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A Project Management-Based Approach to Organizational Change
By Samuel T. Brown, III, PMP, Global Knowledge Course Director and Instructor

Everyone is acquainted with change — we experience it in all facets of our lives. At work, we are regularly faced with the need to adjust to organizational changes. Some are clear and make perfect sense, while others seem to come out of nowhere and appear completely arbitrary.

All definitions of change encompass the sort of change we encounter in our organizations, where we are constantly looking for ways to improve individual or organizational efficiency. Change is “a transition from one state, condition, or phase to another,” which means that we are constantly moving from the familiar into the unknown.

The desire to improve, for any reason, is rooted in the recognition of a need to change. One of the principle responsibilities of organizational management is to envision a future, desired state and then plan for moving from the present state toward the desired state.

Organizations experience various types of change, each driven by or focused on enhancing performance or overcoming obstacles to business performance. It is important to recognize that projects are the vehicle of organizational change. Successful project managers realize their role as organizational change agents and proactively plan for both managing change within the project and enabling change within the larger organization.

Virginia Satir and John P. Kotter offer different but complementary approaches to change that combine to provide a practical model for project managers in their role as change agents. The Satir Change model is a systems view of change, while Kotter provides a leadership-based model of change.

The Satir Change Model

There are seven critical elements in Satir’s model.

The model begins with what Satir calls the “old status quo.” The old status quo is the way things are: familiar, comfortable, and normal. The old status quo is interrupted by the introduction of a foreign element (change), which alters the situation. The foreign element can be in the form of altered perceptions, new requirements, new processes, or even simple questioning or dissent. In any event, the introduction of the foreign element plunges the old status quo into chaos. The resulting sense of disorientation and loss is caused by a break in familiar and comfortable patterns.

The period of chaos will last until a transforming idea is introduced. Transforming ideas may be developed within a company or may be initiated outside of your organization. With the transforming idea, the recognition of another way of working emerges and the process of integration of the foreign element begins. Throughout integration we practice the incorporation of the foreign element and learn how to function competently in the altered situation. Eventually practice leads to mastery and a new status quo is established.

Kotter Leadership-Based Change Model

John P. Kotter suggests a leadership approach to effective organizational change in his eight-stage process model. His first stage, establishing a sense of urgency, identifies organizational complacency as the initial obstacle. Urgency is critical to gaining the necessary cooperation and commitment for change to take place. Kotter writes:

People will find a thousand ingenious ways to withhold cooperation from a process that they sincerely think is unnecessary or wrongheaded. Never underestimate the magnitude of the forces that reinforce complacency and that help maintain the status quo. 1

Having established an appropriate sense of urgency, the second stage is to establish a powerful force to sustain the change effort. An effective guiding coalition will share common objectives, include key members of the organization with adequate position power, display relevant and varied expertise, be viewed as credible on the basis of the reputations of its members, and possess enough proven leaders to drive the change process.

The third stage is to develop a vision and strategy for change. To develop a vision we have to create a picture of the future that clarifies the direction of change, motivates action in the desired direction, and helps to coordinate those actions.

Effectively developing a vision for change is significantly dependent on effectively communicating the vision (the fourth stage). The key elements of this stage include simplicity, use of metaphors, analogies and examples, multiple forums of communication, repetition, “walking the talk”, explanation of apparent inconsistencies, and authentic dialogue.

Kotter’s fifth stage is to empower for broad based action. Empowerment is contingent on employees understanding the vision and their commitment to achieving it. To empower the organization requires specific and direct attention to the removal of structural barriers. Training is also a part of empowerment. We have to prepare people for their role in transition and for the new roles they will fulfill when the vision has been accomplished.

Once employees have been empowered to actively pursue the vision it is important to generate short-term wins. By the time an organization reaches this sixth stage of change, the initiative has been underway for some time; therefore the “wins” must be real, visible, and unambiguous. Kotter describes three characteristics of a good short-term win. First, it is visible to large numbers of people so they can determine for themselves that the results are real. Second, it is unambiguous; most people observing the result agree that it is a desirable result. Third, the result is clearly related to the change initiative. Short-term wins are vital because they provide evidence that the hard work associated with the transition is worth it.

Stage seven, consolidating gains and producing more change, simply builds on the successful stepping stones of the short-term wins. The guiding coalition takes the credibility gained on the basis of the short-term wins as opportunity to undertake further change initiatives with the help of additional people.

The final stage of change is to anchor new approaches in the culture, or integrate the changes into the organizational culture. He suggests five keys to successful anchoring:

  • Culture change comes last, not first
  • It is wholly dependent on results
  • It requires significant communication
  • It may involve turnover
  • Succession decisions and promotions processes are crucial and must be compatibly aligned with the new culture.

Combining the Models in Practice

An extra benefit of the Satir and Kotter models is that they work well together in practice. Satir provides a conceptual framework to guide our application of Kotter’s eight stages from our role as project manager/change agent.

The key message from Satir’s model is that chaos, the inevitable and unavoidable consequence of change within any system, does not have to persist. Kotter, in his first four stages, instructs us on how to reduce the depth and duration of the chaotic response to change. Kotter’s message is clear: begin to prepare the organization early and involve an ever-widening circle of stakeholders. This suggests, or perhaps reinforces, the importance of the initiating processes in the project management life cycle, which is where a project is recognized, authorized, and legitimized within the organization.

Kotter’s next three stages describe the practical steps for practicing and integrating Satir’s transforming idea. Success in any change effort (or project) requires the support of the organization’s structures and culture. The project sponsor plays a key role in empowering broad-based action through visible, active support for the project and the project manager, and establishes an environment conducive to managing stakeholder expectations. The project manager may succeed or fail as a change agent through these stages on the quality of the project communication plan and of its execution. Empowerment, short-term wins, and consolidation of gains depend on frequent, effective communication with stakeholders about results.

Kotter’s final stage is Satir’s final element, the new status quo. For both Satir and Kotter there is a point of no return in the change effort. However, as Kotter points out in his tips for successful anchoring, culture change comes last, not first. Effectively establishing a new status quo is wholly dependent on producing measurable results, clearly related to the change effort, consistently reinforced through management support, and effectively aligned with organizational structures.

While project managers do not directly control management support or organizational alignment, they can significantly effect both elements and improve project and organizational success by actively pursuing the role of change agent in their approach to initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing their projects.

About the Author

Samuel Brown, PMP, is a course developer and instructor for Global Knowledge with 25 years experience teaching. In addition, he has provided project management consulting services for a variety of clients including GE, Glaxo Smith-Klein, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Michelin Tire, and IBM.

This article was originally published in Global Knowledge’s Business Brief e-newsletter. Global Knowledge delivers comprehensive hands-on project management, business process, and professional skills training. Visit our online Knowledge Center at for free white papers, webinars, and more.

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