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Thursday, 26 November 2015 11:54

Five differences between project and change management

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I was at a project management conference a while ago. As usual, I ended up making a number of new acquaintances. Several times I did that normal introductory dance when you tell each other your name, where you come from and what you do for a living.


When I tell project managers that I am involved in change management quite often the response is along the lines of “change management - isn’t that just part of project management?”. No!

In this article I describe why change management isn’t just a part of project management. But it is not a simple boundary. There are many overlaps between project and change management.

I am not a change manager who wants to differentiate myself from project managers. I am a project manager and have been involved in project management for longer than I have been involved in change management. I am a strong advocate for good project management. But I believe I can be this without assuming change management is a subset of project management.

I came into change management years ago, compelled by my increasing frustration that my ability to drive the development of good, timely and on cost deliverables was not always matched with successful long term benefits from the use of those deliverables.

One reason for this article is to encourage those who assume change management is a part of project management to realise they are missing out on a whole lot of valuable stuff. Organizations who get this wrong and try to “manage” changes purely with project management usually find themselves failing to achieve the outcome they want.

I have already put a couple of posts here on the point of change management (seehttps://www.linkedin.com/pulse/whats-point-change-management-richard-newton?trk=mp-reader-card ) and the point of project management (seehttps://www.linkedin.com/pulse/whats-point-project-management-richard-newton?trk=prof-post ). Now I want to contrast between them.


The starting point: a little bit of flawed logic

Let’s look at a chain of arguments:

  1. All projects deliver change? Well, yes of course.
  2. So, project managers are in the business of change? Yes, of course right too!
  3. So change management is a part of project management?

It easy to conclude the third statement in my list should be answered yes. There are the correct opinions that all projects deliver change, and project managers are engaged in the business of change. But it’s a mistake in logic to conclude that all changes are projects and that change management is just a bit of project management.

This relies on the logical fallacy of the form if all As and Bs, then all Bs are As. By similar logic I could conclude from the truthful statement that all projects involve managing people – to the obvious nonsense that all people management is project management.

One way we could resolve this, is to set standard definitions of project and change management. But the problem of short dictionary style definitions is, even if we could agree on them, they never really capture the full richness and breadth of conceptual meaning that people infer when they use a term. Instead, I have chosen to look at five differences between project and change management.

Difference 1: The intellectual background

Project management grew up as a way of sequencing and controlling complex series of activities. Through the early work of Henry Gantt in the early 20th century (father of the GANTT chart), the creation of the critical path method, the development of PERT and on and on until the development of Agile more recently. The central aspect of all these methods is creating deliverables that match a specification, dealing with the associated complexity and managing risk.

There is a strong change control element to project methods – but this is related to changes in scope and requirements, not the sort of changes that change management uses. (It’s unfortunate that the word “change” is used in these two different ways).

Change management derives initially from social scientists. Particularly Kurt Lewin writing in the 1940s. But it did not really take off until the 1980s, helped by business academics such as John Kotter. The core aspects of all this thinking is about dealing with people and handling the introduction and successful acceptance of change.

Difference 2: The people doing the work

Quite a lot of people involved in change management are project managers, and there are lots of people who are successfully dual skilled.

Unfortunately, there are project managers who think they understand change simply because they create and implement deliverables. Projects are often the reason why change management is required, but just implementing a deliverable such as a new IT system is not change management. The history of many failed IT implementations painfully shows the fallacy of this thinking.

There are also many other people drawn into change management. Typical of this are HR professionals and organizational psychologists, as well as many in leadership roles in organizations. A high proportion of these people would consider themselves as change managers, but not project managers.

Difference 3: The lifecycle

Project managers generally work around some form of lifecycle. Now the precise lifecycle used is the basis of much debate and argument between those involved in projects. Newer delivery approaches, such as agile, have radically changed the views of what the right lifecycle is and the appropriate maximum duration of that lifecycle. Nevertheless, there is a general approach that a project starts with some form of definition and requirements definition (or stories), goes through some process of fulfilling the requirements and then closes down.

So where does change management fit in this lifecycle? Well that depends!

Traditionally change management activities were typically bolted on as an after-thought in the latter stages of projects – concerned with things like training, communication and encouraging adoption of the deliverables. Well, these are all good change management considerations. But thinking has moved on, and really rather than being a subset of a project, change management is more a superset.

Effective change management often needs to start well before a formal project has begun. Getting buy and support and assessing the organizations readiness to undertake some endeavour. Effective change management usually needs to continue well after a formal project has ended, considering factors such as how the change is sustained and benefits are maximised for the life of the change.

You can go further than this, as what I am describing is change as an event or specific initiative. Increasingly it is understood that change is not just about the transactional movement from one state to another, facilitated by a project, but is a continuous activity as an organization goes through ongoing development, innovation and evolution.

Difference 4: The things done by project and change managers

There are lots of things project managers do that change managers do not – and vice versa. When I am asked to describe this I find it best to think in terms of examples.

A great example might be when I meet a senior executive sponsoring some major undertaking in an organization. When I meet such people for the first time as a project manager I am going to ask different things than when I meet them as a change manager.

For example if I am being asked to lead the project I will ask questions about goals, scope, requirements and constraints. I want to know about the availability of resources and budgets. All key things to understand to set up and manage a project.

But if I am being asked to be responsible for a change I will ask about the mood of the organization and how well prepared it is for the change. I will ask about capabilities and behaviours. I might ask the senior executives about how their personal behaviour aligns with the goals of the change.

These questions reflect the different sort of concerns I have as a project versus a change manager deriving from the work and tasks I need to do when I am working in either role.

Difference 5: The mind-set

In the end the real difference between a project and change manager is one of mind-set. This is a subtle difference, but an important one, as both are interested in achieving a successful outcome. This can be hard to encapsulate in a few words.

The best way to me seems to be to show what I think about as a project manager versus as a change manager. When I work as a project manager I normally end up pushing the team to work harder and faster. My focus is usually on the question: “how do we get this work completed?”

When I work as a change manager, ironically, I often end up trying to slow things down. Slowness is not a goal, but a realistic reflection that change takes time to embed and to be really sure it can be sustained. My focus in change management is usually on the question: “how do we sustain the change?”

Because of this difference in mind set there can be tensions in simultaneously being the project and the change manager. But in this project and change management are no different from much else in life that requires us to balance contending needs and pressures!


Project management and change management are different, sometimes in tension, but they are not in competition. They are complementary skills, and individuals can be dual skilled.

When you consider the project manager and the change manager as a role, not a person, there are many people who can fill both roles simultaneously. But in doing so effectively, there has to be an understanding of the differences between these disciplines, and the tensions that have to be balanced.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn

Read 4822 times Last modified on Thursday, 26 November 2015 11:57
Richard Newton

Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

His articles and blogs can be followed at www.changinghats.com. Information about his company can be found at www.enixus.co.uk. His books are available at bookshops and online sellers worldwide.

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