While project managers are responsible for overseeing a project from conception to completion, it can be argued that some of their most important work takes place before the first project task is begun: During the planning phase.
Between the project plan and its many subsidiaries (such as the stakeholder engagement plan, communication management plan, and risk management plan), project managers spend a tremendous amount of time determining what the project will look like and how it will be carried out.
But what happens if an aspect of the plan needs to be adjusted due to unforeseen complications? Turns out, there’s a plan for that, too: The change management plan.
“The Project management environment is complex and dynamic, and environmental complexity is a function of the number of stakeholders involved in a project,” says Jacques Alexis, associate teaching professor for Northeastern’s Master of Science in Project Management program. “Project success is about fulfilling stakeholders’ requirements, and having a change management plan is a great way to control all those aspects.”
Below, we define what a change management plan is, and outline the key steps that you can follow to create one for your project.
What is a change management plan?
In the world of project management, change refers to adjustments that impact a project as it was originally outlined. This can include anything from changes in the project’s budget and schedule to changes in stakeholders, resource allocation, supply chain, individual tasks, and even the project’s overarching scope and objective. These kinds of factors typically come into play during the execution, monitoring, and control phases of a project.
A change management plan is a written document that outlines in detail how the project team will manage these factors if and when they occur. It is a subsidiary plan, typically created at the same time as the main project plan.
According to Alexis, this document outlines:
- The project team’s processes for implementing a change to the project
- When changes can and should be made
- The tools and techniques required to implement the change
In other words, a change management plan “tells stakeholders how change requests will be managed and controlled throughout the project lifecycle,” Alexis says.
How to Write a Change Management Plan in 7 Steps
1. Develop a clear understanding of the business objective.
According to Alexis, the first step in creating a change management plan is to ensure that you understand the business case behind the project.
“Change management is about managing inputs from a variety of people,” Alexis says. “This means you need to develop a clear understanding of the business objective as expressed by stakeholders.”
The business objective should inform every decision that you make, including the methodology that guides how you think about and prioritize change requests. Therefore, having a firm understanding of the business case is essential. Without it, it will be extremely difficult to create both your overarching project plan and your change management plan.
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2. Identify stakeholders.
With the business case in mind, the next step in the process is to identify all of a project’s stakeholders. This will allow you to understand the different people who will be involved in steering the project, as well as those who may approach you with change requests that must be answered.
Understanding the roles, responsibilities, personalities, and individual motivators of each stakeholder will also allow you to better prioritize change requests in the future.
“This is something that is typically done early in the project, but when you develop a change management plan it is a good time to take a look at the stakeholder analysis,” Alexis says.
In many cases, you’ll find that this information exists in the stakeholder engagement plan, which will often be generated before, or in tandem with, the change management plan. Depending on the size of the project team and your unique role, you may be responsible for generating both documents yourself, or you may find that another individual is responsible for the task.
3. Clarify the scope.
“When we talk about change, what we’re talking about is changes to the scope of the project or to the process of delivering the project,” Alexis says.
With this in mind, Alexis explains that it’s important to clarify the scope of the project before moving forward. The scope will impact everything from budget and schedule to individual tasks that must be done to deliver the project, so it’s crucial to have a clear picture of what it entails as early as possible. This will allow everyone involved in the project to understand how various change requests might impact the work as it unfolds.
Alexis also notes that it is critical for the project manager to avoid scope creep at all times—both in the planning phase of the project, as well as in the actual delivery and implementation. Understanding what does and doesn’t fall within the project’s scope gives the project manager something against which they can measure change requests.
4. Document the purpose of the change control system.
Whether a change control system already exists within the organization or you are in the process of creating one from scratch, Alexis notes that it’s important to document the purpose of this system.
“It may be obvious to many project managers, but documenting the purpose of the change control system within the organization will remind stakeholders, and particularly team members, that change management is actually a formal process,” Alexis says.
5. Define the processes, tools, and techniques that will be used to approve and reject change requests.
In order for the change control and management system to work as intended, you will need to have a clear process for receiving, reviewing, accepting, and rejecting change requests. This process should be as transparent as possible so that everyone involved in the project, including the project team and stakeholders, has an understanding of how change requests are evaluated.
According to Alexis, completing this step should include factors such as:
- Process: What specific process is involved in evaluating a change request? Once a change request is submitted, how long will it take to reach a decision? Who will be involved in the process, and who has the final say over the request?
- Techniques: What techniques will be used to evaluate each change request and determine whether or not it will be implemented? How will change requests be prioritized?
- Tools: Does the organization use a particular tool for project management or change management? If so, what does this tool look like, and how does it work? Who has access to the tool? Does documentation exist, and can it be distributed?
This is also the point in time when you will determine who will have final authority over approving or rejecting change requests. For smaller organizations or projects, this might be a key stakeholder or the project manager themselves, whereas, for larger organizations or projects, it might be a change control board comprised of multiple individuals who discuss the proposed change request and come to a consensus.
6. Develop a change implementation process.
Once the review and approval process is settled, you should also outline a process for implementing approved change requests. Some questions to consider include:
- How will the project plan be adjusted to account for the change?
- How will scheduling and task management be adjusted?
- How will you determine who is notified about the change and ensure that they have all of the information they need to perform the tasks that are assigned to them?
7. Define how approved changes will be tracked and controlled.
Finally, Alexis notes that it is important to track any approved change requests so that a written record is available and can be revisited in the future. This record will allow the project manager to answer any questions that arise about how and why a project plan may have changed during execution. It can also prove to be an invaluable resource for the planning of future projects.
A changelog can be a useful way of tracking any changes to the original scope of the project, Alexis says. This document would detail the change request itself and the reasoning behind its implementation, as well as where it came from and who requested it.
Building Your Change Management Skills
Alexis notes that, in some industries, project managers who worry about scope creep may develop their project scope in such a way that it becomes very difficult to implement change after a project has kicked off. However, such a rigid approach to change management isn’t viable in the long-term and is becoming less common.
“I think the project management environment is changing and people understand that change is inevitable,” Alexis says.
As such, the ability to develop a change management process, review and evaluate change requests, and implement critical project changes when they make sense is an important skill for modern project managers to develop. Pursuing a graduate-level education, such as a Master of Science in Project Management, will give you the opportunity to hone these and other advanced project management skills that you will need to be successful in the role.
To learn how a master’s degree in project management can help advance your career, download our free guide to breaking into the industry below.