Effective Change Management

Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher (c.544-c.483 bc), is credited as the first to say “change is the only constant in life”.  After analyzing a large number of change processes on mining projects, I have often pondered if he came up with this obvious truth to bury the fact that his project was over budget and behind schedule.  While he is noted as being a philosopher, I suspect Heraclitus really was a contractor who started his project without a baseline budget, a schedule, monitoring process, or even a Change Management process.  He most likely made his famously sweeping generality in an attempt to mask his inability to manage change and to get his employer to accept his mistakes.  In project management, we know that we should not begin unless we have a plan that includes a strategy to manage changes.

Planning for change in a project includes developing an actual Change Management process. An effective process is about understanding what is acceptable and unacceptable by those executing the work.  The benefit of a solid process is to see the project with greater clarity in order to take wiser and more considered action to change those things that need to be changed.  A solid Change Management process will help maintain an awareness to assess goals and find the optimum path towards completion.

“Change is the only constant” is not a license to ignore an effective process.

We often see projects that invite a lot of changes which is largely due to the lack of scope.  We also see projects that do not have the adequate tools or process set up to recognize, record, review and approve change.   This sounds simple so why is the Change Management process so difficult to implement?

The process is basic.  The fundamental principles are:

  • The baseline for the scope of work needs to be complete as possible.
  • An enforceable, formal, documented, process to identify and record possible changes BEFORE they happen needs to be developed.
  • A review process for changes that impact cost and schedule needs to be documented and shared with all stakeholders. The review process must be clear on any change from the baseline scope and concise on who is responsible for approving what.
  • Report formats need to be set up to monitor the progress against the baseline scope. The format is more important than most people consider. We have found contractors who try to hide a change or poor performance by altering the report format.
  • Routine review meetings must be established to achieve an effective process. This ensures that the management team is consistently pro-active and not re-active.  Setting up a pro-active environment also gives the executive management time to understand the changes.
  • Periodic process audits, preferably by a third party, should also be programmed in to the plan.

The complexity is found in the last two points. When left unattended, these two items often make Change Management appear to be more difficult than it actually is.

We could add a final bullet point to cover staffing. One of the most common errors in planning an effective Change Management process is to understaff the project controls team.  Owners who invest in the right people that are dedicated to the process will maintain a more accurate focus and control on the proposed changes.  While we understand the benefits in taking a One Team Approach, we need to keep in mind that the contractor may be equally guilty in not staffing their team appropriately as well. Neither party can explain the changes coming at them if they are not staffed properly.

It would be interesting if Heraclitus were alive today.  Would he modify the processes we currently use or would he revise his quote relative to an effective Change Management process?

Written by John F. Gravel

with Matthew Brook