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Change Management – More Than the People Side of Project Management

“I thought change management was just the people side of project management.”  This was a comment made by a recent participant in my Living and Leading Change Program.  I hear this comment often. It is not surprising because most leaders’ first exposure to change management is during the implementation of a project.

Defining Change Management

I define change management as the process of enabling people to transition from their current state/environment and adopt a new state/environment.  This definition has three critical elements that are important to understanding why change management is not the people side of project management.

  • Recognition that change is a process.
  • Change management’s focus is on enabling people to move through the process and not specific tasks or deliverables.
  • The goal of change management is adoption of the new state.  Adoption requires that people let go of old patterns of thought, behaviours and activities and accept the intended behaviours as their new normal.

The Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines project management as “the application of the knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet project requirements.” And James Lewis in the Little Black Book of Project Management defines project management as “facilitating the planning, scheduling and controlling of all activities that must be done to achieve project objectives.” In project management, the critical elements are scheduling, controlling and completing project activities.

Change Cannot Be Managed

Unlike project management, change management is a bit of an oxymoron because you can’t really manage change.  You can manage the elements of the change event such as the implementation of hardware and software, the creation of new roles and responsibilities, the scheduling of training and the process of redesign.  However, the adoption of the new behaviours, work processes, or even attitudes is an individual experience that can only be facilitated and encouraged.

The project manager’s focus is on managing the tasks and deliverables. The change manager focuses on responding to where people are in the change process, and then helping them navigate the complexities of the Whitespace.

Risks of a Project Management Approach to Change

One risk of approaching change management as “the people side of project management” is that too much energy gets focused on managing the completion of the change management steps or deliverables, and not enough energy on understanding the people affected. Our research to understand why organizations continue to fail at change (despite the use of a change management methodology) found that when change management was approached in the typical project based scenario, it became simply the completion of a series of steps. Prominent organizational change researcher Bernard Burnes notes, change does not happen as a series of discreet steps.

Another risk of approaching change management like project management is the tendency to only use change management when the change is launched as a project. Many leaders erroneously believe that change management is too time consuming to use with smaller not-project based changes.  These smaller changes include things like reorganizing an employee’s workload to make room for new responsibilities, or the introduction of a new team leader, or changes to the work schedule.  As one leader told me, “we don’t have time to do that (change management) for every change.”

“Organizational change cannot be separated from organizational strategy and vice versa.” 

Bernard Burnes 

The reality is that it does not take longer to apply the essential elements of successful organizational change and it can actually save time.  The key to your success is your organization’s ability to integrate the essential elements of successful organizational change into its leadership and daily operational practices.


Helping you launch, lead and live change more successfully.

Dr. Dawn-Marie Turner

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