top of page

Project Management and Change Management: Managing Complex Change

By: Emily Walsh, Director

Project Management and Change Management - both practices involve managing people and processes, and they often work hand-in-hand to meet the goals of a project and, more broadly, the goals of an organization. Although some formal project management practitioners prefer to clearly delineate between project management and change management activities, let’s be honest: in the nonprofit technology sector, most of our projects involve asking people to change how they do their jobs - whether that’s using a new marketing automation tool, converting to a new database, or building new data integration processes, for example.

From where we sit (“we” being the project managers, project sponsors, and other leaders of driving technological change within our organizations!), these changes usually seem like a no-brainer: we’re going to implement the latest and greatest tools and technologies! People’s jobs will be easier! Everyone will be so happy!

But wait… why aren’t people more excited?!?!? Why do some people seem so stressed?

Well, with any change comes uncertainty… and uncertainty often leads to anxiety, confusion, and change resistance from team members who may not fully understand the need for the changes that you and your team are advancing, their specific role in the change process, or how to adapt their daily work to new business processes. And without ongoing buy-in from members of your project team as well as those impacted by the changes, a project can quickly derail and end-user adoption can fail.

This is why some of the best project managers have developed a deep understanding of change management practices and tools - and use them to their advantage. Over the next several weeks I’ll be providing a brief overview of three of my favorite change management tools, starting this week with the Knoster Model for Managing Complex Change.

Using this Model for Project Planning & Preparation

When launching a new project, the “managing complex change” model can provide a great overview of the factors that you should consider during the planning phase of your project to ensure that things run smoothly and do not derail. For example, this model prompts you to ask yourself six questions:

  1. Do you have a clearly articulated vision - and has that vision been shared with project team members and other impacted parties?

  2. Do you have consensus from those involved (and those impacted by the change) that the change is needed?

  3. Do you have the right mix of skills on your project team? Are there any skill gaps that should be addressed before launching?

  4. What incentives are in place to help drive the change? How will people feel rewarded for their participation?

  5. Have you resourced your project correctly? Effective resourcing signals investment and buy-in from leadership and sponsors...

  6. And finally, is your action plan clear, and do folks know how their work fits together (how the parts add up to the whole)?

Using this Model for Diagnosing Project “Interventions”

At some point during your project, you will likely (almost inevitably…) start to see things going “askew”. This is incredibly common during multi-month (and even more common in multi-year) projects. As we all know, even the best and more effectively planned projects almost always need an intervention at some time. Luckily, you can use this tool to help diagnose what might be going wrong or where an intervention might be needed. If any of the six factors required for managing complex change are missing, you will see a variety of different symptoms (or behaviors), and each of them requires a different intervention:

  1. If you sense that your project team members are confused about what they are supposed to be doing or what they are supposed to be working towards, you might need to revisit the vision for the project and remind folks of the “why” of their work.

  2. If you’re seeing sabotage (i.e. some team members are actively trying to derail the project), you will need to pause and revisit consensus building, assessing if you can bring those people along or if you need to cut them loose from your project.

  3. Is your team seeming anxious? Maybe ask yourself if you’ve hit a point in the project where new skills are being called upon that folks may not have. It might be time to invest in some additional training and skill-building for your team members.

  4. Are you sensing resistance? Maybe you have some folks who aren’t actively sabotaging, but also aren’t really helping as much as they should… this is a moment to think about incentives. Do you need to introduce some new incentives into your project? When leading change, positive incentives tend to be your safest bet.

  5. Are you seeing growing frustration among your team members? If so, resourcing and burnout might be a challenge. Consider your project timeline against the people who are involved (and what might be happening in other parts of their jobs, particularly if they are not full-time project members). Consider if it might be time to invest some additional resources and bring in some temporary staffing support while your team focuses their efforts on project deliverables?

  6. Are you facing false starts or feel like you're “running on a hamster wheel”? If so, your action plan may lack clarity or need some work. Perhaps the action plan needs to be revisited, and some new milestones may need to be set and/or adjusted (giving people a clear sense of a direction to work towards).

In closing, the Knoster Model for Managing Complex Change is an incredibly helpful tool to 1) help you start your project on the right foot and 2) help you diagnose issues with your project as soon as they start to arise (and it gives you guidance re: which interventions may be more effective). Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing a few more of my favorite change management tools that have helped me keep projects and major change initiatives on track. Stay tuned for more soon!


bottom of page