Why are projects initiated? What is their purpose? The answer is simple – to introduce change. Projects are all about change, either introducing new products and/or services or changing the way is which existing products and/or services are delivered. Otherwise, without initiating projects to introduce change, organizations continue to deliver existing products, services, policies, and procedures (i.e., continue with business as usual).
Whenever change is introduced, what happens? It meets resistance. That resistance may be the result of any number of reasons – some valid and some not so valid – and will certainly be the cause of many problems for the project delivery team. Misery and woe very often await the poor project team that invests too little or no time at all in appreciating the fact that they are introducing change(s) and therefore need to develop strategies to deal with the inevitable resistance they will encounter from those who perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they will be negatively impacted by the change(s) the project is introducing. Many project teams have been surprised to find that their project had been torpedoed by someone (or someone’s) to whom they never gave any thought and for whom they did not develop a strategy to support the introduction of the change(s) their project would enable and to overcome resistance to it. Resistance was not only not futile; it was deadly.
So how does change successfully get introduced? How can the project team ensure that they deliver a product or service that will enable the change which justified the project and the investment of organizational resources in the first place? This demands that project teams recognize and internalize the simple truth that organizations do not change, people change. If the people in the organization do not embrace and support the change(s) that the project is introducing, the project is unlikely to succeed.
And getting the people in the organization to embrace the change is all about leadership. Based on Bridge’s Transition Model, this article will suggest best practices for introducing change and building a successful strategy for engaging the organization’s most powerful resources – its people – in bringing about the desired change and making the project a success.
Bridge’s Transition Model: An Overview
Bridge’s Transition Model, in its simplest form, suggests that projects introducing change(s) will pass through three stages:
- The Current State (Preparing: Ending, Losing, and Letting Go) – When people are first introduced to change, they may enter this first stage. It is characterized by resistance and emotional discomfort. The introduction of change also introduces uncertainty and anxiety. Some of the emotions experienced at this stage include fear, resentment, anger, denial, sadness, frustration and, very often, disorientation. People begin to accept that they have to let go of the old so as to accept new beginnings. This stage includes identifying the need for change and developing the change management plan with strategies such as assigning roles and responsibilities and assessing tools and tasks needed to implement it
- The Transition State (The Neutral Zone)– This is the stage of stress, impatience, and confusion. This stage can be considered as the bridge between the old and the new when people retain some attachment to the old but are trying to adapt to the new. This stage is often associated with low morale and reduced productivity, and people may experience stress, disillusionment, and skepticism as well when going through this stage. But despite this, the neutral/transition stage may also include innovation, renewal and a burst of energy. This stage requires nurturing and supporting newly assigned roles and tasks, providing training and coaching, and a clear communication and stakeholder engagement strategy.
- The Future State (New Beginnings)– When the neutral/transition stage is passed through with support and guidance, the stage of acceptance and creativity is reached. At this level, people embrace the change and understand its importance. They have built or are building the skills needed to reach the new goals and may already start to experience benefits of the change. It is associated with high levels of energy, initiative, new commitment and a zest to learn. The focus becomes one of institutionalizing, sustaining, incorporating, and integrating the outcomes and benefits into the new organizational or corporate culture and acknowledging individual and team success.
The Current State: Preparing
Organizations start up projects for many different reasons, for example:
- because someone has an idea for a new product line or service, or
- to introduce a new delivery method, or
- to respond to new legislative or regulatory requirements, or
- to protect market share by matching or bettering competitors’ initiatives and/or product innovations, or
- to improve upon existing products, or
- to take advantage of new technology or technological developments, or
- to exploit opportunities and develop new products or services to meet them.
There are other reasons for initiating project as well. One thing they all have in common is that any project initiated for any of these reasons introduces changes to the ways things are currently being done.
Projects aren’t free. They consume organizational resources – money, time, material, equipment, facilities and, yes, people (i.e., their time and effort). Before committing organizational resources, an analysis of the benefits that will be realized and the value to the organization if it initiates the project needs to be undertaken to justify the investment. These analyses generally take the form of alternatives analyses and cost-benefit analyses, including NPV, ROI, etc., that are pulled together into a business case. Since projects introduce change, however, the impact of the projects on the people involved in their delivery and on the people affected by any given project’s outcomes also needs to be considered before the decision to invest resources and commit to the project is made.
Project Leadership and Change
Change can be traumatizing. Projects often incur resistance simply because they are introducing change. Project team members similarly often run up against resistance in their role as change agents. The mental health of project team members who are struggling to introduce change(s) as well those affected by the change(s) requires leadership that is compassionate and understanding and that communicates openly and well.
We are all human. Many of us are reluctant to bring up in conversation that we may be struggling with something because we have been conditioned to believe that to struggle is to have a weakness that needs improving and that means talking about our own issues. People are trapped by the idea that being tough, resilient, and impenetrable is a requirement for climbing the ladder of success. They are slow to realize that trying to live up to this myth indirectly trains people to treat each other like a terminator who will slap them down and take advantage of their perceived weakness rather than a person who will encourage them and help them grow. Good leaders commit themselves to breaking the stigma and becoming more open and honest in their communications with others.
Leadership among project team members is shared according to circumstances – the nature of the issue requiring attention, the skill sets and competencies of the team members, their experience, technical and/or technological knowledge, etc. Honesty, trust and transparency are essential leadership skills demonstrated by good leaders throughout a project’s life cycle. By acknowledging that we are all human and being open about their own experiences, effective leaders have an opportunity to address the mental health of team members in a non-threatening way that puts employees at ease and creates a starting point for better communication. Using such techniques as emotional intelligence – the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict – can be very helpful and effective in building and maintaining motivated and successful project teams.
Communicating the Project’s Vision and Purpose
One of the most effective leadership skills is communicating. Getting everyone on board and supporting the project (aka change initiative) is imperative. This can be achieved by clearly communicating the project’s vision and purpose. In one study, Gartner found that 50% of change initiatives are a clear failure, only 34% are a clear success, and 16% achieve mixed results. For the project to succeed, Gartner recommended that an organization needs to:
- clearly establish the need for the change,
- identify specifically what needs to be changed (as well as what doesn’t need to change),
- involve employees in the project and in planning how to execute the change initiative,
- develop a specific communications plan,
- create a road map for change,
- produce a stakeholder engagement strategy,
- design integrated training programs,
- develop a strategy for dealing with resistance, and
- devise and implement a strategy for monitoring results and sustaining the “new normal”, i.e., maintaining the desired outcomes of the project and realizing the benefits and value to the organization.
Projects introduce change and change introduces uncertainty. Resistance to change is a common risk factor encountered by project team members. People are often reluctant to accept new procedures or ways of doing things. In addition, they may remember similar previous failed projects. There is also the fear of losing jobs, especially if the project involves technological innovation, process automation, and information systems. Change is always inevitable but so is resistance to change. Resistance is the action taken by individuals and groups when they perceive that the change that the project is introducing is a threat to them, to what they know and are comfortable with, and to their work relationships. It is basic human nature for people to try and keep their methods and customs constant.
Projects introducing change(s) introduce uncertainty and uncertainty is often viewed as a threat. People may have trouble developing a vision of what life will look like on the other side of a change, so they tend to cling to the known rather than embrace the unknown. People don’t fear change per se, they fear the unknown. They fear being changed. Your employees represent your organization’s talent. They are the people on the ground day-to-day. No one understands your business or your clients and customers better than they do. Yet, operational changes are often dictated to them rather than created with them. Not only is this a waste of the talent and insights your employees possess, it accentuates resistance to change. Preparing a project requires recognition that the project will encounter resistance to the change initiative it is introducing and the resulting need to develop strategies for coping with and overcoming resistance.
These are several effective means for dealing with resistance:
- Empower Team Members and Involve Them in Decision-Making – When people have a say in the solutions they implement, they feel more accountable for them and do what’s needed to ensure success.
- Reduce Uncertainty – While identifying what needs to be changed and why the change is necessary must be communicated, it is also critically important to identify what will not change to provide an anchor or island of stability for employees in the waters of uncertainty being introduced by the change initiative.
- Allow People to Speak – Jerry Seinfeld pointed out “When you interrupt, you’ve stopped listening. People need to be heard.” Focus your attention on the welfare, interests, and needs of others. If you’re the one who is talking, you’re not listening to others. Engage and connect, reflect and provide feedback.
- Educate and Communicate the Benefits of Change for the Individual and for the Organization – People grow and learn new things every time something changes. They discover new insights about different aspects of their life, skill sets and experience. They learn lessons even from changes that did not lead them to where they wanted to be. Projects drive change and change triggers progress and present new opportunities for individuals to learn and grow (e.g., develop new skill sets and competencies, develop stronger interpersonal skills, etc.) and for organizations to develop and evolve (e.g., introduce new products or services, achieve operating efficiencies, open new markets, etc.). Things move forward and develop because of change.
- Accommodate If Possible – Focus as much as possible on preserving relationships with other project team members and those affected by the change(s) the project is introducing rather than on achieving a personal goal or result.
- Isolate and Contain When Necessary and Appropriate – Handling the Competitors – the people who just won’t let go until they have won and others have lost – try to get them to focus on the big picture, a long-term goal where they’re not in direct competition with anyone in the team. Or dealing with the Drama Queens and Drama Kings – who whine and complain about everything, turning everything into drama and drawing energy from the drama while all the while draining the energy of others, and/or the Volcano – who explodes whenever things don’t turn out the way she or he thinks it should – seek to establish clear boundaries so that everyone is aware of what is and is not acceptable as professional office behaviour and that it is important that everyone treats each other with respect. Ensure that it is clearly understood that unprofessional behaviour is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
- Counter At Level – Resistance happens when two or more individuals (or groups) have different objectives, attitudes or opinions about the project and the change(s) it is introducing. When the resistor is a member of senior management, things can get sticky. To counter the resistor, someone at his/her level in the organizational hierarchy needs to assume the role of change champion and must openly confront the resistor every time he/she voices a negative opinion about the project. The confrontation must be honest, factual and focussed on the benefits and the value that the project will enable for the organization. As Project Manager, you need to ensure that your change champion (i.e., project sponsor, project director) has every iota of information about the project that he/she may require to effectively counter the resistor.
- WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) – Targeting the project’s stakeholder engagement strategy and communication plan to specific stakeholder needs, concerns and expectations is a move in the right direction. Gaining the support of key individuals who are influential in the business, or “allies”, will help support your arguments and help you to gain traction. Be as specific as you can about the individual benefits that the project will enable. Personalize them as much as possible. For example, when Apple introduced the iPod, it wasn’t marketed as “2GB of mobile storage”, which would have done little to make the benefits clear to individuals; rather, it was marketed as “1,000 songs in your pocket”, a far clearer and readily understandable statement of its benefits on a personal level for individuals.
Navigating the Transition State
At the end of the day, every project, regardless of its size, needs to begin with an intended outcome – one that is understood and meaningful to the people involved and affected. It is important to communicate the vision of the desired future state and the reasons why the project is being undertaken. Ensuring the buy-in of project team members and key stakeholders by engaging them and sharing the value to the organization that will result from the benefits achieved through the project’s outcomes is critical to project success. Equally, seek to obtain the buy-in and support of your front-line employees, who must implement the change while maintaining current production of outputs or provision of services, by highlighting the benefits to them personally (e.g., continued organizational viability could mean increased job security for employees as well as opportunities to develop new knowledge, competencies, and skill sets, etc.). Your employees are your organization’s strength – its talent – and are the foundation upon which your organization will evolve and build its future.
Respect your talent. Seek to understand and empathize with what they are going through. As much as possible, limit work-in-progress, especially during the transition. Overloading project team members with too much change too fast is a common and destructive problem. The first action to rectify the problem is to make the current work-in-progress visible to all stakeholders, i.e., provide everyone with the “big picture”. A simple Kanban board could suffice. Consider breaking down the project into smaller parts or smaller batches with short-term goals. While maintaining the overall vision of the desired future or end state, create many short-term targets that are achievable and less expensive and have lesser possibility of failure than one big long-term goal. Smaller batches build momentum and help the team learn faster too.
During the project’s lifecycle, recognize that changes to the project and its outputs will inevitably occur. These changes differ from the change/future state that the project is introducing and either directly affect the outputs of the project or affect agreed project delivery baselines (e.g., schedule, cost, quality). Try to keep your projects ‘change friendly’ so as to effectively manage significant changes while empowering team members to handle responsive change at the detail level. Exploit the opportunities created by change requests for your team to learn and grow to enable them to deliver a better product to the customer. Establish metrics/KPIs as an integral part of any change request and use them as a basis for gathering feedback from the customer/user as quickly as possible to inform further decisions and deliveries. The ‘feedback loop’ (e.g., something is delivered, it gets used, feedback is captured) should be as short as possible and ideally involve the end customer/user in order to become more responsive to customer/user priorities and needs.
Discard, as well, the notion that heroic leaders are needed to deliver successful projects and make sustained and significant changes. Again, respect your talent. Your employees are experts on their job so involve them in the process. Recognize that different team members may assume different leadership roles during the project life cycle. Expand the level of active involvement of team members and stakeholders through the areas and levels affected by the project.
Empowering and involving team members helps them to take ownership and accept accountability for achieving the project’s goals. The project may introduce significant workplace change(s) that may require people to undertake new roles and responsibilities to increase the odds of a smooth transition. Evenly distribute roles and responsibilities across the team, and publicly announce these project-related roles. This will give team members a personal investment in making the project a success.
Involving The Team
When you initiate a project to change how you do business, the products you’re offering, or the services you provide, what you’re really doing is asking people to change how they do their jobs. And if they aren’t set up to make that transition successfully, your initiative is guaranteed to fail. Before you start making functional changes, start with mindset changes.
Identify the people or teams who will be impacted by the change that your project is introducing. Then define exactly how their role or a function will change and create a plan
outlining what impacted employees will need to transition successfully. This could include education, leadership, new roles or a new departmental structure, coaching/training, etc. But plans, while important, do not capture value; value is realized through the sustained collective actions of the people who ultimately must embrace, execute and live with the new changed workplace. Involve your talent and leverage their knowledge, skills and abilities.
Projects must include plans for identifying leaders throughout the organization who will support the change(s) that the project is introducing and should push responsibility for design and implementation down, so that change “cascades” through the organization. People impacted by the project will naturally look to their leadership for answers when change is introduced. They will question the extent to which change is needed, whether the organization is headed in the right direction, and whether they want to commit personally to making the change happen and, therefore, make the project a success. You need to embrace transparency and communicate openly and honestly about the change(s) the project is introducing to enable managers and leaders at all levels in the organization to be ready for the inevitable questions that will be directed towards them and to provide clear, consistent and honest responses. Training, coaching and mentoring of managers, leaders and talent influencers throughout the organization may be required.
The Future State: New Beginnings
Beginnings involve new understandings, values and attitudes. Beginnings are marked by a release of energy in a new direction – they are an expression of a fresh identity. Well-managed transitions allow people to establish new roles and responsibilities with an understanding of their purpose, the part they play, and how to contribute and participate most effectively. As a result, they feel reoriented and renewed.
Empowering team members and creating a philosophy of continuous improvement, involving them and encouraging them to suggest change, builds a climate of respect and of open and collaborative communication and commitment. Ensure that your organization updates organizational policies and procedures to reflect the changes realized, institutionalizes, integrates and embeds new practices, and updates training programs for new and current employees to reflect and instill the “new normal”.
Your people – your talent – are by far the most important asset your organization has. Improving your operations and planning for what the future decides to throw at you next first requires understanding what your talent is capable of and what they need from you to be successful.
Most projects are about introducing change(s) of some sort – changing systems, behaviours, activities, products, services and even organizational cultures. If the people in the organization do not embrace and support the change that your project is introducing, the project is unlikely to succeed. Successful project leadership requires involving those who must live with the change “on the factory floor” or “on the front line”, communicating with and engaging them, capturing their interest and enthusiasm, listening to their ideas, concerns and suggestions, empowering them to bring about the change, supporting them as they work through the change, celebrating progress, and embracing and internalizing the outcomes. For the project to be successful in enabling the change, the people in the organization must make it happen. This means leadership must be shared among project team members and they must engage, involve, empower and support each other and the people in the organization while ensuring open and honest two-way communications.
Leadership is often equated with making decisions. But in reality, it’s about creating an environment where your talent – your employees – can make better decisions, grow in their roles, promote high productivity, morale and satisfaction, and provide the best possible experiences for your customers. For projects to be successful, leadership needs to have a good understanding and appreciation of the importance of the human side of change management to achieve the desired results.
 Bridges, William. Managing Transitions: Making The Most Of Change, Perseus Books, Reading, Mass. 1991.
 Daniel Lock, Fundamentals of Change Management, eBook, www.daniellock.com; Kealy Spring, 2021, Overcoming Resistance to Change Within Your Organization, https://www.betterup.com/blog/resistance-to-change; Susan M. Heathfield, 2021, What Is Resistance To Change?, https://www.thebalancecareers.com/what-is-resistance-to-change-1918240; Paycor, 2019. Overcoming Employee Resistance to Change in the Workplace, https://www.paycor.com/resource-center/articles/overcoming-employee-resistance-to-change-in-the-workplace/