Four Key Ways to Manage Change on Technical Projects

It is rare for internal stakeholders to effectively manage the inherent change in a technical implementation, either because they don’t possess the right skill set, or they are too close to the circumstances that created the change in the first place. By definition, stakeholders have something at stake; and often, they are focusing on their individual piece of a larger puzzle. This is why organizations bring in an external project manager, who is expected to be less attached to any individual outcome and more able to keep the numerous elements of the project moving forward. But, project managers face the same dilemma as individual contributors in that they are responsible to the key stakeholders, namely senior management. With the primary charge of keeping the process under budget and on time, project managers have their hands full just keeping people working toward that goal.

We have become accustomed to working with project managers, team leads, functional leads, and subject matter experts on large-scale projects. Each of these individuals and their respective groups owns an element of the project. And, if we have learned nothing else around productivity, it’s that that nothing gets done without someone stepping forward and declaring, “I’ll make it happen.” So, why don’t we treat the issue of change with the same level of importance?

With respect to technical projects, there are four major areas in which a Change Manager can have direct, positive impact on this phenomenon called change:

  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Knowledge Transfer
  • Project Turnover

As defined by Websters, collaboration means, “To work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort.” Another definition by Jan Gordon, an executive coach, is “It’s when we step outside of ourselves and honor the space we share, more than where we each individually come from. Collaboration is what we create when we come together.” Stepping outside ourselves is no small task, but it’s most important when managing project work.

Left to our own devices, each of us will first manage to the requirements for which we are responsible. This “silo-effect” begins to happen on projects when each group exclusively focuses on their own tasks. Asking a project manager to intervene in this tunnel vision problem, or expecting teams to bring it to light, is akin to expecting employees to tell their boss what’s lacking in their teamwork skills. It’s not going to happen. Self-preservation keeps people from telling the truth about their difficulties with effectively working across groups.

A Change Manager can help the team be successful without having to expose all the details to management where the breakdown exists. A Change Manager can develop safe mechanisms for uncovering and revealing what’s flowing, and more importantly what’s not flowing, across groups. For example, groups often need to understand (at a high level) what the other groups are doing and where they’re going in order to see how their piece fits into the larger schema. A Change Manager has the perspective to create simplified views or pictures of what each group is working on for other groups to digest more easily.

Once effective collaboration has been established within a team, developing strong communication outside the core group becomes the next area in which a Change Manager can have positive influence. Communicating to a broader audience and articulating basic concepts can be a natural extension if the core team understands where the system is with respect to its overall stage of development. A Change Manager can transform project team collaboration documents into communication pieces, and in the process, identify the basic knowledge that should be understood outside the design group. (See sample process map).

Nothing serves a community more than respecting its members’ needs and desires to feel included in the process. An effective Change Manager – with a unique perspective on the entire project – can know how to tap the community for input and when to release information so that end-users feel part of the process and begin to understand how the project will affect their lives. This effort also serves to provide the project groups with valuable feedback and information to help with the development process and to determine the future needs for Knowledge Transfer.

Knowledge Transfer
Knowledge Transfer (or Training) has its own unique strategies for success. (See article “A Non–traditional Approach to Technical Implementations”). As the day approaches when a system is set to go-live, there inevitably will be a requirement for some form of education (knowledge and skills) so that people can hit the ground running. A Change Manager, who has focused on collaboration and communication efforts throughout the process, will be more able to understand and/or uncover:

Key topics and concepts that will need to be learned
Team members who have an interest and skill in communicating – these members can be tapped to contribute to the knowledge transfer process.

Available project documentation – understanding how to morph existing information from tactical and informational to performance-based tasks. Who knows what and where to go for it. Nothing delays the training process more than the inability to negotiate the many players in a project.

Project Turnover
In the early stages of a project, the last thing both internal teams and external consultants are focused on is how the transfer of knowledge and eventual ownership of the system will happen after the go-live date. And, that fine. But it’s important to minimally ask the question at this point and in the design phase to set the stage for what kinds of knowledge need to be shared and who might become responsible for some of this knowledge.

A Change Manager can facilitate this process and help identify those individuals or groups that will need to own the system responsibilities. Their charge can be to reengage these participants throughout the process, preventing the ownership transfer from occurring at the last minute and becoming an overwhelming task for employees.

A good Change Manager helps project team members who both need to “catch fish” and “teach others how to fish” from becoming full time fishermen.

Excellence requires wrestling change to the ground and making it familiar. A Change Manager can be a tremendous complement to a team by facilitating the efforts that project management has, but has great difficulty executing because of the various change elements inherent in the process. A good Change Manager can turn training, which is often seen as a necessary evil, into a natural result of information flow from project team to end-users. An effective Change Manager “smoothes out the bumps”, helping the project management team get everything they want, including a smooth turnover after the go-live date.