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Do Change Management and Project Management Conflict?

I recently attended a training course which involved staging a team debate on this very question.  On hearing the question “Do change management and project management conflict?” my immediate thought was “No, they don’t”, and thankfully my team were asked to argue exactly that in the debate.  We had a little time to prepare before standing up in front of our colleagues to go head-to-head…

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The case for conflict: The change management-project management tug of war

Our opposition stood up to make their case for conflict between change and project management.  Essentially they had two arguments:

  1. “Change is complex and non-linear, whereas project management is linear. Therefore, the two are in conflict”.

A logical argument I thought, but not one I agree with.  I do agree that change and project management are very different, how different really depends on the nature of the project, and that is why the two must be combined.  In my mind, if they are at opposite ends of the spectrum, a successful project must include elements of both to be balanced.

  1. “The end goal / outcome of change projects may not be clear at the outset or may change during the journey. This conflicts with the project management approach of identifying the goal at the outset then ensuring it is delivered”.

Again quite a logical argument, and one I found more difficult to disagree with. However my view is that good project management is not overly rigid or inflexible; it allows for this scenario and there is a process for managing it.

Having listened and responded to the best they had to offer, it was now the turn of my team to be on the front foot and make our case…that change management and project management do indeed need each other to ensure success.

The case for harmony: Change management and project management go hand-in-hand

Our argument ran that the nature of the change can certainly, sometimes defy the rules of project management.  Often, but not always, change is complex, non-linear and unstructured and the outcome is determined by people’s behaviours, attitudes and their resulting actions. However, this does not mean change projects must defy the rules of project management entirely. Every successful project I have been involved in has combined the two disciplines, while every unsuccessful project I have been involved in has not. Change management and project management go hand-in-hand and here is why…

Project management brings the necessary rigour and structure to managing scope, cost, timescales, deliverables and quality, while a good change approach focuses on the ‘softer’, people side of the project, for example:

  • ensuring that all stakeholders are identified and engaged in the process;
  • agreeing a clear vision to work towards that people can buy into;
  • clearly articulating the benefits that will be delivered by the project to increase buy-in;
  • identifying the changes required in people’s behaviours and the organisational culture to successfully bring about change

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Good project management focuses on outcomes and not just milestones, and is flexible according to the nature of the change.

For example, a simple or incremental change may benefit from tight project management, whereas a complex, behavioural change may require a more flexible project management approach.  Either way, change projects without project management are likely to take longer and cost more.

Similarly project management without a suitable approach to change is likely to be strongly resisted by stakeholders and the change is unlikely to ‘stick’ – i.e. the change will not be sustained without changing people’s behaviours. Many projects deliberately combine project and change management methodologies to ensure that change is at the centre and spans all phases of a project, for example combining PRINCE2 with a recognised change management methodology such as PROSCI.

The verdict

Having made our case for change management and project management harmony, we sat back down for the judges to decide the winner…and yes, we won the day. But that is not important…in my view what matters most is that projects include both change and project management and there is a healthy tension between them.  While Project Managers and Change Managers can be very different animals, each needs the other, working within each project’s unique context, to ensure that the benefits of change are fully realised.