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Change Management for Project Managers
By Michelle Symonds

Projects that focus on the needs of the customer generally have more successful outcomes than those that focus on the product itself. So the desire to keep a client happy is paramount to most project managers – they know that the client will have to sign-off on the completed project and if they are not satisfied with the end-result then the project will not be deemed a success.

But on the other hand a project manager also has to keep a tight grip on finances and the project schedule, which naturally means controlling requests for change. If the scope of the project starts to diverge substantially from the original requirements then the client may be happy with the end product but they will certainly not be happy with the budget and/or time over-run.

So how does a project manager put the client’s needs first when they want to change details of the project part-way through the schedule but still manage to deliver a quality product on budget, on time and within scope?

Project managers regularly face this challenge and their skills in managing people, budgets, schedules and deadlines are all vital at such times.

Clients do not always appreciate the consequences of a seemingly simple change. When a change is requested once the project is already in progress it can be much more costly to implement than if it had been built in at an earlier stage. Project plans usually have many tasks running in parallel and often have complicated inter-dependencies so any change can result in huge risk to the successful completion of the project.

But it would be naive to assume that change never happens in a project or that requested changes are always trivial to implement, which is, of course, why change management is considered such an important part of a project and the ultimate responsibility of the project manager. Project managers who are used to dealing face-to-face with clients know that it is simply not acceptable to turn down a change request without an extremely good reason that can be backed up with facts.

More usually the project managers will accept the change in order to show that they are cooperative and flexible and putting the clients needs first. But in order to mitigate the effect of the requested change they will need to have a good project management process in place and the best project managers will often try and negotiate a compromise within the new request to reduce its impact on the whole project or trade off the new requirements with one of a lower priority that was already factored into the plan.

So what is the best way to implement a change control process?

Firstly, it is important that right from the start of the project everyone involved is aware that any change in requirements must be documented through a formal change request.

Every change request submitted should then be reviewed to ensure that those changes that are really necessary or desirable are actually approved. The purpose of the process is not to prevent change but to control it so that it does not jeopardize the success of the project. Requested changes are often the result of ideas that have arisen only as a result of seeing progress in a project in reality. Many people find it hard to think completely in the abstract or to relate fully to drawings, models or prototypes so it is important to recognize that many change requests will result in a better final product.

It is, of course, also important to be able to distinguish between a change that will enhance the end-product and one that is inappropriate and will only serve to delay delivery of the final product.

So a change request has been submitted and reviewed and deemed to be worth investigating further. The next step is to produce an estimate of how long the change will take to implement and how this will affect the existing schedule, and also to weigh up the advantages of making the change with respect to the disadvantages. All of these steps should be documented and discussed with the client.

If it is agreed that the change should go ahead it is important to agree, at the same time, any increase in budget or extension of the completion date as part of the formal agreement to the change. If no additional time or funds can be allocated and the client still requires the change then this is the time to negotiate a trade-off with another, less important task.

In many businesses new ideas can be formed and developed rapidly so resistance to change is never an option. Instead, to remain competitive an organization and its project managers must be able to deal with changes in projects in an efficient way. This is why change management processes are vital for the delivery of successful projects and why change management is usually part of the project management training undertaken by those responsible for complex projects.

Change is a fact of life in most projects, but how it is controlled and managed is critical to the success of the project and to a satisfied client.

Michelle Symonds is a qualified PRINCE2 Project Manager and believes that the right project management training can transform a good project manager into a great project manager and is essential for a successful outcome to any project.

There is a wide range of formal and informal training courses now available that include online learning and podcasts as well as more traditional classroom courses from organizations such as Parallel Project Training.

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