for creating a structured approach to change while leading your team through it! 

What Is Change Management?

I won’t spend too much time on the definition of change management in this article since we'll be focusing on why it's essential, but first, let's make sure we're all on the same page about what it is. 

Change management is a collective term for all approaches to prepare, support, and help individuals, teams, and organizations make organizational change. 

A change management strategy could be the steps you take when you think (or know) a change is coming in your project or organization. For example, as a project manager, your client may ask you to change your design or some functionality of the website or app your team is creating for them. 

The first thing you do is look at their contract to see what it says about changes—are specific changes or revisions included, and do others require additional time and funds? 

Let's say you and your team determine that the changes requested by your client will take an additional two weeks and 25 hours for a designer, and 30 hours for a developer to complete. You also add 12 hours of project management time to your estimate

You work with your management team to create an addendum to your client's statement of work (SOW) and walk them through the changes. This conversation also allows you, your client, and your team to ensure everyone is on the same page about the new scope and timeline. 

Then the client signs the addendum, and the team keeps working on the site or app with the changes integrated into the project plan and timeline. Congratulations! You've just demonstrated a successful change management process. 

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Why Is Change Management Important?

While the example of a change management process above is a good example, it's not the only time you'll manage change in a project. 

You might also need a new process if there is a change to the project team (on your team's side or the client's) or if something in the project isn't going to plan. Change management can be used to support short-term changes like someone heading out on parental or medical leave or longer-term efforts.

In most of this article, it may seem that we’re discussing change management through the lens of waterfall project management but that isn’t true. If you run an agile team, you may argue that change management is a natural part of the agile process. Agile teams generally set the "scope" for each sprint just before kicking off the sprint. 

But if you're an agile project manager or scrum master, being good at change management is an essential competency for you too! Why? Let's look at some of the reasons why change management is so crucial to project success.

1. Lower stress 

Ambiguity in project responsibilities, schedules, scope, and budget can be very stressful for project managers and their teams. Good project management processes, including change management, can lower the stress of delivering quality projects.

Everyone should be clear on the schedule, scope, and budget and what to do if something doesn't go to plan or needs to change. This is both for the internal project team and your client or any other stakeholders who are interested in the outcome of your project. 

Having clear roles and responsibilities within your business process can also reduce ambiguity and stress. If everyone thinks someone else is responsible for something, it might not get done or might cause project delays (which can be stressful!). 

2. Better business outcomes

Research from PROSCI, a leading change management training and certification organization, shows that managing change well leads to better business outcomes.

Prosci's Best Practices in Change Management research consistently shows that “initiatives with excellent change management are six times more likely to meet objectives than those with poor change management.”

Even fair change management increases the likelihood of meeting business objectives threefold over those with poor change management. The metrics that determine what constitutes excellent change management can vary from organization to organization, the importance of focusing on being good at change does not.

So while many variables can impact project success, including having the right team, an attainable timeline, a healthy budget, and effective communication, having a good change management process has a direct correlation to supporting the successful completion of a project. 

3. Employee retention

Lower stress and greater project success can lead to more actively engaged employees. This can lead to less turnover and more employee retention.

According to Gallup, an industry leader in employee engagement and the associated research, only 15% of workers worldwide fall in the engaged category. This number is higher in the US at 35% but is far from where it should (and could) be. 

The mindset that creating a team that is focused on the importance of change management is critical for leaders in your organization. It should be a part of creating a company culture that team members want to participate in and bring their best to work every day.

As a project manager, you know that there are many things that can change in an organization, and change management is not a one-time event. That’s why it’s important to provide resources like roadmaps, tools, templates, and training to help enable the people on the team to embrace and support the organization.  

If you’re a PMP, you also probably dipped your toes into the human resources side of project management while preparing for your exam, and this is a prime example of where you as a project manager should be collaborating with the HR leaders in your company when it comes to change.

If not, this is another area of project management you might want to learn more about as part of your development plan.

Why Should Project Managers Care About Change Management?

While a lot of this article has focused on the project, organization, and business outcomes, change management is about people at its core. There is a very human element of running change initiatives and supporting project teams and clients through change. 

As a project manager, it's your job to ensure that your project is running smoothly, but a big part of that is creating an environment of adaptability where your team can do their best work.

A good project leader always ensures that the project team and clients buy into a change management plan to ensure the most effective outcome.

4 Benefits Of Change Management For PMs

The bottom line is that the benefits of change management for PMs are more successful projects and happier, better-performing teams. But, know that when you master organizational change management, you will see:

  • Less scope creep: You should begin to see less scope creep in your projects. This is because the scope is clear and the change management process is well documented. Any deviation from the initial scope must be defined and documented.
  • Happier project teams: The scope of work is clear and the team is well supported through any change. The change management models are aligned well with the changes being made in the project or processes.
  • More profitable projects: Projects that are monitored and controlled well, with efficient change management processes are more profitable. This is generally only true when the budget and timeline were accurately and conservatively estimated at kickoff, but in general good change management leads to more profitable projects.  
  • Better ability to adapt to change: Having a culture that celebrates and supports change makes your project teams better able to adapt to change when needed. Whether these changes are proactive or reactive to things like changes in the economy or the competitive landscape, being able to adapt to new ways of working makes higher-performing teams.

Find examples of change management in action here.

Putting Change Management Into Practice In Your Organization

If you’re looking to upskill around change management this year, there are plenty of opportunities to deepen your knowledge and practice!

Check out this article outlining a three-step change management process, or learn about change management software you can use to create and maintain the workflows that will help you manage change.

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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.