Change is the norm, so be prepared to deal with it

If you think it's getting harder to keep up with new developments in your company or your project, you're right. To give you an idea of how pervasive change is, Amazon lists more than 12,000 books on the topic of "change management." Change permeates our work lives as never before, and things are changing at a faster pace, so that we are almost constantly dealing with new technologies, a reallocation of budgets, new markets, new product offerings, new leadership, new regulations or compliance issues, changes in the economy, a hiring freeze, or staffing cuts or reassignments. Every day, every hour, some manager somewhere must figure out how to manage a new circumstance. Here are some common scenarios and some solutions to help address major sources of change:

'My resources have changed.'

It's easy to feel that the rug has been pulled out from under you if there are changes in the resources available for your project. Just some of the things you can be hit with are a new budget limit for the project, a change in staff head count or a new technology available. It's the project manager's task to consider the impact of these changes on the team's mission. But it can be daunting to recalibrate a project or a department to accommodate changing resources. Which comes first -- deciding, on the one hand, on the budget, staffing and schedules, or, on the other hand, the spending limits and deadlines?

By defining the constraints upfront, the project team has a better idea of how to proceed and what trade-offs must be made. Just as important, this exercise can drive the team to look for alternatives that are more manageable with scarce resources, which they can then present to senior management. It's better to spend a half a day relaunching the project based on a new project agreement than it is to create a final deliverable that no one wants, or to attempt to complete a project with inadequate resources.

'My project sponsor's enthusiasm has dimmed.'

If your project sponsor is missing status meetings, is less responsive than before to requests for information or is changing the resources available to your team, be prepared to seek out another sponsor. But it also may be time to check whether or not the company's priorities have changed.

This happens more than you might expect. Not all project proposals are clearly supportive of a company's strategic goals. (One survey of 750 organizations, conducted by Business Improvement Architects, found that only 32% of those polled said they had a process for prioritizing projects.) A well-planned business case for a project can help ensure that it is aligned with corporate strategy and will make it easier to keep pace with any changes in strategy.

'The customers are changing their requirements.'

Changes in customer requirements for specific features included in the final deliverables are among the more frustrating aspects of project implementation. It's possible to minimize these changes by a thorough understanding of the customer's problems during the planning process. Since it's hard to predict the future with complete accuracy, though, managers need to be prepared to prioritize any new customer requirements so that cost trade-offs can be made. Prioritizing customer requirements can be as simple as awarding five points to must-have items, three to nice-to-have items and one to things that are not that important. A rule of thumb is to limit the number of customer requirements to no more than seven. Ideally, each team member should vote on each requirement.

'My staff is changing.'

Now more than ever, staff changes are a reality in the working world. Long-term projects can no longer rely on keeping the same team in place. The worst situation is to lose a team member who will not be replaced, but even the addition of a new team member can disrupt a project's progress.

Whenever a team gets a new member, it becomes a new team. It is important that the team spend a half-hour together developing new team guidelines and protocols for meetings. This will facilitate working relationships, create a procedure to positively interact and prevent destructive conflict.

The loss of a team member who is not replaced requires keeping the communication lines open with special communications skills from team leaders. Engage them with clear, direct communication. Make sure you provide clear instructions on what they need to do. Take the time to answer the questions with as much information as you can; get their feedback and listen to their concerns. Understand and explain what it means to them and choose words that will validate people's feelings. Take a temperature reading of morale by finding the influencers in key departments and taking them outside the office for lunch or dinner; ask them directly how people are feeling right now.

Winston Churchill once said "There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction." With the right preparation, information and communication, change can be managed successfully and you can put your project in the right direction, no matter what the circumstances.

Michelle LaBrosse, PMP, is the founder and CEO of Cheetah Learning and author of the books Cheetah Negotiations and Cheetah Project Management.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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