Developing a Change Management Plan

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.  

Charles Darwin

Change Management – a term you likely have heard before, but depending on your skill set and prior experience, you may or may not really understand what it is and why it is needed.

When I was going to grad school for HR management, one of the classes I related to the most was my change management course. For me, it was a blend of psychology and business – my two passions – and it just made sense. I wrote my thesis on change management and eventually became a certified change manager!

In its most basic, non-textbook form, I would define change management in a project/business setting as follows:

  • Understanding what changes need to occur once the project is implemented,
  • Determining how the change targets (that is, the people who will need to do something differently as a result of the change) will perceive and react to the change, and
  • Putting a plan in place to manage expectations and help people through the change – ultimately resulting in them changing their behavior and, effectively, adopting the change.

One of the main premises of change management is the idea that people like to have control over their own situations. As long as people have control – or a perceived control – they will likely go about their business as usual.

But when you change something – whether it is a new process, system, tool, team, or work environment – then people are no longer in control. Their expectations do not match reality. And even if the change is ultimately good for them, there is a chance that the change targets will resist the change and keep doing things how they have always been doing them, which inhibits the project from realizing its goals.

That is where change management comes in – with the hope that you will engage the right project stakeholders in the right way and at the right time via the right method so that you will send the right message that will move targets closer and closer to adopting the change.

Wow, that was a mouthful. How did you know what is “right”? Well, it comes with practice, but these are the steps I typically follow to create a change management plan.

  • Identify the project goals via the project charter – What is the intent of the project? What is different about what happens today and what will happen when the project outcomes are implemented? Is it an incremental change (e.g., a smaller process improvement) or a transformational change (e.g., something that will rock people’s worlds like a completely new system or process, a merger, or a reorganization)?
  • Identify all of the project stakeholders – Who is sponsoring this change? Who are the change targets? Who can help with getting people to adopt the change? What other processes and teams will be indirectly affected?
  • Analyze the stakeholders – How exactly will the change affect each stakeholder group? Is the impact small, medium, or large? Will the stakeholders have a positive, negative, or neutral perception of the change? Will they actually need to do something differently, or just be made aware of what is happening? Who has authority over the stakeholders? Do you expect there to be any resistance?
  • Develop a stakeholder engagement plan that addresses each stakeholders’ needs – What is the best way to engage each stakeholder (which may include various forms of communication and training)? Who is the best person to engage each stakeholder group, and what is the right timing? Will you need to follow up with stakeholders at any given cadence? Do you need the project sponsor to outwardly support the change and/or do anything differently to show that she is walking the walk?

Once all of those details are ironed out, you can confidently say that you have yourself a change management plan.

The level of change management required for projects can vary depending on the magnitude of change. Incremental changes – like process tweaks or continuous improvement efforts – may require simple communications that inform people about the change. But transformational changes require a much more thoughtful approach, and the above planning will become very important.

As a project manager, you may not be responsible for actually putting this plan together. But what you should know is that change management planning needs to occur throughout the project, so make sure that you have a change manager assigned right from the start. 

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