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Managing Organization Change Programs: Clarity, Communication and Respect

All projects are change projects. They implement new or changed products, processes or services.

An organizational change project is a special case. It is a project to change the way an organization operates, including its structure, generally, to improve performance or to enable the organization to face external changes in its environment.

Organizational change projects may be perceived as sub-projects in other projects or programs. For example, the implementation of a new business application may trigger significant changes in the way an organization operates, the relationships among stakeholders and its culture. While the expressed focus of the project is the implementation of a new product or application, the real focus is on the improvement of the organization’s performance and that invariably involves organizational change.

People Centric Communication

Organizational change directly effects the people who make up the organization. While it is a critical factor in all projects, communication is particularly critical to success when an organizational change is involved.

Sometimes the very people who initiate and are responsible for facilitating the change forget this simple fact. They view the organization as if it were an entity unto itself, separate from the people who populate it and make it work. When employees, at all levels including managers and executives, consultants and vendors are regarded as “assets” or “resources” or “part of the problem” respect for them and regard for their welfare is diminished. This leads to a change process that is driven from the top or from outside of the organization, often with less than optimal results.

Yes, there are exceptions, if the change is one that will result in the dissolution of the organization, with its capital assets sold off, there is less damage when the staff is alienated. However, even in these situations, compassion and respect for the people who will lose their jobs goes a long way towards moderating the negative impact of the hostile takeover. On another level, there is often emotional and, in some cases, financial impact on those making such changes without regard for the human element.

However, when the change is to result in a well-functioning, optimally performing organization, project managers and professional change agents recognize the importance of cultivating good will, respecting the capacity of the staff to deal with the truth, reducing anxiety and engaging the staff to make them change agents as opposed to targets. Recognizing the importance of these factors, these change agents apply the basic principles of project management and do so with a servant leadership attitude.

Basic Principles of Organizational Change

Organizational change is a program. The basic principles are

  • Know and state values, goals, objectives and strategy
  • Identify and engage the stakeholders – the people who will impact and be impacted by the project
  • Manage expectations with effective/realistic estimates, schedules and plans, including risk assessments
  • Monitor and control and be open to the inevitable changes that will occur along the way
  • Realize that organizational change does not end when the initial change project is closed. The project sets the stage for managing continuous change.

Know and State Values, Goals, Objectives and Strategy

Clearly, knowing where you are going and, on at least a high level, how you will get there is a major success factor.

Yet, there is a potential danger in setting the goal in a way that presupposes a solution rather than the elimination of a problem or the achievement of an objective such as measurably improved performance.

For example, a goal stated as centralization rather than performance improvement may make taking a hybrid or federated approach to achieve the goal of improved performance and greater integration into a wider organization without fully centralizing.

Mistaking a solution approach like centralization or automation for a goal makes for a rigid approach that risks increasing dysfunction rather than improving performance.

Performance improvement would more likely be achieved if values like openness to an evolving approach, continuous improvement based on cause analysis and cause removal, and recognition of the successes of the target organization along with its failures drive the effort.

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Identify and Engage the Stakeholders

Stakeholders are anyone who may affect the project or be affected by it. Engage them, respect their needs and communicate with them according to their roles and the need for confidentiality. This principle is fundamental to effective human relations. People are often averse to change, uncertainty and ambiguity. With this in mind, be both practical, kind and clear. Practicality recognizes that anxiety, rumors and frustration result in sub-optimal performance. Kindness helps to avoid the anxiety and frustration. Clear communications, orally and in writing, helps to avoid ambiguity.

Bottom line: respect the needs of stakeholders and their capacity to accept and work to achieve positive change. Treating stakeholders like children who can’t face the truth or as pawns in a chess game is unproductive.

Manage Expectations

Realistic expectations go a long way towards promoting success. Expectations are managed with effective/realistic estimates, schedules, plans, and risk assessments.

Beware of arbitrarily set fixed deadlines. Even if those who set them are open to flexibility, those who manage and do the work will often plunge ahead as if they can meet the deadline rather than candidly push back with a reality based argument.

Monitor and control

Monitor and control while being open to the inevitable changes that will occur along the way. Managing expectations and steering the program as barriers and successes are experienced requires regular communication of the state of the project. Goals and plans set a direction and a benchmark against which to assess progress. Open to change, leadership will make the adjustments needed to keep the program moving forward to achieve its goal.

Continuous Change is a Fact of Life

Realize that organizational change is a program as opposed to a project. Programs are often open ended, with a series of projects and operational activities. Organizational change does not end when the initial change project is closed.

The initial project sets the stage for the continuous change that is an inevitable part of life. An objective of the change project is to leave a controlled continuous change process in place as an integral part of ongoing operations. That process will spawn multiple projects.


With these principles in mind, change projects become far more likely to succeed. When goals are clearly stated and understood, expectations are realistic and the needs of the people involved are addressed, the threatening idea of change and the knee jerk reaction to resist or run away is avoided.

With the acceptance of the fact that organizational change is a program, all the facets of the process can be considered and woven together into a comprehensive plan focused on the goal of optimal performance.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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