Change Leadership for Project Management

by David Roitman, Ph.D., Senior Consultant


A decade ago, the label “change management” became popular as a way to describe how to deal with the problems that were sinking large projects such as Enterprise Resource Planning. The label change management – and the consulting industry that grew up around it – appealed to the need many felt to be in control and to make the future more predictable.

Numerous experiences with change efforts of all kinds have led us to the conclusion that change management is a bit of a misnomer. Projects can certainly be managed, but change needs to be led. Systematic plans, schedules, and deliverables are reasonable expectations for any project. Yet genuine change – the kind that produces major improvement to business results – requires flexibility and openness that goes beyond project plans and deliverables.

A second conclusion is that change leadership is not a mysterious art form given only to a few. We believe that there will always be risks and surprises in any change that involves people. But following a few basic principles with consistency can minimize risk and damage from surprises and make the most of the unexpected positives that occur during changes – new ideas, fresh enthusiasm, stronger teamwork, and renewed commitment.
This article identifies practical principles you can use to make the most of change, and links them to the standard phases of project management. We have seen these principles – and the actions that follow from them – minimize the risk and maximize the benefit from large-scale change.

Principles to Make the Most from Change

In this section, we will describe some principles for each phase that can help you make the most of change. We will also cover key action steps to help you put the principles to work. Our goal is to illustrate how using principles can help –we will not try to list all the principles that may apply.

There are many different project management methods in use today. For simplicity, in this article we will use a fairly common high-level structure that can be applied to many types of projects:

  1. Initiate Project
  2. Analyze Problem
  3. Develop Solution
  4. Implement Solution

Phase 1:Initiate Project

This phase typically includes the following activities:

  • Making the business case for the project
  • Staffing the project
  • Clarifying scope, objectives and roles
  • Creating a project plan

Starting up the project team

Some of the principles and actions that fit these activities are the following:

Principle #1
Use good dialogue to get priorities right. Getting agreement on priorities is one of the most difficult challenges facing any project. The reasons for this are people-related. In many organizations, disagreements about priorities are dealt with by smoothing them over or by avoiding them. This creates long lists of things that need to be prioritized—too many customer or client needs, objectives, action items, metrics, etc. Yet lack of priorities will increase project cost and duration. To lower these costs, managers can use dialogue skills. These skills include:

  • Stating assumptions clearly
  • Using objective data to support reasons
  • Asking direct questions about the assumptions, data, and reasons others are using

Using these skills gets managers beyond the face-saving, lobbying, or debating that bogs down many meetings.

Key Action Steps: Identify and resolve disagreements about customer needs, objectives, business case, and initial plans. Do this by clarifying assumptions, facts and reasons. Set up a few meeting ground rules to help people avoid face-saving, lobbying, and debating.

Principle #2 : Involve people in planning to increase commitment.
This has been a well-known principle for many years. But as any manager knows, it’s not easy to follow this principle. Who do you involve? How much? For how long? These are tough questions, but our experience is that acting with integrity and clear intentions goes a long way, and involving the people who have the biggest stake in the project is a good way to start.

Key Action Steps: Make sure that a critical mass of individuals who have a stake in the project have input into planning. Depending on the size and scope of the project, this could be formalized with a Steering Committee, or obtained more informally. The key point is to take the input seriously – either use it or explain why not.

Principle #3
Use clear, two-way communication to explain why change is needed. Time and effort invested in clarifying communications up front pays off in significant downstream savings. It is especially important to make sure that the objectives and the business case for a project are understood, not just spoken or printed. So, communication needs to be two-way.

Key Action Steps: Test drafts of objectives and business cases with a small group of managers and employees, and use their input to make communications clearer before releasing to more people. Expect to make revisions. And, be prepared to answer challenging questions when you communicate about significant changes.

Phase 2: Analysis

This phase typically includes the following activities:

  • Define data that needs to be analyzed
  • Gather data (e.g. on problems, risks, costs, benefits, etc.)
  • Analyze data and develop solution requirements

Summarize analysis and conclusions

Some principles that are useful in leading change during analysis are the following:

Principle #4: Employ different perspectives to fully analyze root causes.
Data analysis often seeks the root causes for problems. Using different perspectives helps ensure that this kind of analysis produces sustainable solutions. For example, looking through the three perspectives of business, people, and technology can lead to better conclusions about root causes.

As a simple example, we can look at the common problem of “poor communications, ” which may be due to any one, or any combination of the following:

  • Inaccurate expectations about the audience
  • Inadequate business analysis
  • Lack of listening or presentation skills

Technical problems with conveying information

If the problem is due to all these causes and any one of the perspectives is missed, the solution will not be effective. Identifying the right perspectives to use often requires stepping outside the bounds of project management, to lead the way towards alternative ways of viewing the problem.

Key Action Steps : When analyzing root causes of problems, consider what perspectives need to be taken into account before beginning the analysis. Then, use analysis methods that employ all the perspectives that are needed.

Principle #5 : Avoid analysis paralysis.
One of the biggest dangers in analysis is the tendency to go into too much detail and take too long. One reason for this is that the analysis phase focuses attention on existing data, while solution development focuses on what hasn’t yet been created. Focusing on what isn’t yet known provokes anxiety in many individuals, and leads to “let’s do just one more analysis before we move on.” It takes leadership to acknowledge these dynamics and take steps to address them.

Key Action Steps : Avoid over-analysis by reminding people about the purpose of the analysis, and by setting aggressive time boundaries. Also, allow for some time during analysis to think about solutions and record solution ideas as they occur. This allows people to confront their anxiety step-by-step rather than all at once. Some of the best solution ideas will likely occur during analysis if allowed to come to the surface.

Phase 3: Solution Development

This phase typically includes the following activities:

  • Develop detailed system requirements
  • Design solution architecture
  • Design, develop and test prototypes
  • Scale-up prototype design to system level

Some principles that are useful in leading change during system development are the following:

Principle #6 : Provide an environment that fosters creativity.
The conditions that foster creativity are different from those that support analysis, and in many organizations creativity is counter-cultural. Leaders all too often greet creative ideas with messages like “that’s not logical;” “be practical;” and “to make a mistake is wrong.” Effective change leaders are able to help people relax, focus, and follow new insights to develop creative solutions.

Key Action Steps: Spend some time every week with the people responsible for solution development. Find out if they have what they need to be creative, and if not, work to provide it, even if that means rethinking rules or procedures.

Principle #7: Integrate management infrastructure elements to support the solution.
Management infrastructure elements like reporting relationships, workflows, job descriptions, performance measures and reward systems can reinforce each other in synergy or work against each other. For example, new IT or process solutions often require workflows and jobs to change. If performance measures are not adjusted, people may continue to perform work just as they used to. As another example, changing some reporting relationships so that work can stay within departments instead of crossing them can make or break a work process redesign.

Key Action Steps: For each infrastructure element, ask, “How much impact will the solution have on this element?” (This often works well if done by a group that includes the managers and employees who are impacted by the solution.) For those elements that are impacted significantly, consider what changes to infrastructure would create synergy and improve performance.

Phase 4: Solution Implementation

This phase typically includes the following types of activities:

  • Develop implementation plan
  • Secure implementation resources
  • Provide training
  • If appropriate, conduct pilot tests
  • Scale-up pilot to system-level implementation

Evaluate performance

Some principles that support leading change during implementation are the following:

Principle #8 : Allow people to work through their feelings so they can accept the change.
Many people in business settings are uncomfortable dealing with feelings. Yet many projects produce significant organizational changes, which inevitably bring about feelings such as confusion, stress, anger, and loss. If people are supported in dealing with their feelings, they can work through them relatively quickly during implementation. Otherwise, the business results expected from the change may be delayed and in some cases not achieved at all.

Key Action Steps: Provide training for leaders in skills needed to facilitate transition, and take this training yourself if you haven’t already. These skills include active listening, recognizing behaviors that mark different stages of personal transition, expressing empathy, acknowledging loss, and being able to express one’s own feelings in ways that are appropriate to the business environment.

Principle #9 : Support organizational learning with structured reviews.
A great deal of learning in organizations takes place spontaneously, due to employees’ innate curiosity and desire to learn. However, many projects don’t live up to their potential for providing learning due to a lack of appropriate planning. For example, although many projects use pilots and scripted walkthroughs during implementation stage, few projects set expectations and allocate adequate time for learning, or use structured evaluations to identify and document lessons learned.

Key Action Steps: Plan periodic, structured debriefs or reviews during walkthroughs and pilots. Use data-gathering forms that make it easy to capture lessons learned, and end debriefs with commitments to take action based on new lessons learned.

Demystifying Change Leadership

Our intention in this article has been to provide examples of practical principles that can help you make the most of change. We hope that these examples have triggered principles that you have discovered for yourself based on your own experiences. We believe that the concepts of change leadership are fairly straightforward, although the actions required often take a certain amount of inspiration and courage to initiate. Making genuine change happen always involves some risk as well as potential reward. That is why it calls for leadership, not just management.

Summary: Principles That Help Make The Most Out Of Change

  1. Use good dialogue to get priorities right.
  2. Involve people in planning to increase commitment.
  3. Use clear, two-way communication to explain why change is needed.
  4. Employ different perspectives to fully analyze root causes.
  5. Avoid analysis paralysis.
  6. Provide an environment that fosters creativity.
  7. Integrate management infrastructure elements to support the solution.
  8. Allow people to work through their feelings so they can accept the change.
  9. Support organizational learning with structured reviews.