Project Managers are Great Change Managers Too

19 January 2016 -


Driving transformational change can seem like an insurmountable challenge. But you may already have more resources at your disposal than you think

Guest blogger Melanie Franklin

An important question to ask at the tart o any change programme is: ‘What’s driving the change?’.

The drivers behind any change initiative matter, because they dramatically influence the process. On the one hand, I’m seeing organisations facing large scale, comprehensive transformation to adapt to external factors. Universities, for example, face changes in funding that have genuinely transformed their user base. Students are now discerning customers. Research revenue models must be revisited and commercial strategies built.

This is top-down transformation at its most significant and strategic.

At the other end of the spectrum, change is motivated from the bottom up. It’s a typical scenario in the technology and telecoms sectors, where the pressure is on to constantly deliver new products to satisfy an unending thirst for innovation. Here, success depends on user adoption, customer experience, effectively meeting demand, and continuing to do all of these as expectations rapidly evolve.

This, of course, is what the Apples and Googles of this world do so well. They look beyond the immediate to understand how the deliverables impact not just on direct users, but indirect users and the market as a whole.

How Do We “Do” Change?

No matter where the change drivers originate from, organisations need to make big decisions about where to source the skills and resources to deliver – and those decisions are not necessarily driven by budget.

I work with numerous companies that are struggling to crack this. Initially, they tend towards buying in external expertise. But as we move forward, there’s a widespread recognition that this is a short term option. Everyone I work with across the board recognises that, fundamentally, you can’t “do” change simply by dictating the tactics.

The skills and culture need to be embedded.

One of my current clients is a top level utility company. They undoubtedly have the budget to fund extensive external consultancy. One year into a massive transformation programme, they’re seeing that this isn’t enough and so they’re starting to build internal capability.

They began by developing the key roles. Now they’re moving into cascade training and knowledge transfer. In many ways it’s a longer, more painstaking process. But these days, if an organisation needs to be good at anything, it needs to be this – and as the marketplace becomes more challenging we will only need to become more agile.

Hence investing in building internal capability is a sound decision not just for the present, but in future-proofing terms.

Formalising the Change Process

Currently, that worrying and widely recognised statistic that 70% of change initiatives fail still hangs over our heads. It needs to be tackled.

In many organisations, those who recognise this are playing a pro-active role in transmitting the value of change management upwards. They are the ones looking for the research, the figures, the business case and how they can get senior management on board. This is crucial, since if we remain naïve about how change happens we’ll experience an awful lot of false starts.

As more senior leaders enter this arena, we’re starting to see more specialised functions created to deal with change.

Even in large government departments, there’s an emerging differentiation between “business as usual” and “change leadership”. Questions are being asked and benchmarks set around what leadership competencies, skills bases and performance measurements we need to deliver effectively.

More and more, I am approached by people keen to set up a formal change management office, but unsure where to start or how to progress.

In fact, there are many parallels between the way in which project management became a professionalised discipline and the questions we have around change management now.

Excellent project managers have always been great at stakeholder engagement. They know how to cascade strategic initiatives up the management chain. They understand that true benefits realisation is not just about delivery and measurement.

It’s about persuading people to work differently for a common goal.

What’s more, a great project manager knows how to go about converting a strategic notion into a detailed plan that adds clarity and structure.

That approach is very much what we need in the world of change management. There isn’t a silver bullet. It’s an ongoing process.

Planning, benefits management and stakeholder engagement are the core skills of the project management world that can also be applied to change management. If you can harness those skills and develop them to align to this new environment, then you already have a valuable resource within your company that is primed to help drive your change initiatives forward.

A final word on a potential pitfall: project managers are great at many things. But they’re also immersed in the world of delivering products and operations.

Sometimes, that takes them away from the bigger picture. It’s crucial to ensure that a wider commercial awareness is part of the mix. That can be done, for example, through formal and deliberate exposure to the consumer base, the sales functions and the customer facing sides of the business.

If done well, developing the commercial sensitivity of your project managers alongside their change management capabilities can cultivate people who are geared up to handle every aspect of the change conundrum.

They’ll be equipped to advocate upwards (and downwards), manage the stakeholders, plan and deliver the benefits, measure the results and align the entire strategy to your customers’ latest needs.

And that, in today’s environment, can be a powerful recipe for success.

Melanie Franklin is the Co-Chair of the Change Management Institute, and Director of Agile Change Management Limited

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