Managing Changes On Projects

Keep the Project Moving Forward

Woman working
Working out the changes. Reza Estakhrian/Stone/Getty Images

Project managers spend a lot of time producing plans for what the team is going to do. Sponsors, stakeholders and the team then spend a lot of time making changes to the scope of the work and how the work is going to be done. This article looks at how you can handle those changes (with an easy change management process) and keep your sanity. Oh, and keep the project moving forward at the same time.

We’ll also look at some of the change management tools that you can use and how project scope management comes into play.

Before we even talk about processes or tools I want to discuss your outlook to change.

Accept Changes Happen

Changes can happen at any point of the project management lifecycle.

The easiest way to make managing change on projects less of a headache is to know that it is going to happen and to plan for it.

Having strategies in place to deal with changes before they happen is the fastest way to get everyone on board with what is going to be different.

A defined, structured change management process is the best place to start. It’s your playbook for what is going to happen if someone suggests that the project should be doing something different to what is currently planned and a good way to avoid project failure.

The Change Management Process

The change management process looks like this:

  • Receive information about the change
  • Assess the change including planning how much work it is going to be
  • Prepare a recommendation about whether it is worth going ahead.
  • Then you get a decision from the project sponsor about whether you should incorporate the change or not.

Let’s look at each of those steps in turn.

Receive Information About the Change

You’ll receive a request to change the project. You can receive information in hundreds of different ways: in a meeting, on email, on the phone, in the corridor as you rush out of the office in the evening. Ideally, you’ll get the information on a change request form, but you should know that in real life many important stakeholders think that completing this kind of paperwork is the project manager’s job. And in your company, it might be.

Use your project change request template (more on that in a minute) to capture all the details of the request, however informally they arrive with you. Then run the form past the initiator so that you know you have accurately reflected what it is that they want.

Remember that changes might also be about taking work out. Don’t always assume that changes are going to relate to putting work in. The process is the same regardless of whether you are increasing or decreasing project scope.

Carry Out Change Assessment

Look at the change request in detail. You’ll be assessing the impact on:

  • Schedule
  • Documentation
  • Work done to date and work still to do
  • Budget
  • Quality measures
  • Scope
  • Resource availability.

For example, a software change may be estimated at 5 days.

This would not just add 5 days to the schedule because it would push out another task and move that in a timeframe where the key resource is on holiday. That task would also need to be moved, so overall this change would add 8 days to the schedule. It would cost $5k to do, and the extra 8 days pushes us into another month with the supplier contract, so there are costs to consider there too. Quality stays the same but scope changes to incorporate the new change. All relevant documentation would need to be updated including the project plan and training manuals, which have already been started.

As you can see, a simple 5-day change can have wide-ranging effects. It’s important to know all about these before you decided whether to do the change or not, as having the full picture can change the outcome.

Prepare and Present a Recommendation

Now you know the full impact of the change you can make a recommendation about whether it is worth going ahead with it.

In some cases, it won’t be, because the perceived benefit is going to be less than the cost. In other cases, there might be enough benefit in there to offset the cost of doing the additional work. In yet other cases you may find that the change will have a negative effect on cost but there’s nothing you can do about it because it is a regulatory or compliance issue, or for some other internal reason like an organizational restructure.

Get the Decision

For small changes that fall within your authorization limit, you can make the decision about whether to accept the change or not yourself (with the right input from the team). Anything larger should be approved by the project sponsor or the project board.

Remember to go back and tell someone if their change has been rejected. You want to avoid annoying your project stakeholders if you can!

Change Management Tools

There are a number of change management tools that you can use to make this process easier and more streamlined. I’d recommend:

  • A checklist or process map that walks people through exactly what they have to do to raise a change to your project scope.
  • A template change request form. This could be online via an automated workflow.

Let’s look at what goes into a project change request next.

What Goes Into a Project Change Request

The project change request form should include:

  • The name of the person requesting the change (the ‘requestor’).
  • A unique identifier, like a change number (you can add this on yourself later as it is unlikely that any of the people raising the request and using the form will know what to put in that box).
  • A description of the proposed change, with as much detail as they can manage.
  • The category of the change. Ideally, you’ll prepopulate this section so they only have to tick the box. This is a good place to note whether a change is to do with regulation or internal compliance as if it is (genuinely) then you can bypass a lot of the planning and assessment steps and simply get on with it.
  • The ‘why’ of the change. What’s the justification for doing it? Why does the requestor want it?
  • The impact of the change to various different elements of the project including time, cost, quality, scope. They might not have all the details so you may have to work with them during the change assessment step to fill in the blanks. They should complete as much as they can. The minimum you are looking for at this point is for them to confirm if it will increase, decrease or change the existing project parameters.

At the bottom of the change request form will be some details for you to fill in as the change is further discussed. Your template should also include space for:

  • Change decision: Accept, Reject or Defer
  • Name of person making the decision (or group) plus the date the decision was made and any additional comments.

The person making the request won’t know the outcome yet – no one will – so these boxes will stay blank until the right group has met to discuss your recommendation and take a decision.

Changes and Project Scope Management

Project scope management is the main way that you control what is in the project and what is not. When you receive a change to the project scope, you need to think about how it affects the project overall. Your change management process helps you do this, and to set it in context, managing change is a small part of managing scope.

It’s worth talking here about how A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition covers project change management because it’s not as intuitive as you might think. The PMBOK® Guide includes a process called ‘Control Scope’ in the Project Scope Management section and this is a great place to start. However, the change management process on projects needs to be handled in a more integrated way, and that is reflected in the text. PMBOK® Guide users should also refer to the Perform Integrated Change Control process because this sets out how everything links together.

For the purposes of becoming a PMP you need to understand how the PMBOK® Guide covers change management as that is what you will be examined on. However, you should bear in mind that the change management process you actually use on your projects needs to be integrated, easy to follow and practical.

5 Ways to Help Your Team Through the Change Process

Your project team is critical to the success of your project, so it helps to have them onside when you are managing changes on your project.

Here are 5 ways that you can help them quickly come to terms with the project change management process.

1. Talk about changes. Let them know that change on projects is normal and that they should expect it.

2. Share the process. Above we’ve talked about the change management process, but this doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Your team members won’t know what to do and what is expected of them unless you tell them. Set up a briefing to go through the process with them, and let them know what their role in it will be.

3. Make it easy. When a project goes through a change to scope it can be quite disorientating. The schedule is wrong, the budget might be different, the requirements are certainly different. The team can find a change unsettling, especially a big one or one that reverses a decision that they had previously thought was set in stone (yes, those do happen). Make the process as easy as possible for them.

4. Be there to help. A new way of working takes some time to bed in. If you have previously managed project change in an informal way (or not at all) then a change to a formal process might take a while to become ‘the way we do things around here’. Tell the team that you are there to help them if they want to run something past you.

5. Don’t be afraid to say no. Not all changes are sensible proposals. Let your team know that if they feel strongly about a change not being the right thing for the project at this time that you will stand by them in that conversation with the change requestor.

Not managing change effectively is one of the ways you can derail your project, so watch out. Armed with this information you are now able to start dealing with project changes in a controlled way.