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Common Project Manager Mistakes: #3 Overlooking Organization Change Impacts
By Samuel T. Brown, III, PMP, Global Knowledge Course Director and Instructor

This article is part of a series. The previous article can be found here.

All projects, by their nature and definition, are undertaken to change the organization. Think about it. Why would you or your organization decide to invest resources in doing something if you are satisfied with the way things are? This means that all projects, all of the time, are about changing an organization — making it better, more efficient or more profitable. Projects are about attracting new customers; updating or upgrading the tools, equipment and infrastructure needed to do business, etc.

Now, when we combine this recognition with the reality that people tend to resist change most of the time, we easily see why well-executed projects still have difficulty succeeding. As project managers, we are often so focused on managing the project constraints and stakeholder expectations that we lose sight of the organizational impacts our project have, or will have, on the current environment and culture. Without question we must diligently manage the changes that occur within our project, but we must also have a clear focus on the larger context within which our project is being executed.

Managing organizational change is not the same as managing project change. It focuses on preparing the organization for the change, creating conditions that encourage the accommodation of the change, and of course, communicating the value of the change to the whole organization.

There are many organizational change theories and models out there. Most provide useful insights into the dynamics of organizational change, and a few of them offer ideas that can be directly translated into actions that we, as project managers, can apply to our work. One of my favorites is the model from Virginia Satir, developed on the basis of her work in family therapy. Her model was developed with regard to family systems, but can be generalized for change within other human groups, like our businesses.

There are seven critical elements in Satir’s model. The model begins with what Satir calls the old status quo. 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. Familiar and comfortable patterns no longer work as they used to, resulting in a sense of disorientation and loss. The period of chaos will last until a transforming idea is introduced.

With the transforming idea, which may be developed from within or introduced from outside, the recognition of another way of working emerges and the process of integration of the foreign element begins. Throughout integration you 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.

This model helps remind us that for change to occur effectively, it must be understood and valued, but that accommodation will be neither assured nor quick. Satir focuses on the need for us, as project managers, to broadly engage our stakeholder, not just our team, in the change effort. Such engagement must begin as early as possible so that as much of the process of practice and integration can occur during the project. This will minimize the chaos, and increase both the likelihood and momentum for accommodation of the change.

Project managers are many things — managers, coordinators, directors, coaches and leaders. Leadership is indispensable when dealing with organizational changes. My favorite leadership model for dealing with change is the Eight-Step Process for Leading Change from John P. Kotter. Kotter’s eight steps are:

  • Establish a sense of urgency.
  • Create a guiding coalition.
  • Develop a change vision.
  • Communicate the vision for buy-in.
  • Empower broad-based action.
  • Generate short-term wins.
  • Never let up.
  • Incorporate changes into the culture.

Kotter’s steps describe the keys to leading a change effort effectively. We can easily adapt Kotter’s steps to the way we engage and communicate with our stakeholders. People need to understand what the project (change) is about and why the project (change) is important. We cannot expect others to feel the need to change if they are unaware of or do not understand the rationale for it. Those who do not see a need for change will not change.

We need to find that small group of stakeholders who understand the purpose, background and goals of the project to help define a simple, easily shared vision of the project’s value that can be broadly communicated across the organization. This team (coalition) needs to have expertise, credibility and positional power to ensure that the vision cannot be blocked and then lead others toward support of it. The vision will provide guidance for the actions and decisions necessary throughout the transition.

We all know that we need to identify and engage our stakeholders, particularly those negative stakeholders who oppose the project or some particular aspects of it. Engagement is the key to mitigating the inevitable pockets of resistance we always encounter. Inviting dialog, giving voice to the resistance and avoiding the trap of assuming that those who disagree are wrong, will empower the stakeholder community and reduce barriers. It is also important to remember that enthusiasm and momentum are encouraged and maintained on the basis of visible progress. We must make sure that we have built into the project plan a regular, intentional and predictable series of incremental deliverables that can be observed by the larger stakeholder community, and that can be promoted by our guiding coalition. Through thoughtful, creative and deliberate application of Kotter’s steps in the way we plan and execute our projects we can reduce the chaos that Satir predicts in response to change within human systems.

But I think there is a third model that adds a bit more to the insights from Kotter and Satir. Everett Rogers’ description of how ideas spread and are adopted reinforces the importance of communication and engagement in any change effort. In a nutshell, Roger says “…diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system.” The point is that change isn’t just going to happen, and it isn’t going to be accepted just because it is demanded. No great surprise there. Rogers is driving home the fact that decisions to accept and adopt or accommodate change occurs at the individual level and is significantly influenced by the social milieu of the individual.

What we learn from Rogers is that we need to understand who a change will affect, what their influences are, and who the opinion leaders and change agents are within their social systems. Everyone is part of multiple, intersecting social systems. Social systems are created when people who are trying to solve common problems or reach common goals get together. Within any social system there are channels of communication through which participants share information and influence the opinions, attitudes and ideas of others in the system. Recognizing the social systems and opinion leaders within those systems should affect who we communicate with and how we communicate with them about the project. Opinion leaders, particularly among early adopters, help us to begin momentum toward the adoption of the changes the project was undertaken to create. Ultimately our goal is to generate momentum for change that achieves critical mass and becomes self-sustaining beyond the end of the project.

So, to summarize the practical lessons from Rogers, Kotter and Satir:

  • Think about organizational impacts during planning, and particularly during stakeholder analysis, remembering that change integration requires practice and integration.
  • Engage credible thought leaders to help formulate the change vision.

  • Begin communicating about the change vision (project rationale, benefits and impacts) early and often.

  • Identify and target opinion and thought leaders to help influence others toward adoption and create positive change momentum.

  • Reinforce progress by acknowledging small successes (short-term wins) throughout the project.

  • Remain focused, constantly tying together the short-term wins and linking them to the larger business objectives.

  • Include steps to sustain the momentum for adoption as part of the transition to operations at the end of the project.

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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