The need to integrate project management and organizational change

Contrary to what seems to be the current practice advocated by the Project Management Institute (PMI) and others, project management processes must also consider how to engage employees from the beginning so that they come to see any initiative as their own, and not simply as something to be done because they are told. Readers will find constructive guidance in this article.

What’s wrong with project management training?

In the management and organizational literature, it has been demonstrated time and time again that effective change management and leadership significantly influence the success rates of organizational initiatives. Nonetheless, I have noticed for a number of years now that IT management and workers, who are instrumental in implementing change initiatives, and the Project Management Institute (PMI), confine their thinking about “change management” primarily to two areas – change control and change advisory boards. There seems to be, with few exceptions, little appreciation of the need to integrate technical and social issues when potential project managers (PM) are trained. This is surprising given that all knowledge areas in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) address in one way or another the attempt to control change (Project Management Institute [2004]. A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge [PMBOK Guide] [3rd ed.]. Newtown Square, PA: PMI Publications). This article will discuss the training of project managers must address both technical and social issues.

Training project managers

The PMI is one of a few influential training organizations that qualifies Project Managers globally; it is the pre-eminent certification institute in North America. However, while it recognizes some issues of Human Resource Management — such as communications and team building, it does not address these issues in a substantive way. Also, it practically ignores organizational change. Instead, the emphasis in training is on areas such as risk removal, ensuring optimal process performance and the delivery of project deliverables. Clearly, the PMI offers a model that is prescriptive in nature.

A complementary project management model, one endorsed by the UK government and used extensively internationally is PRINCE2 (PRojects IN Controlled Environments 2), which is administered by the Association of Project Managers Group (APMG). Similar observations can be made about PRINCE2, although APMG’s explicit advocacy of Agile Project Management (APM) is accompanied by a more direct acknowledgment of the need to include social system concerns. For instance, to some extent, APM ostensibly focuses on people development, self-management and self-discipline, participatory decision-making, customer focus and less bureaucracy. However, there has been little research evaluating the degree to which these areas are focused on in practice.

Currently, the PMI, in its PMBOK, recognizes 42 processes that fall into five basic process groups and nine knowledge areas, and that are typical of almost all projects.

The five process groups are:

  1. Initiating
  2. Planning
  3. Executing
  4. Monitoring and Controlling
  5. Closing

The nine knowledge areas are:

  1. Project Integration Management
  2. Project Scope Management
  3. Project Time Management
  4. Project Cost Management
  5. Project Quality Management
  6. Project Human Resource Management
  7. Project Communications Management
  8. Project Risk Management
  9. Project Procurement Management

What about organizational change?

Since Project Human Resources Management appears as one of the knowledge areas, one might expect organizational change management to fall under it. But this is not the case. Included under this rubric are four processes: human resource planning, acquisition of team members, development of the project team, and team management. None of these refers in any fashion to organizational change, and none of the remaining five process groups or eight knowledge areas addresses it. One might also expect change control to be included, as it is a concerted effort to coordinate changes across all knowledge areas, and falls under the rubric project integration management. It also drives project scope, schedule, cost, quality, risk, and procurement. But again, no such luck

This change process above addresses requests to change some aspect of the project that might impact one or more areas of project management that have been placed under change control. Change Requests may affect one or several of the following:

  • the work to be done or in progress (scope, solution definition, deliverable definition, etc.),
  • the project schedule,
  • the project cost,
  • the project risk or complexity level,
  • the quality of the project deliverables,
  • project contract administration,
  • customer satisfaction (i.e., client, sponsor, stakeholder, end user)

Proper project management

Nonetheless, project implementation success is about more than the mechanics of project-integration management and of the process groups and knowledge areas. Contrary to what seems to be the current practice advocated by PMI and others, project management processes must also consider how to engage employees from the beginning, so that they come to see any initiative as their own, and not simply as something to be done because they have been told to do so.

John Kotter, an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School, has stated clearly that the focus of change leadership is on crafting a vision and aligning and motivating people affected by the change, so that they are prepared to support and adopt it. Harvey Kolodny, an emeritus professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, has recognized the necessity to integrate the practice of change management with project management. He has indicated that the successful implementation of major managerial innovations (e.g., customer-centric restructuring, six sigma and the likes), which are critical to the survival of organizations, seldom makes effective use of the interchange between project management and change management, even though it relies on both.

Project management and change management use different terminology and different methodologies. Their respective proponents are found in different parts of the organization and have different functional and educational backgrounds. Kotter has said that organizations should benefit from a synthesis of the two approaches, but that they are not benefitting. As a result, significant opportunities for learning between the two approaches are being lost.


Employee adoption

The Standish Group and Gartner, organizations that track Information Technology (IT) and other project implementations globally, have clearly stated that a significant contributor to information systems (IS)/information technology (IT)/information management (IM) project failures is overlooking the need to address employee adoption and resistance jointly. Whether or not a project is successful has much to do with whether or not employees adopt the inevitable changes that are advocated. And such adoption is a function of how much resistance users may have to the changes in work.

The degree to which employees are expected to comply with the wishes of management and remain uninvolved affects the magnitude of employee resistance. Thus, resistance can be influenced by the presence or absence of involvement in decision-making. These are issues that are always explicitly handled by effective organizational change mana

management (OCM), yet many project teams do not include such a resource or focus. In fact, too many organizations, when forming their project teams, make the incorrect assumption that project managers (PMs) and/or business analysts (BAs) will handle OCM. But these people have far too many other responsibilities to be able to devote the necessary time and energy to do an effective job at OCM. And with all due respect to their capabilities, they cannot possibly have sufficient knowledge of, and experience with, OCM as do those of us who have dealt with it consistently throughout our careers.

In 2010, I asked a PMI representative why they fail to at least highlight the importance of OCM in successful project implementation. The answer I received was distressing: I was told that information on organizational change was considered out of scope! The assumption seems to be that if all technical and management details are attended to, implementation will be successful. But nothing could be further from the truth!

An article integrating results of 49 studies on major change projects showed that complex initiatives fail 67 – 81 percent of the time (King, S. & Peterson, L. [2007]. How effective leaders achieve success in critical change initiatives, Part 2: Why change leadership must transcend project management for complex initiatives to be successful. Healthcare Quarterly, 10(2), 72-75). Change projects fail because of organizational resistance almost twice as often as they do because of any technical issue, including poor project management. It appears almost irresponsible to convey a message that says that focusing on the steps of the project management process is sufficient to ensure success.

Of late, a few organizations have begun to integrate organization change and project management to, and the people and organizational orientation of change management. They have begun to appreciate that the discipline and methodology of project management can be integrated with the forward visioning, commitment building and attention to people and culture of change management. They seem to be more aware that success in project management is as much about creating ownership and shared meaning as it is about following the process steps. They seem to appreciate that project managers cannot ignore the effect organizational changes may have on project outcomes. Moreover, the management literature is replete with examples of project failures that have been a direct consequence of not attending to organizational change issues. If IS/IT is intended to improve not only organizational cohesion, but also to decentralize functionality, project managers must understand that the needs of users change constantly, making continuous attention to change absolutely necessary. Project management needs to consider the entire lifecycle of a system, to extend its thinking beyond design and development.

An analysis of attempts to institute a new distributed learning system (DLS) at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia demonstrated clearly that judging the success of projects in an organization cannot be limited solely to the efficiency of the project management processes employed.  After three and a half years, the technological system and its maintenance were part of ongoing operations, but change management continued. Helping staff and students effectively use the system, assisting teaching staff to become consistent users of the online learning environment, production of multimedia learning objects, overcoming resistance to using unfamiliar processes and technology, and so on all require mentoring and explicit change support (Kenny, J. [2003]. Effective project management for strategic innovation and change in an organizational context. Project Management Journal, 34(2), 43 – 53).

In a survey of 50 recruitment sites soliciting for contract resources for IT and other projects, I discovered that a number of recruiters and organizations sought people who had OCM experience. However, it was a particular kind of experience. That is, they said that someone on their project teams must be certified in Prosci’s ADKAR process (Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, Reinforcement). Prosci, a private research and training firm established in 1994 and located in Loveland, Colorado, describes itself as the leader in business process design and change management research, and as the world’s largest provider of change management and reengineering toolkits and benchmarking information. The ADKAR model reflects what Prosci believes are the building blocks for individual change. It was developed based on analysis of research data from over 900 organizations over a 10-year period.

In 2006, Prosci released the first complete text on the ADKAR model in Jeff Hiatt’s book ADKAR: a model for change in business, government and our community. Prosci’s own research shows that problems with the “people dimension” of change are the most commonly cited reasons for project failures. But interestingly, ADKAR focuses on process instead of people, and more distressingly, fails to consider change to be a complex, systemic phenomenon that involves the interdependence of a multiplicity of variables. Moreover, ADKAR fails to make the distinction between individual (psychological) change and organizational change. While there are overlaps, organizational change relies on an understanding of group processes and behaviour, which are not explained by a sole focus on individual dynamics.

Certification in ADKAR through Prosci may be adequate as a first step to gaining competence in facilitating organizational change, though it is dangerous to assume that what is a three-day certification course provides one with sufficient tools and experience to effectively deal with project change management. Moreover, to say that the project resource MUST be Prosci-certified, as some recruiters/organizations have done, is outrageous. It is a hopeless simplification of a complex issue, and serves to minimize careers worth of knowledge and experience about change management and change leadership that is possessed by change and OD consultants, who for one reason or another have not been seen as adequate or worthy enough for inclusion on project teams.

Both IT and the PMI must widen their thinking to acknowledge the existence and importance of OCM in project success. Too many organizations persist in a more than 40 year old belief that technology trumps everything. As we have seen, it surely does not.


About the Author

Henry Hornstein is an Assistant Professor at Algoma University, where he teaches Human Resources Development and Organizational Behaviour in the Business and Economics department.