Understanding Change: A Good First Step

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff, ProjectExperts CEO.
If we are to be successful as Change Agents, we need to understand Change. That understanding ranges from the dynamics of Change, to the disciplines involved, even to the terminology around Change. This posting deals with some of the terminology around Program or Project Change.

For example, many years ago, when I wrote my first IT PM methodology, I called the processes around requesting, evaluating, approving and implementing needed project changes Change Management. In that era (pre-1985), it was more popular to call those actions Change Control.

My rationale was that we cannot control Change; in fact, we are foolish to attempt to do so. But we could manage the process, and manage the impact of the change on the product. Thus, Change Management. There was one obvious concern: If PM was the discipline of Managing Change (as I espoused from the early 80s), then Change Management in Managing Change was a bit too recursive.

Then, as IT matured (in our opinion), the phrase Change Management was borrowed by those who were actually doing part of what we called Configuration Management: i.e., essentially an improved automation of version control, it helped in tracking the changes in characteristics of installed systems, tools or processes. This might occur late in a project, or long after the project’s product was placed in operation. It was further complicated when a software package came on the market with the name ChangeMan (I guess the gender-neutral ChangePerson was not catchy enough). Its purpose: to track configuration changes.

One outcome is that we had to start calling our practices Project Change Management. Otherwise, the IT folks would get confused. A small sacrifice.

Then in the late 1980s, along came the organizational “Change Management” people. We first encountered them in the NorthEast USA; they were people who saw the need for a separate discipline, borne from Human Resources, to manage the impact of change on the organization. Some knew a little about Project Management, our discipline of organizational change, but were mostly concerned with the human aspects of change.

While we agreed with the concern for the human or personal aspects of change, we felt this was always part of every effective Project Manager’s initiatives (we called them effective then, competent now). And in fact, we consistently identified the essential “laddering” of Customer or Client-side activities and responsibilities in every internal project, needed to assure benefit realization. After all, benefits seldom happen without properly managing the impact of the project’s change in the target organization(s).

Perhaps their efforts, continuing today, are the result of not-yet-competent Project Managers and teams they encounter. Our position, then and now, is that we care less about who takes credit for the organization’s success with the project results, so long as somebody does. But we capitulated at the insistence of this emerging and eager discipline, and reverted to calling our processes Project Change Control.

Some from the Change Management discipline applied the “laddering” we offered in our PM methods, identifying the specific activities and results that must have Customer/Client ownership and involvement if the project is to succeed.

And, when those “laddered” activities and results were identified as areas of key and consistently-recurring Risks (threats and opportunities), they found that they could engage Executives who cared about Benefits Realization in actionable items. Win-win resulted when those organizations moved from a react mode to a prevent mode, especially on those Risk/threats.

To Summarize
Even though we Change Agents don’t really control change, we must manage it. And that change includes project changes, configuration changes and organizational changes. So today, when you speak of Change Control or Change Management, be sure your audience understands the type of Change you are discussing, and how you will know it is working. We still frequently see too much confusion about the terms today.

Do you? And what will you do about it?