Setting up a Project for Success by being a Change Agent

Digital transformation produces a great many projects these days, which often have a direct impact on companies' ways of working. Managing these projects is not only about the technical implementation but also about establishing the organizational changes necessary to support this new way of working.

photo of Jessika Lichtenecker
Jessika Lichtenecker

Senior Program Manager

Posted on May 12, 2021


It often happens that a Project Manager is assigned to a project which is already underway. In a Product Development Process the Project Manager is mostly assigned to a Project when it transitions from Stage 1 (Problem Definition) into Stage 2 (Solution Design).

In this scenario individuals or small teams have already been working on the project for some time. Then often the question comes up 'why do we need a Project Manager?'.

In this article I want to show how the Project Manager can best support the team(s) and make sure there is added value. Change Management is crucial to this process and I want to show how we can best adjust to or change certain structures in the organization.

There are a lot of interesting articles everywhere to be found around Change Management - some linked below. This article is not supposed to be the perfect guide but to motivate Project Managers to start thinking about how Change Management elements can help deliver projects successfully; and how to form a team which is greatly motivated to achieve this goal. As the famous saying from Confucius goes "The journey is the destination" (In German: "Der Weg ist das Ziel").

Why is Change Management a crucial part of Project Management?

Most projects involve many members of staff, who are working on a project team for the first time. Therefore, Change Management plays a very important role.

So by definition: Project management focuses on the tasks to achieve project requirements. Change management* focuses on the people involved and/ or impacted by the change.

*Note: there are different elements in Change Management: it can be about Business transformation or in general about people's behavior.

The changes that a project delivers impacts not only our colleagues throughout the company when it is rolled out, but already on those that are working on the project to deliver it. As a result, Project Managers become Change Agents for these changes. Being a Change Agent means that we need to be careful about how we approach setting up the structure of the project in order to both a) set it up for success; and b) positively impact the knowledge, attitude and behavior of the project team.

It is recommendable at the start of a project to clearly define a Core Team and the Roles and Responsibilities in the project.

This is the first step in successful starting a project and forming a structure which will help the team to successfully deliver. In the next section you'll find some more useful tips.

What's next? - Make a 'Change' BUT it's difficult!

We all know, but especially as a Project Manager: Changing the behavior of humans is not impossible, but it can still be quite a difficult task.

Probably everyone came across certain changes which were hard to adapt to or accept. For example changing a habit – this usually requires some kind of urging and motivation.

Even if the reasons for an important change are perfectly obvious, it is easy to find excuses.

Here are just a few reasons why it is so difficult to accept and adapt to change:

  • Comfort: the current state seems to be comfortable

  • Fear of the unknown

  • Possibility of failure

  • Desire for security, routine, and dependability

  • Lack of motivation

  • Sense of being overwhelmed by the new

  • Lack of perseverance

  • Lack of faith in one's own abilities

  • The purpose of the change has not been 100% clear

All of these are reasons which can make a project fail.

Signs of resistance during project implementation can be:

  • Absence of team members

  • Decisions already made are brought into question repeatedly

  • Special cases turn into a recurring point of discussion

  • Solutions are dissected right down to the last detail

  • Tasks already assigned are re-delegated again

To be able to overcome these, you must re-align your focus as a Project Manager. This is no longer about the question of how to execute the project. Rather, you now have to ask: "Why are we doing the project" and "What is the project supposed to accomplish?"

Differences between Project Management and Change Management consist in function and focus.

Project Management requires the following skill set to implement a project on time, budget and quality:

  • Analytical skill

  • Planning skills

  • Organizational skills

  • Attention to detail and processes

In Change Management, however, knowledge of human nature is the key to success.

Taking over both roles, you have to know how to encourage people to sometimes change their set patterns of behavior and ways of working to be able to be successful.

As a final note I would like to recommend a few articles related to Change Management:

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