Change is inevitable and, if this year is anything to go by, constant. So why, then, is change in projects feared rather than embraced? We explain how project managers should plan for change and deliver better outcomes as a result.
As human beings we’re driven by the will to change, to better ourselves and the world around us, to learn new things, develop new ways of working and question the world in which we live, all from an early age. Change is encouraged, nurtured and helps us to grow both as individuals and as communities as a whole. And yet when we undertake projects, we’re told that change is bad. We choose to stick rigidly to a pre-defined methodology with fixed constraints and, most often, a fixed scope of work to be delivered (regardless of whether it’s still the right thing to do). We seek to create beautifully crafted plans, Gantt charts, schedules of work and sprint programmes to bring order to what we do and to try and avoid change. But the question we should ask ourselves is:
Is change always a bad thing?
Change within projects, especially when unexpected and unplanned, can lead to negative outcomes, be it scope creep, budget increases, or delays to the end delivery date. If change isn’t identified early, these resulting outcomes can be worse than expected and can lead to fractured relationships (especially in a client <> agency environment), mistrust, negative perception from all parties and lack of faith in the project itself by stakeholders. Change means uncertainty and so, on the face of things, it’s thought to be a negative and something to be avoided at all costs in a carefully planned environment.
So how do we avoid the negativity associated with change?
Quite simply, we need to plan for change in projects. We should embrace it and not fear that we don’t know everything from the start. We need to accept that things can and will differ from what we set out to do. Failure to accept that change will happen and a failure to plan for it, can ultimately lead to the failure of the project, whether that’s successful completion on time and budget, or adoption by the end client and users. And no one wants a project to fail.
As project managers, we should consider from the outset, and continue to do so throughout the project, where and how change may manifest itself and be prepared to answer some fundamental questions:
- What are we trying to achieve now?
- Is it still the right thing for the business? This is something we shouldn’t be afraid to continue to ask ourselves throughout the project.
- Is it still going to provide the maximum value upon completion of the project? Again, something we should constantly evaluate and be prepared to change.
- Are there better ways to achieve the same outcome?
- Are there changes that we could make to deliver a better outcome?
We should never be afraid to ask these questions or fear the answers we get. Continuing down the same path when there are better ways to work, or more that could be achieved within the same project, may lead to a worse outcome for the project overall.
How can we choose whether to accept change in a project?
Evaluating change when it occurs on a project is important and having a clear method for doing so is critical. Remember, some change is beyond our control and there are many environmental factors at play in the wider world that we have limited ability to influence. You only have to look at the tremendous change brought about by Covid-19 and how it’s impacted the way in which we live our lives – both personally and professionally. This change is beyond our control. But having the right mechanisms in place from the start to allow flexibility in our approach means that there is scope to react and allow a degree of change in our processes and ways of working to still deliver on our projects.
There are various tools that exist for project managers to help evaluate change, take risk management for example. Risk management allows us to identify and predict areas of risk and change early and determine acceptable limits of change within the project. Risk of failure itself shouldn’t be feared. Project and product teams that adopt a culture of accepting the risk of failure are often the most successful. It’s how unicorn digital experiences are created, for example.
We can employ a change management plan, which details how change is identified, escalated and actioned throughout a project. We also have change requests that can be used to capture when change occurs; identify the potential impacts, constraints, and what project element will be affected by the change, e.g. timeline, budget or scope. It’s critical that whatever tools we choose to use, we communicate these clearly to all stakeholders (especially clients), so that there is shared agreement and expectation as to how change will be assessed and managed during the project. If expectations aren’t managed and communicated, it can lead to frustration and disagreement about what action should be taken and why change has occurred in the first place.
Why should we embrace change?
The world around us is changing at an increasing pace. As Benjamin Disraeli once said,
Change is inevitable. Change is constant.
Technological advances, like the introduction and development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), mean that vast quantities of information are analysed in a fraction of the time previously thought possible, allowing decisions to be made quicker than ever before. Within digital projects, the use of AI to speed up our own decision making will fundamentally change the way in which we manage projects. The use of this technology in a wider industrial context will mean that marketplaces as we know them will fundamentally change, as organisations seek to take advantage of new opportunities, emerging markets and new ways to provide products and services to their consumer base. As service organisations, we must set ourselves up to be flexible so we can adapt quickly to these changes in the marketplace, and be prepared to accept that what is the right thing to focus our strategies and resources on today, might not be right tomorrow. We should re-examine our focus within our projects on a regular basis and evaluate whether there are new opportunities to be taken advantage of.
To help us transform as a business and be more flexible and dynamic in our approach to the projects we undertake with our clients, we’re moving to an agile framework. We know that in doing so, we’ll be able to embrace change within our projects in a way that hasn’t been possible before. Like many of our clients, we’ve continued to work in more traditional waterfall-style ways for many years, partly because it’s safe and known. And because we can define upfront exactly what we’re going to do, how much time it will take and what the end client is going to receive. The problem with following this methodology, though, is that when change and opportunities inevitably present themselves, we find it hard to take advantage of them and to adapt the end solution accordingly. We still stick to what was ‘defined’ in the specification, what was planned in the timeline and what we’d agreed to in the statement of work.
An agile way of working will mean that we work and deliver in smaller, incremental sprints of work and constantly re-evaluate whether what we’re currently doing is still the right thing and whether the time and budget is still focused in the right areas. We can take advantage of new opportunities quicker, embrace new tools and technologies and bring them to bear sooner rather than later, and ultimately deliver maximum value for our clients. I don’t expect this to be an easy shift as a business, change on such a fundamental scale never is. The same can be said about change within projects too. But as long as we embrace the change and have a clear plan to manage it – and take advantage of it – I’m confident that we can all adapt and ultimately prosper. It’s how we make progress.
If you have a project to discuss then drop us a line, we’d love to hear from you.