How to Manage Changes On Projects

Keep the Project Change Management Process Moving Forward

Woman working at her desk, developing a strategy to manage change in a project.

Reza Estakhrian / Stone / Getty Images

Project managers spend a lot of time producing plans and establishing team objectives. Sponsors, stakeholders, and teams then spend a lot of time making changes to the scope of the work and the rollout process. Having a clear, easy change management process in place and a steadied eye on the bigger picture, even as some of the details shift, goes a long way toward keeping the project moving forward and allowing you to keep your cool.

Accept That Change Happens

Changes happen at virtually every point of the project management lifecycle. Recognizing that changes are inevitable — indeed, often beneficial — parts of the process allows the best project managers to adopt more agile approaches to planning and execution. Having strategies in place to effectively deal with changes as they occur is the fastest way to keep everyone's eye on the prize, even in the face of what may sometimes seem constant shifts in direction.

A defined, structured change management process is your execution playbook; your strategy 'bible'. It will define, for you, how best to respond as a leader to suggestions — even demands — for change within the development process. It will help you navigate, gracefully and with assurance, sometimes contentious collaborative landscapes toward the achievement of all parties' ultimate goals.

The Change Management Process

The change management process looks like this:

  • Receive request/demand for change in process on project
  • Assess change request/demand with a focus on project budget regarding:
    • materials
    • any relevant permit requirements
    • man-hours
    • time lost/gained
  • Prepare and present to project shareholders/liaison your recommendations for how to proceed relative to request(s)
  • Receive shareholder decision approval or declination to proceed

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

Receive Request/Demand for Change in Process on Project

You’ll receive a request to change the project in hundreds of different ways: in a meeting, via 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.

The project change request template (more on that in a minute) should accurately and succinctly capture all the details of the request, however informally they arrive to you. Once you feel all details are accurately recorded, run the form past the initiator for verification that all points have been addressed fully.

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 five days. This would not just add five days to the schedule because it would push out another task and move that in a timeframe where the key resource is on a holiday. That task would also need to be moved, so overall this change would add eight days to the schedule. It would cost $5k to do, and the extra eight 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.

So in the big picture, a simple five-day change has resounding effects. It’s important to consider all relevant factors before making an implementation decision, as having the full picture can change the outcome.

Prepare and Present Recommendations

Armed with a comprehension of the full impact of the requested change or changes, present your recommendations regarding the viability of the shift.

In some cases, changes won't be implemented because the perceived benefit will be less than the cost. In other cases, enough benefit may be found to offset the cost of doing the additional work. Other cases, still, will prove changes to be inevitable and beyond your control, regardless of negative effect, resulting from regulatory or compliance issues, or internal issues such as organizational restructuring.

The Decision

For small changes that fall within your authorization limit, the decision whether to accept or reject changes rests with you (with the right input from the team). Anything larger should be approved by the project sponsor or project board. Terms for what falls under which category are generally spelled out clearly at the outset of any project.

Regardless of the outcome, it's important to keep everyone involved in the process apprised. Alienating team members at any point in the development can cost the integrity of the entire project, and any future collaborations as well.

Change Management Tools

A number of change management tools have been developed to make this process easier and more streamlined. Central to every change management toolbox should be:

  • A checklist or process map walking stakeholders through the proper steps to raise a change to project scope
  • A template change request form (Note: If your projects work online from an automated workflow, it's a great idea to have this form included in your docs list)

Developing a Project Change Request Form

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 enter here).
  • A description of the proposed change, with as much detail as possible.
  • The category of the change. Ideally, requestors should be able to choose from a prepopulated category for this section so they only have to tick the box. This is a good place to note whether a change request is relative to regulation or internal compliance — if it is (genuinely), you can bypass a lot of the planning and assessment steps and simply get on with it.
  • The ‘why’ of the change. What is the justification for implementing it? Why does the requestor want it?
  • Potential impact of the proposed change to different elements of the project, including time, cost, quality, and scope. Requestor may not have all the details so may require your assistance filling in these blanks through the change assessment step. The minimum you are looking for at this point is for is clarification as to whether it may increase, decrease or change the existing project parameters.

Change request forms should be rounded out with space for details for you to fill in as change is further discussed. A 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.

Changes and Project Scope Management

Project scope management is the process which filters and refines the distinctions between what is necessary to execute a project successfully and what is not. When project change requests are received, it's necessary to consider how those changes may affect the project overall. Your change management process helps you refine, and define within context, why a change is or is not practical or necessary.

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) – Sixth Edition's coverage project change management is worth mentioning because it’s not as intuitive as you might think. The "PMBOK Guide" includes excellent starter guidelines in the form of a process called ‘Control Scope’ in the Project Scope Management section. 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 as it sets out clearly how everything links together in the larger landscape.

For the purposes of becoming a PMP, it's important to understand how the "PMBOK Guide" covers change management as it will be a part of your examination. But bear in mind that the change management process you'll actually use on projects needs to be integrated, easy to follow and practical.

Leading Your Team Through the Change Process

The project team is critical to the success of any project, so it helps to have them actively engaged when managing changes to the process.

Here are five ways that you can help your team quickly come to terms with the project change management process:

1. Be open about changes. Let your team know that change on projects is expected.

2. Be open about the process. The change management process discussed here doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Most team members won’t know what is expected of them until they've been advised. Set up a briefing to go through the process with them, and let each know what their role is in its execution.

3. Make it easy. Project change is often, at best, controlled chaos. The steps you take to successfully navigate it define your mettle as a project manager. Your team can find changes unsettling — especially big ones or ones reversing decisions long thought to be settled and hurdles considered long cleared. The schedule is wrong, the budget may be different, the requirements are certainly different.

Your team looks to you for guidance and stabilization. Make the process as easy as possible for them.

4. Be there to help. A new way of working takes time to successfully integrate. If you have previously managed project change in an informal way (or not at all) then change to a formal process might take a while to become "the way we do things around here". Let the team know that you are there to help them if they need 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.

Failing to manage change effectively is chief among the ways a project can be completely derailed, so watch out. Armed with the right information and processes, project changes can be dealt with in a controlled, smart and beneficial way for all involved.