PM Foundations – Managing Change

In my experience as a project manager, I have found one of the most critical best practice areas during the project execution phase to be the ability to effectively manage change. Change is an inevitable component of managing a project – nothing works out exactly as planned. The project manager effectively manages change by maintaining the appropriate balance between control and discipline to manage to the baseline plan, and flexibility to adapt the plans to meet customer expectations. Nobody wants to be “that” project manager that leads a project that delivers on-time and under budget, but still has an unhappy customer. Below I describe in more detail the following aspects of managing change:

  • What defines a change in the context of your project
  • What are the sources of change
  • What are the early warning signs of change
  • Establishing a process to manage change
  • Measuring the cumulative impact of change

What Defines Change

By the end of the planning phase, the project baseline is established and approved by the project sponsor and project core team. Project scope, schedule, and cost are all part of the project baseline plan. A change represents a permanent deviation from this baseline plan. The term ‘permanent’ is important. It is possible that there is a deviation from the baseline plan that will be self-correcting and is really only a deviation due to timing (when something has occurred vs. when it was planned to occur).

  • Example of a timing deviation: A deliverable that was completed a week late because the sequence was switched with another deliverable.
  • Example of a permanent deviation: A deliverable that was completed a week late, because it took a week longer than anticipated to be completed (and that week cannot be recovered).

Change is identified and measured based upon the impact on the baseline plan:

  • Scope – Additions/reductions in scope can be either in terms of scope of the product or project – in both cases they change the deliverables articulated in the WBS.
  • Schedule – Planned timing of activities and/or deliverables. In most cases, changes to the schedule are only identified / managed if they impact the project end date or a major milestone.
  • Cost – Addition/reduction to the cost of the project (permanent variance of actual/projected costs vs. planned/budgeted costs)

The following guidelines associated with changes to the project are detailed in the Project Management Plan:

  • There is not one standard definition of a change. Change must be articulated in the context of the specifics of the project. It is important to distinguish between a change and a clarification of expectations.
  • Only changes that have material impacts to the baseline plan will be formalized and managed (the Project Management Plan defines materiality).
  • How the change is determined to be a permanent or timing project impact.

Sources of Change

During project execution, actual events will occur differently than planned, even with the best of plans. It is up to the project manager to proactively identify and manage potential sources of change, and adjust the project plan appropriately. The sources of change generally fall into the following categories:

Customer Needs / Requirements – Adding a product requirement is a common source of change.

  • Adding or changing a product requirement during the middle of development / build / test activities can have even more impacts because of re-work and impacts to other parts of the product.
  • Often the change represents more of a clarification of the original requirement, and not a change in the intent of the requirement. The clarification could still represent more or less work to be completed to satisfy the product requirement.


  • Implementation of new technology introduces a certain amount of risk / unknowns. During project execution these unknowns may introduce real changes in the work required to complete the implementation (e.g., hardware procurement and set-up, software configuration & customization).
  • An organization’s standard technology platforms may change. If the work required to comply with the new standards is not reflected in the plan, it often represents a change to the project.

Planned vs. Actual Execution – The most common source of change is simply that work is completed in a different manner than originally estimated and planned. The following are more specific examples of this source of change.

  • Inaccurate estimates – Activities take more or less time than was estimated. This is more likely to occur if this type of work had not been done previously by the company or by the resources providing estimates.
  • Change in resources – The skill set associated with the resource completing the work is different that the skill set the estimates were based upon. Changes in resources in the middle of the project introduce factors like ramp-up time, the skill level of the new resource, availability of the new resource, the billing rate of the new resource.
  • Change in deliverables / activities – The addition of or removal of deliverables from the WBS can impact timelines, costs, and quality (e.g. adding training materials). Also, there could just be a process / methodology change that requires new tasks or a change to a task even though there is not a new deliverable. For example, if quality standards change, that could increase the time it takes to perform some tasks.
  • Sequence of work completed (project dependencies) – New or different project dependencies are identified during the project execution that could permanent delays in subsequent activities / milestones.

External Influences – Factors outside the control of the project team often drive changes to the project. Examples of this include:

  • Changes in regulatory or other compliance requirements
  • Changes in other systems / environments that impact the current project
  • Changes in dependent projects
  • Changes in the business environment or economy (e.g., introducing new funding constraints)
  • Reorganizations that drive changes in team members or key stakeholders (this would never happen, right?)

Early Warning Signs

In addition to understanding the potential sources of change for your project, it is also important to understand and monitor key project metrics that help identify potential (or real changes) early on (early warning signs). It is fairly intuitive that the further the project is in the project life cycle the more costly and impactful the change is to the project.

Some early warning signs of change include the following:

Schedule slippage

  • Tasks not started on-time
  • Tasks not completed on-time
  • Tasks with less progress than planned (particularly on larger effort or longer duration tasks)

Variance Trends (Cost / Schedule / Risk / Scope / Quality)

  • Consistent cost variance trends (overall or on specific cost types / categories)
  • Consistent schedule variance trends (overall or on specific project phases / milestones)
  • Actual work effort (or duration to complete) to complete tasks is consistently higher (or takes longer) than planned
  • New tasks or deliverables are identified throughout the project life cycle (pointing to gaps in the planning process)
  • Overall project risk (overall assessment of number, severity, and probability of risks)
  • Defects are identified at a higher than planned rate, or the closure rate is slower than planned

Open Risks and Issues

  • An increase in the number of risks and issues, particularly if they are focused in a specific project area, is a good indication of a potential change / adjustment required
  • Issues that are not closed sometimes point to a project change that is required to close the issue

Change Control Process

The overall goal of change control is to prevent changes from overwhelming a project or taking the project unnecessarily off track. The goal of change control is NOT to prevent all change. Change control enables proactive identification and management of change, in a manner that keeps the project moving in the right direction, towards successful completion/delivery.

The following represent the key processes involved in managing changes to the project:

  1. Identify Change: Either the project manager identifies, or is made aware of a change. Based upon guidelines established in the Project Management Plan (permanent vs. timing, and materiality), the project manager determines whether or not the change should be formalized and assessed.
  2. Assess the Impact: Once the change is identified and it is determined the team needs to assess the impact of the change on the project, the assessment is documented, using a change control tool (i.e., a project impact report).
  3. Review and Approval: Once information about the impacts of the change have been documented, the change should be reviewed by a Change Control Board and either approved or rejected.
  4. Implementation and Verification: Planning and execution of the actions required to implement the change. Implementation includes adjustment to planning artifacts to accurately reflect the new scope, schedule, and budget based upon approved change. Implementation of the change effectively establishes a new baseline for the project.
  5. Follow-up Verification: Perform a follow-up review to confirm that the appropriate actions were completed to implement the change (corrective actions), and that the change had the anticipated impact on the project (time, cost, scope, quality, risk).

Remember that change is inevitable and oftentimes necessary. However, it is important to control change so that changes are properly assessed and only approved changes are implemented within the project.

Assessing the Cumulative Impact of Change

It is important to understand the cumulative impact of changes on a project with regards to the scope, schedule, and cost/ budget. Throughout the life of a project, there will be changes. The project core team, project sponsor, and steering committee members should be aware of the cumulative impact of changes (comparing actual project performance to the original expectations established in the baseline plan).

The project manager is ultimately responsible for project execution against the baseline plans. The project manager should be able to explain the evolution of that plan from the original baseline to the current baseline, including all approved changes that have been implemented. Project managers often will fall back on the excuse that the project is over budget or late because there were project changes, but they cannot quickly explain the changes that account for the primary deviations from the original plan. Effective use of the change control log (see my blog post on Using SharePoint to Manage Change Requests) provides a tool to track and reconcile changes to the baseline schedule and budget.

Reconciling the actual project performance (schedule & cost) to the original baseline plan helps understand the “unexplained” variances. An unexplained variance is the difference between the total schedule or cost variance and the approved project changes / impacts. A project with too high a percentage of unexplained variances is usually an indication of a project with inadequate attention to change control processes. These projects have too many changes that are “flying under the radar”. I am a not a big fan of the term “scope creep” because it represents an excuse vs. an explanation. Good projects managers can pretty precisely describe the difference between the original baseline and the actual results – strive to be a good project manager.

Characteristics of Effective Change Control

Be proactive. The cost of implementing change increases later in the project lifecycle. Utilize project metrics to monitor trends and identify potential changes.

The level of control and rigor around analyzing and approving changes should be appropriately “sized” to both the organization and the project.

  • Project size, complexity, and risk profile are evaluated to adapt the change control processes to the project.
  • If changes have different impacts when they are implemented (higher actual cost or schedule impact), maybe there is not enough rigor involved with the change analysis process.
  • Projects that place more importance on schedules and/or cost constraints tend to require more control around analysis and approval processes.
  • Another consideration associated with change control processes is the visibility / strategic importance associated with the project.

Provide visibility of the change request throughout the change control process. This ensures that everyone involved with the project can easily find out the current status of any changes in the process, as well as the reasons for approving or rejecting specific changes.

Focus on the making sure the change gets appropriately implemented. Project teams often spend all of their time and energy on analysis and approval, and forget to adjust project deliverables to reflect the change.

  • Follow-up to confirm the implementation steps have been completed.
  • Compare the actual impact on the cost and schedule to the estimated project impact.

About Steve Hart
Practice Manager responsible for project leadership & delivery services for the Cardinal Solutions Group in the RTP area. I am a PMP with 25 years of project management and technical leadership roles, have developed an extensive practical knowledge that spans a wide variety of industries, and project delivery approaches. As a practicing PMP, I am a member of the North Carolina PMI chapter. I am an avid sports fan, particularly the Miami RedHawks, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns, and most recently the NC State Wolfpack.

3 Responses to PM Foundations – Managing Change

  1. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Pingback: Using SharePoint to Measure the Impact of Change (KPI) « PM-Foundations

  3. Pingback: » Essential Project Change Management

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