In 2020, COVID-19 forced many project managers to respond to change like never before. So why is formal change management not a larger part of the project manager toolkit?

The challenges of 2020 have been well-documented, but AIPM and KPMG research shows that despite the obstacles, Australian project managers have managed to record a 31% year-on-year increase in successful project delivery. The research also found a 40% increase in on-time project delivery.

But the research, conducted in partnership with KPMG and surveying almost 500 Australian project managers, also found that despite 2020’s intense change pressures, just 67% of organisations undertake formal change management activities during projects. Perhaps more alarmingly, less than a third of respondents suggested those activities are achieving the highest levels of effectiveness.

Changing needs

Elise Olding, an organisational change expert at Gartner, says the days of change management simply revolving around provision of a training budget and resources for a particular project no longer cuts it. Clear and constant coordination and communication is required between executive sponsors and the project management team to discuss project expectations, mitigate risks and align people about their roles and tasks.

“The real purpose of change management is about managing stakeholder expectations,” Olding says. “And then leaders have to be accountable in the business units for that change to happen. They also need education and coaching, and that all takes time.”

Connie Beck, Vice President IT APAC at Incitec Pivot and a Director on the AIPM Board, has strong views about scenarios whereby change management teams are situated outside the project management office.

“If you’re just leveraging the expertise of a change manager, that works because they are feeding in as a subject matter expert,” she says. “But if you’ve got a project or program of work that is transformational, they need to sit in the PMO.

“When it’s transformational, there will be waves of communication and people impact, so you need that person to sit in the PMO, but to also have a dotted line into human resources because HR and the change manager will need to work hand in hand.”

Beck adds that because project managers are generally held responsible for outcomes and impacts, “they should be the controller orchestrating all activities during the lifecycle of a project”.

On course for success

Asked in the AIPM survey if they considered their formal change management activities to be “very or extremely effective”, just 32% of respondents answered in the affirmative. Beck says, in many cases, such a result can be put down to a failure to consider change management from the outset of a project. “It’s the upfront impact assessment that is often the problem,” she says.

She is adamant more project managers can benefit from training courses such as the AIPM’s RegPM Certification in which there is an emphasis on change management skills. Project managers can get “real-world competency” around planning and delivering change management activities in their project or program of work, in addition to HR, project costing and schedule management knowledge. With such skills, they are likely to “blitz it”, Beck says. Without that education, they are at risk of underperforming.

Olding says in a COVID-19 environment, in particular, project managers also need to be physically and mentally healthy if they are to handle and manage change successfully. She encourages starting team meetings with enquiries about how people are feeling, or getting people to share what they have done for themselves recently. “It starts to put on the radar the importance of taking care of ourselves.”

Olding believes burnout is posing a risk to projects and transformation. She advocates leaders following the insights and recommendations outlined in Gartner’s S.A.N.E framework:

  • Spot: watching for subtle changes in an employee’s work practices or attitude;
  • Assess: seeking clues to potential triggers and causes of employee burnout;
  • Neutralise: counteract issues by setting clear boundaries for work and personal time, and reassessing work deadlines; and
  • Educate: make burnout a topic of discussion at team meetings.

Olding says a challenging aspect of employee burnout is that each case is unique. Some employees may experience a ‘slow burn’, while others may seem to ‘flame out’ abruptly once they reach the tipping point. Vigilance is required.

Leading change a key skillset

The AIPM report identifies key potential areas for improvement for project managers, with 27% of respondents nominating “leading change in the organisation”.

Beck says successful project managers need the right governance, resourcing and backing from management to deliver successful projects. The best project managers, she adds, “stand up and shout out” and tell senior management what they want and need so they can deliver for the enterprise. Those who simply “catch and dispatch” issues are less effective.

“Leaders should want a demanding project manager because they will tell you what you don’t want to hear, but if you listen you’ll set the organisation up for success.” To improve change management outcomes, Beck advises focusing on planning from the get-go and addressing the four Ps:

  • project (the name);
  • purpose (outcomes);
  • particulars (roles, new ways of working); and
  • people (impact on day-to-day work).

“You can look at every type of organisational change management methodology in the world, but it still comes back to the four Ps,” Beck says. “It’s all in the planning. If the planning is done up front you’ll be more successful than managing projects as you go.”