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Project and change managers: bridging the divide

There are two isolated communities involved in delivering innovation and enhancements in business. Each community knows of, but remains relatively uninformed about, the other. The first community is that of change management practitioners, the second is that of project managers. In a business context at least, there is significant gains to be achieved by bringing these communities together. This article is a request to try and close the divide.

What divide?

Ask a group of project managers about change, and the typical response is "we know about change - all projects deliver change". Ask a group of change managers about project management and the typical response is "well project management is OK as far as it goes, but change is not something that can be shaped into a task list and managed as a deliverable".

Project management associations act as if they should own change management, and have sub-groups focused on change. Some project managers think they have a good understanding of change and change management. But if you question them about the change tools and techniques they know and use, this understanding is usually shallow. Change management communities tend to downplay or even completely ignore project management. If you don't believe me, go and pick up a best-selling change management book and try to find the word "project" - or a project management book and see how much is really about change. There are exceptions, but in general this picture holds.

There are dual skilled individuals, but they are few and far between. Change managers who think in terms of projects tend to design high level plans which show a visionary pathway forward without worrying too much about adherence to the plan. Project managers who know about change tend to use only those approaches those that are suited to being built into a task based work breakdown structure. Of course, there are exceptions, and if you are one of those people who are truly dual skilled - then we need more of you!

How did it come about?

Project management arguably has a long history, but started to become formally defined in the mega projects of the first half of the twentieth century. It grew from the experience of engineers struggling to get complex tasks completed. In the last few decades it has become increasingly formalised. Various associations have developed bodies of knowledge, and academics have got in on the act studying and critiquing project management. Although it is a broad discipline, its origins in engineering are still obvious.

Change management also arguably has as long a history, but its existence as a specific discipline originated in the writings of academics like Kurt Lewin in the middle of the twentieth century. Lewin was a psychologist - the father of what is called social psychology. His writings are rarely read now by change managers. But change management owes a lot to early pioneers like Lewin. Even if we now have different tools and models - dig deeper and you soon feel the origins in analysing individual and group behaviour.

Project and change management have disconnected origins, different cultures of practitioners, and separate language of debate. Having started apart, they have tended to stay distinct. Those interested in one discipline tend to have limited awareness and education in the other. Project managers focus on deliverables, change practitioners on people and teams.

This is a shame, for in the business context at least they share goals - delivering lasting improvements. Goals that require both creating deliverables and working with people and teams to adopt them.

What can we do about it?

Let's consider this from the view of project managers - as the readers of this site are predominantly project managers. Should project managers continue to ignore the vast body of change management theory and approaches and stick with their familiar project management - or should they reach out?

My answer is simple. We should reach out, but we should also understand the limitation of our role in any situation and decide quite how much change management is our responsibility.

The fundamental question is to determine if you are responsible for creating deliverables or delivering an outcome. By deliverable I mean something like an IT system, new building or process design. By outcome I mean achieving the lasting change that is required to achieve a business case. If it is deliverables, then the subsequent question is who owns the outcome? If it is clearly not you, you can stick to the nuts and bolts of creating deliverables. If you are responsible for an outcome, and what is wanted is a long term sustained outcome, then you better know something about change management. Additionally, if you really want to excel in your career then creating deliverables is not enough - it is outcomes that deliver value in business. A track record in delivering positive outcomes is a great aid to a successful career.

So how much change management is enough?

There is no universal answer to the question: how much change management is required on a project? It depends on the situation. For some projects there is not even a question to answer. Building a satellite is a seriously complex task that needs strong project management, and probably a major change control challenge, but there is no people change to manage. On the other hand, in some situations the change activity can dominate the activity. Consider a cultural change in a large organisation. There may be an initial project defining and communicating desired behaviours, but in an organisation of any scale, such work takes years of positive reinforcement and day-to-day management to achieve a sustained outcome.

Many business projects sit between these two extremes. Launch a new product, set up a new division, relocate people between offices, implement new processes and business systems - these are both projects and changes. In these situations project and change managers should have a respect for each others' discipline and a willingness to bring together a synthesis of the relevant parts for that specific project.

Let's be clear, when I talk about reaching out, I mean more than taking bits from change management and sticking them into the project plan. I mean seeing the problems of delivery from a different angle. The angle that does not just ask: ’how do I create these complex deliverables?’ But asks: ’how can I ensure these deliverables drive sustained change?’ And this change does not just occur during the life of the project but goes on happening long after the project is gone and probably forgotten. This may require additional activities in the plan, but it can also lead to looking at the whole process of delivery from a different perspective.

Widening horizons

Project management is increasingly powerful and specialised. The days of the amateur project manager, who runs the project because they happened to be given the task, are over. We are a specialist profession. But there are disadvantages to too much specialisation. There is an old joke which says that specialists are people who know more and more about less and less, until eventually they know everything about nothing. One of the challenges of the modern world is the tendency for greater specialisation to lead to different disciplines becoming separated. This is a huge loss. In my experience, often the best ideas come when people from different disciplines share ideas and make a powerful synthesis of approaches. Bring experienced project and change managers into a room to work out how to approach a complex project and change challenge and the results can be innovative and amazing.

Project management has evolved and we should be proud of the way our discipline continues to develop. But pride often leads to insularity. The best project managers don't just learn about project management, but gain a deep appreciation of other disciplines that help managers in business deliver lasting improvements. Change management should be high on your list of things to know more about.

But it’s not only change management. There is a continuous development of new approaches to business improvement. Some of these are fads which quickly pass. Others such as Total Quality Management and Business Process Reengineering have a more lasting impact - they may not be as prevalent as they once were, but the thinking has had a long term impact on management approaches. More recently we have Six Sigma and Lean - not everyone’s favourite topics - but undoubtedly significant influences on how business performance is improved. As project managers we need to keep our ears and eyes open to all such developments and minimise the divides between disciplines.

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