Change Management Explained In 8 Easy Steps (We Promise!)
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Change Management Explained In 8 Easy Steps (We Promise!)

Rose Keefe Rose Keefe Last Updated:

Vogue editor Anna Wintour was once asked what word made her cringe every time she heard it used by someone in the fashion industry. Without hesitation, she replied, “Journey.”

Like Ms. Wintour, project managers have a word we don’t greet with enthusiasm: change. No one is overjoyed at the prospect of backtracking or changing direction after laying a lot of groundwork, but if you have a system in place to accommodate it, change can be relatively painless and even make the final deliverable exceed expectations.

Welcome to change management!

What is Change Management?

In project management, change refers to anything that transforms a project’s tasks, milestones, deliverables, or even the scope. Change management describes the processes, tools, and resources used to effectively integrate these changes into the project.

So what causes projects to change direction midway through the cycle and even beyond? Reasons include:

  • The project requirements were not properly defined during the project’s definition phase.
  • The stakeholder changes their mind and you have to incorporate their new ideas(s).
  • New laws or regulations applying to the project outcome have taken effect, making a change necessary to remain compliant or avoid redundancy.
  • The company or client experiences a change in strategic direction.
  • The technology being used by the team or future users (if you are developing an app or software) has upgraded.
  • The project runs out of resources before it can be completed.

In 1995 Harvard Business School professor John Kotter published a book titled Leading Change. In it, he introduced an innovative and groundbreaking model for managing change in a multitude of settings, project management included. It consisted of eight steps, all of which had to be taken for the change to work. Here’s everything you need to know in order to implement Kotter’s strategy into your own project.

Step 1: Create Urgency

The first step in Kotter’s model is creating a sense of urgency. Doing so is important because change will only be meaningful if you get buy-in and cooperation from the majority of stakeholders and team members. According to Kotter, you will have reached the right level of urgency if 75% of people agree that the change is necessary.

A project manager can create a sense of urgency by:

  • Making everyone understand how leaving things as they are will have a negative effect on the project AND
  • Selling the advantages and value of applying the change(s).

You are making it clear that in this instance, change is a need and not simply a want. These conversations should be accompanied by persuasive elements such as data about the current market, actions taken by competitors, and any limitations such as low resource levels.

For example, if you are developing a financial management app and the financial services industry has adopted new regulations, the fact that legal issues may arise if changes aren’t made can inspire the right level of urgency.

Step 2: Form a Powerful Coalition

Setting the stage for change requires visible support from key people on your team and within your organization. When you want to convince others that change is necessary, especially a change that could money and increase the team’s workload, you need to form a coalition of influential people whose experience, expertise, and even political importance within the company.

In the case of the financial services app mentioned in Step One, your coalition could include the organization’s in-house counsel and the head of the accounting department, who would likely be familiar with the regulatory changes and the consequences of disregarding them.

change management

Step 3: Create a Vision for Change

Once you realize that change is essential, you will probably have several ideas for accomplishing it. Combine these solutions into an overall vision so that everyone will be able to easily understand why you’re asking them to support the change. When the directives make more sense to them, they will be able to implement them more thoroughly.

The best project management software includes versatile communication platforms, Toggl Plan, for example, is a leading browser-based software with robust communication tools that include integration with chat system Slack.

A resource like Toggl Plan allows you to convey instructions and information without having to call regular meetings. It also has a visual overview that makes people more open to change because they can see what’s coming and know what to expect.

With the financial app example, you can tell stakeholders and team members that a legally compliant app will inspire user confidence and protect the company from any accusations of selling a flawed financial management tool.

Step 4: Communicate the Vision

You’ve created your vision for change and a strategy for turning it into reality. Now you need to communicate it effectively.

Doing so calls for more than just a special meeting or two. You have to integrate it into every step of the project. Let your team and all stakeholders see you use it to solve problems and make decisions.

What you do is just as important as what you say, if not more. When you “walk the walk,”you demonstrate the actions that you want others to use.

Step 5: Remove Obstacles

Once you’ve communicated your vision and demonstrated the supporting actions you want to see others use, it’s time to identify and remove any obstacles to the change. These obstacles could be:

  • Processes or systems that can’t support the transformation
  • Team members who are resistant to the change

How you remove these obstacles will depend on what they are. You may have to acquire new tools or spend some time helping any reluctant parties understand the necessity for change. In a worst-case scenario, these people may have to be replaced with new team members who are more supportive or adaptable.

Step 6: Create Short-Term Wins

Nothing energizes and motivates people like success. According to Kotter, giving your team a sense of victory early in the project lifecycle can increase the strength and sincerity of buy-in and make them more committed to following your change management strategy. They’ll also be less susceptible to negative comments from critics.

Break your long-term goal into short-term accomplishments. Toggl Plan users can create project milestones that are significant yet achievable. Treat them like a series of ‘wins’ that will further motivate the entire team.

Step 7: Build on the Change

When you start scenting victory, it can be tempting to slow down and enjoy the rewards of your hard work. You’re in the home stretch- shouldn’t you start taking it easy?

Maybe that concept works for marathon runners, but with project management, declaring victory too early is counter-productive. Quick wins won’t make a change permanent: you have to build on what went right, identify areas for improvement, and keep going.

Step 8: Anchor the Changes in Company Culture

If a change is going to stick, it has to become part of your company’s regular project management system and not be a ‘one time only’ event. It might take time, but with consistent application and support from your coalition, the change will progress from being a novelty to becoming part of “the way we do things around here.”

Rose Keefe

Rose Keefe is an author and technical writer who has over ten years’ experience in supporting project managers in the manufacturing and construction sectors. One of her primary responsibilities was developing product manuals that supported efficient use of industrial equipment. She continues to write on the subject of time management and commercial productivity for trade websites and publications.

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