Project change management (or product adoption)

Posted on 27th June, by JimYoung in Blog. Comments Off on Project change management (or product adoption)


After project execution there is a new or improved product in place – perhaps a new building, policy, process, plant or item of equipment. While the PM challenge is to create the optimum new product, the change challenge is to make most effective use of the product after its launch to produce the required outcomes and benefits. However, new products mean change and few people like change, although as I write this Britain has been hit by a massive self-imposed change as the EU referendum delivered clear backing for “Brexit”, or should the result be viewed as an escape from a failed project?

A successful change initiative requires we prepare our organisation for the change, obtain stakeholder buy-in, and engage the sponsor and functional managers to champion and support the change before, during and after product launch and during the product’s life span. This new product may be incorporated into our organisation’s business-as-usual function or may be something that we propose to market externally, in which case, if the product isn’t properly launched, our organisation may not generate the anticipated savings, revenues or growth. Thus, with today’s dynamic economy and the pressure to be more competitive and profitable, a solid product launch and effective product transfer to our own or another organisation’s routine functioning is essential.


To confuse the unwary, change management has two meanings in the PM lexicon, each described here:

  1. Variations. Managing changes to the scope of a project is often needed to accommodate risk and new requirements and performance standards for the product.  Also, change might be driven by external factors, such as new legislation.  But most often a change request arises when our client wants an addition or alteration to the project product to secure some extra benefit.  Because change requests are beyond the scope of the initial agreement, they generally mean that the client will have to pay for the additions and possibly accept a later completion date.  Of course no such change should proceed unless the associated benefits exceed the costs involved.
  2. Product adoption. Managing the transitioning of individuals and organisations as they adopt new products as a consequence of projects is another type of change management that is becoming part of the PM function.  We aim to bring stakeholders from awareness to acceptance of the new reality that the change creates.  We build support, address resistance and develop the required knowledge and ability to implement the change.  Ineffective management of people during such change is a top reason for unsuccessful projects across all industries. While there is no progress without it, change freaks us out.

This chapter is about the latter type of change management – “product adoption” for want of a better expression. Projects create change and key to the achievement of the associated benefits is successful change management. Successful projects deliver beneficial change. While historically change management and PM have been kept apart, they are now merging and us PMs are no longer asked to just manage tasks and focus on project products, but we’re also often expected to help manage change to ensure our project products are properly embedded to realise forecast benefits.  Thus, knowing how to manage change is becoming a requirement in PM job descriptions and part of our performance reviews.  Yet, many project plans do not provide sufficiently for this change effort.

Change management process

As diagram shows, PM and change management are inextricably related and overlap. They support moving operations from a current state, how we do things today, through a transition state to a desired future state – the new processes, organisation structures and job roles needed for the proper adoption and exploitation of the new product. Change management is a structured approach to help ensure that changes are thoroughly and smoothly implemented, and that the lasting benefits of the change are achieved. PM focuses on producing the project product, whereas change management focuses on the people impacted by the introduction of the new product.


Change is a process and not an event.  As the diagram shows, one approach (Kurt Lewin’s model) is to break change into three sequential stages, although the effectiveness and time for the change process will vary depending mainly on the extent of the change and the degree of resistance to the change.  Some organisations prefer the rapid “big bang” approach to change, whereas other organisations prefer incremental change over a longer period at a speed that ensures change can be properly managed and timely corrective action taken where needed. When change occurs too quickly or is undertaken ineffectively we might expect any of the following consequences:

  1. Productivity to decline.
  2. Passive resistance to escalate.
  3. Active resistance and sabotage to emerge.
  4. Frustrated employees to leave the organisation.
  5. Employee morale to deteriorate.
  6. Employees to revert to their old way of doing things or develop local workarounds to avoid the new way of doing things.
  7. A division created between those in favour of the change and those against the change.

While projects may be successfully completed, the management of change associated with the introduction of a new product is often not well planned or executed, such that business case benefits that justified the investment are not realised or fully realised.  But let’s consider in more detail what needs to happen during each of these three stages or states to help ensure that the benefits of change are permanently secured:

  1. Current State is the collection of processes, behaviours, tools, techniques, organisational structures and job roles that constitute how work is done at present. The Current State may not be working well, but it is usually stable, predictable and familiar. The Current State is where we have been successful and where we know how we will be measured and evaluated.  Above all else, the Current State is the comfortable known, during which state we can:
  • – Determine exactly what needs to change.
  • – Understand why change has to take place.
  • – Ensure there is strong support for change from management.
  • – Create a compelling argument as to why change has to occur.
  • – Conduct a stakeholder analysis.
  • – Manage and understand doubts and concerns.
  • – Communicate often, listen to concerns, describe benefits, and explain how change will affect those involved.
  1. Transition State is typically messy and disorganised. It is somewhat unpredictable and constantly in flux. The Transition State often creates emotions ranging from despair to anxiety to anger to fear to relief. During the Transition State, productivity may decline. The Transition State requires us to accept new ways of working, decommission the now superseded product and way of working, and provide training in the use and maintenance of the new product. This often challenging state is when we:
  • – Gain short-term wins to reinforce the value of the change.
  • – Provide support and training to those affected.
  • – Answer questions fully to provide facts and thus help dispel rumours.
  • – Deal with change issues promptly and effectively.
  1. Future State is where we wish to go.  It is sometimes not fully defined, and can even shift while we are going through the Transition State.  The Future State is supposed to be better than the Current State in terms of our organisation’s performance.  However, the Future State can be worrisome.  It may not match our personal and professional expectations and goals, and there is a chance that we may not be as successful in the Future State.  Above all else, the Future State is pretty much unknown. Useful strategies during this period of familiarisation are:
  • – Recognise, reward and celebrate change successes.
  • – Anchor the changes into the culture.
  • – Develop ways to sustain the change.
  • – Ensure on-going training and management support.
  • – Assess success and establish feedback processes.

Principles of change management

Just having a project product that is the “right” answer is important, but this does not guarantee that employees will make the necessary changes in their behaviours and work processes. It takes more than the right solution to move employees out of the Current State that they know well and into the Future State.  Fortunately, change management is not rocket science, and here are some well-proven commonsense principles to help ensure that the change process works effectively:

  1. People issues. Most changes create people issues.  For example, new leaders may be asked to step up, jobs may be created, changed or eliminated, new skills and capabilities may needed, and as a consequence employees (stakeholders) may be uncertain and resistant.  Dealing with these issues on a reactive basis usually puts morale and results at risk, so a formal proactive approach for managing change risks should be developed as we conceive, plan and execute the project, and not left until after product delivery when risks have become issues.
  2. Start at the top.  Because change is often unsettling for people at all levels of our organisation, our eyes are likely to turn to the CEO and the organisation’s leadership team for strength, support and direction.  So, our leaders themselves must embrace the change.  They must be genuinely committed to the change, speak with one voice and model appropriate behaviours.
  3. Make the case. Most people are inherently rational and will question to what extent change is needed, whether the change is headed in the right direction, and whether they want to commit personally to making change happen. They will usually look to their leadership for answers. Thus, the development of a sound business case for change is essential. We know we have done this successfully if project team members and other stakeholders can explain why we are implementing the change, although sometimes the question might be “Why is this change necessary?” But this is not always an indication of a bad attitude, nor is it an indicator of someone who is out to scuttle the change. Rather it’s likely to be a legitimate question, by someone who is protective of the status quo they’ve already invested in. So we should not mistake natural, normal, healthy resistance as a subversive attempt to destroy what we’re trying to accomplish. Sometimes, a question is just a question. Yet, positive and negative stakeholders come in many forms.  Some individuals oppose change simply because they do not like the idea of an upset to their routine.  There are also those who oppose change because they feel it threatens their status within the organisation.  As an example, someone who is considered a subject matter expert for a particular software program may feel ill at ease at the proposition of a new, unfamiliar application replacing the current system.  In cases like this, it is important to communicate the benefits of the change.   Also, in this example, it is important to identify why this individual feels ill at ease, so their concerns can be addressed and in this instance some retraining might be part of the project plan.
  4. Create ownership. Leaders of change must over-perform during the transformation period and be the zealots who create a critical mass among the work force in favour of the change.  This usually requires more than passive agreement that the change is acceptable.  It demands ownership by leaders and willingness to accept responsibility for making change happen in all of the areas they influence or control.  Ownership is often best created by involving people in identifying benefits and implementation problems, and then crafting solutions, reinforced by incentives and rewards.
  5. Communicate the message. Too often, change leaders make the mistake of believing that others understand the issues, understand the need to change, and see the new direction as clearly as they do. The best change strategies reinforce core messages through regular, timely advice that is both inspirational and practical.  Communications are targeted to provide employees the right information at the right time and to solicit their timely input and feedback.  This may require over-communication through multiple channels.  Effective communication that informs various stakeholders of the reasons for the change (why?), the benefits of successful implementation (what is in it for us?) as well as the details of the change (when? where? who is involved? how much will it cost?) is important. Early adoption, successes and wins should be recognised and celebrated. Such recognition is a necessary component of change management in order to cement and reinforce the change. Continued adoption of the change needs to be monitored to ensure employees do not slip back into their old ways. Change needs consistent reminding, driving, communicating and follow-through to help ensure that people don’t revert to old habits.
  6. Risk Management.No change goes completely according to plan.  There will be teething problems. Effectively managing change requires continual reassessment of its impact and the organisation’s willingness and ability to adopt risk management. People react in unexpected ways, areas of anticipated resistance may fall away, and the external environment shifts. Effectively managing change requires continual reassessment of its impact. As far as possible change impediments should be identified, prioritised and responded to proactively. Contingency plans might be developed in anticipation of issues – those risks that defy mitigation and come to fruition.
  7. Speak to individuals.Change can be both an institutional journey and a very personal one. People spend many hours each week at work and may think of their colleagues as a second family. Individuals (or teams of individuals) need to know how their work will change, what is expected of them during and after the change, how they will be measured, and what success or failure will mean for them and those around them. People will react to what they see and hear, and should be involved in the change process. Sanction or removal of people standing in the way of change will reinforce the organisation’s commitment. Providing personal counselling (if required) to alleviate any change-related fears is also appropriate. We need to recognise that for some, change may affect them negatively in ways that we may not have foreseen. For example, people who have developed expertise in (or have earned a position of respect from) the old way of doing things, might see their status severely undermined by change.
  8. Recognise success. Visible rewards, such as promotion, recognition and bonuses could be provided to those embracing the change. Early adoption and successes must be recognised and celebrated. Individual and group recognition is a necessary component of change management in order to cement and reinforce the change.

Resistance to change

Most stakeholders who resist change do so for genuine reasons. They have real concerns that need to be addressed, such as:

  1. Change seems unnecessary. Stakeholders cannot properly understand why the change is needed when the status quo seems to be quite satisfactory and has not previously been questioned. It is natural to wonder why we should change.
  2. Personal status threatened. Stakeholders are anxious that their current status in the organisation will be diminished or undermined, or that they may be made redundant. The close association people have with their routine work defines them to some degree. People who have been improving their methods for years to become very good at what they do, are likely to resist change or only comply to prevent disputes. They may also be concerned about the “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) factor. On balance, the change may appear to be personally disadvantageous.
  3. Fear of the unknown. Stakeholders may be unsure what the future holds for them. Their jobs might be dis-established and they might be “let go”or their job descriptions might be altered in some way to their personal detriment. They will recognise that not all change is for the better and perhaps recall some previous unfortunate experiences with change. In the absence of complete, accurate and timely information, unsettling rumours will doubtlessly proliferate. 
  4. Coping anxiety. Stakeholders are unsure that they will be able to cope with the change – that their current skills may be obsolete and the work required of them will be well beyond their comfort zone. “Burn out” may occur. Acute and chronic stress can be an employment issue and may cause illness. If an employer fails to adequately address workplace stress, they could face a claim for a breach of obligations under the NZ Health and Safety in Employment Act.

The reality is that change is never foolproof. There will be doubts about the wisdom of the change, the change will most likely disrupt current work practices, the change may take some time to implement and even longer than originally anticipated, there will be risks to contend with, unforseen issues to resolve, and while the change will likely be overall beneficial, some stakeholders may be disadvantaged and suffer stress as a consequence of the change.

We could encourage stakeholders, given their expertise and experience, to make suggestions and participate and become considerably involved in the change process. Other than participation, some further strategies to help us obtain “buy-in” might be to sell people on the benefits (WIIFM), be positive ourselves about the change, publish early change successes, be approachable, welcome ideas, keep everyone updated, anticipate and prepare for objections, maybe explain the consequences of change failure, get all key stakeholders on side, and appoint visible and powerful advocates and change champions. The Change Curve is a popular model used to understand the stages of personal transition and organisational change. It helps us predict how people will react to change.


Overcoming resistance to change

Faced with resistance, some leaders attempt to drive through changes, but this often deepens the resolve of the “resistors” and can lead to outcomes that are in nobody’s interest. To help overcome or reduce resistance to change, the project sponsor may assume the role of change agent or appoint someone to this role. The responsibilities of the change agent are to communicate the change, help those affected understand the purpose of the change, plan for the change, seek input and ideas to improve the change process, and support those impacted by the change. Possible approaches to address the four most common reasons for resistance to change may be:

  1. When change seems unnecessary. To help overcome this issue we need to acquaint those concerned with the actual problem or opportunity that has caused the project to be initiated. To be convincing, accurate figures and information will be needed rather than adjectives and rhetoric. This first step being to demonstrate the need for the change – the “unfreezing” phase of change.
  2. When current status threatened. As far as possible we would assure stakeholders that they were highly valued and their positions and relative seniorities would be respected, and any proposed changes to their job descriptions would be freely negotiated and agreed with staff and accompanied by appropriate training as required. 
  3. When there’s fear of the unknown. As appropriate, we would reassure staff that current remuneration rates and other conditions of employment would continue and that no redundancies were planned and that any changes to current policies, procedures and processes would be thoroughly discussed with them and all questions fully answered. If necessary, we would explain that should any staff members wish to leave as a consequence of the change, they will be given adequate warning, be appropriately compensated and provided with a detailed record of their service.
  4. When there’s coping anxiety. Were appropriate, we would emphasise that few changes were likely to current job descriptions, and any changes in which new skills were needed would be taught to them through formal courses and on-the-job training. However, once an employer has been notified or identifies stress in the workplace, they might liaise with the employee and the employee’s doctor or medical specialist if necessary, allow the employee time off work to recuperate, allow them to ease back into work (maybe part-time, or reduced hours), provide support (eg, an employee assistance programme), or identify alternative less stressful roles for the employee.

The reality is that some staff may not be able to cope despite counselling, coaching, mentoring and training. They simply will not have the necessary apitude or attitude to pick up the new skills or cope with the change, or despite assurances, they may have little faith or confidence in their own ability to adjust to new ways of working. They are often too wed to their current practices. The prospect of having to learn and apply new skills and knowledge has little appeal. Redundancy settlements may be necessary. Redundancy is when an employee loses their job as a result of restructuring.  Of course an employer cannot use redundancy as a way of dismissing an employee for other reasons such as poor performance. Such tactics invite a personal grievance.

It is important that changes are successfully embedded in order to deliver benefits, which are the measurable improvements resulting from the project outcomes. However, the reality is that many projects fail to deliver benefits or sustain them into the future. Benefits and change management have a symbiotic relationship. Benefits come only with change and, equally, change must be sustained by benefits.

The next chapter discusses benefit realisation. Change management and stakeholder management are closely aligned and effective stakeholder management is essential for successful change management. These processes must start as soon as the project is initiated and should continue well after the project is completed. In summary, to gain benefits we must first have change, the three essentials for which are:

  • – The reason for the change needs to be fully explained, understood and accepted by those affected. Concerns and resistance needs to be identified and addressed.
  • – Then the actual changes to work practices and behaviours need to be defined, communicated and supported by training or other skills development activities. We must determine who will develop and deliver the training and who will be trained and to what level of proficiency.
  • – Finally, once the change is introduced, there needs to be ongoing support to firmly embed the new practices into the operating culture of our organisation. Teething problems are inevitable and must be identified and quickly resolved in consultation with the users.

And here’s a huge change – an unexpected majority of British voters have overthrown not just Britain’s relationship with its European neighbours but the established political order in the UK, and, potentially, Europe. This change was as unexpected as Donald Trump taking the Republican presidential nomination. In the US, however, voters have yet to decide whether to entrust Trump with the keys to the White House. In the UK, those who promised to the British people that leaving the EU would let them “take back control” over their lives are now expected to deliver on that project. This change will not be easy.


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