Project Success Through Change Management

Over the past year, we have all had to deal with change on a very large scale, as our way of life was severely impacted by the pandemic. Just as with most people, I have had to adapt to changing conditions and try to make sense of the new normal. During this period of time, I had the opportunity to reflect on my job and realized something that I probably should have paid more attention to earlier in my career – nearly every job that I have had focused on change – implementing or managing change or some sort for an organization. As I realized this, I began to explore the concept of change management and learned several tools that I wish I had been aware of years ago. I would like to share some of these with you, since I suspect that your world may provide opportunities to manage change more effectively.

When we work on projects, we are essentially pushing for change of some kind – whether large or small, change can be very hard for a number of reasons. Here are a few that are worth considering:

  1. People do not always act rationally – We all know this, but we often forget that people are emotional beings and we don’t always behave in a logical or predictable manner. This makes it extremely challenging when we are trying to convince people that they need to change how they work, follow a new process or use a new tool to do their jobs.
  2. People fear change, even if it is good for them – Our survival instincts tend to kick in when we are presented with a new or surprising situation; although most of us no longer need to fear being attacked by a wild animal, our basic instincts are to favor safety, and that can be standing our ground and not budging even if our management tells us that it is “good for the company”.
  3. People will resist change unless you give them a reason – As knowledge workers, our worlds are much more complex today than the industrial age. We are no longer simply building the same widgets day in and day out, but rather, we must assimilate complex information and solve intricate problems while using constantly-evolving technologies that are highly unpredictable. This means that people are generally too distracted to think about making yet another change, because it takes too much mental capacity and effort.

So what can we do about these challenges that will ultimately decide whether we can achieve successful change? Here are a few ideas that may work for your situation.

  1. Manage fear and motivation – If we put our knowledge workers in a position where they feel threatened, they will retreat to their default position, which is status quo. Most of us, myself included, favor the known versus the unknown, because the unknown feels risky and that can lead to anxiety. We need to take the time to educate our teams on why we need to make a change so that they understand the purpose, value and benefit to them as individuals.
  2. Focus on the positives – Studies have shown that human beings tend to worry about losing something they already have today even more than the potential gains that they may acquire. This means that selling them on the positives, while important, may not be sufficient to motivate people to take a risk with an unknown situation. That said, we will need to communicate the “what is in it for me” so that they can reconcile the risk associated with change with the potential gains, and help build a growth mindset.
  3. Clarify the consequence of not taking action – Sometimes the best way to inspire and motivate action is to instill a sense of urgency by explaining the consequences of inaction. While this may sound a bit negative, complacency is an enemy to all successful change initiatives, and we as change leaders need to educate others so that they can accept the situation and prepare to act.
  4. Utilize tools to assess the situation – There are many tools that can be leveraged to improve your chances of project success. Tools such as the Skill-Will matrix, Autonomy-Alignment matrix, and Stakeholder Analysis matrix are all simple tools that can help you determine the best strategy to manage your teams as well as stakeholders. Gaining an understanding of their current positions is key to building a plan to rally everyone towards the project goals.

To close this brief article about change management, change is hard, but it is a necessary part of life, and we must embrace change somehow in order to achieve success. If it makes sense, try to apply one or two techniques and see how they work, then adapt as needed. It may require several attempts but you are guaranteed to gain a lot of valuable experience along the way!

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Eugene Lai
Eugene Lai