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How to Lead Change on a Project

Project management historically creates value by delivering results and outcomes through people. Today’s organizations need to recognize the conscious awareness of the impacts and implications of how projects bring about change.

A few years ago, I attended the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) and heard great stories on how to make change. It’s my experience and philosophy that projects are a place for innovation, change, and leadership that may include failure and success along the way. A BIF speaker shared their story about failure and how we should look at it through a different lens. Failure is our driver to innovate, to drive change aligned with strategic goals, and to use our leadership to experiment, learn, change, improvise within the boundaries of our cultures.

Let’s review and uncover reasons for project challenges with change. I’ve gathered here tips for strategic approaches for project success and present insights from leading experts in the field to help define a framework for leading change within projects in your portfolios.

As project managers, every day that you get the opportunity to partner with your customers to find solutions to their business problems is a great day to honor the impact of change within project management.

Leading Change During a Project

A few years ago I attended a TED Talk by Andrew Markell, and he shared the following quote: “Change is personal.” It was a profound statement; people are your greatest asset within your organization. He shared his personal insights from his travels speaking to executives, and the hard truth he tells the C-level executives: “If you want your organization to change, the change must occur with leadership of self. It will not occur externally, internally, in process or procedures or through your projects.”

In my personal experience, in public or private sector, this advice should be heeded by project leaders in order to be successful in their career. Change is constant; growth is optional.


  • The organization’s leadership team must first change to lead/support the change.
  • People change; organizations don’t. Establish employee engagement early. Personalize change to your employee culture.
  • Recognize your challenges with employee engagement and define an approach that fits your employee culture.

The Struggle with Projects and Change

Let’s consider the basic definitions of a project and change. Project Management Institute (PMI) defines a project as “a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result.” The dictionary defines change as “to transform or convert.”

It’s realistic that organizations are challenged by projects and change for four top reasons:

  1. Lack of leadership
  2. Wrong choice of strategy/approach
  3. Lack of planning
  4. Stakeholder engagement/communication

Dean Anderson and Linda Ackerman Anderson, leading authorities on change leadership and organizational transformation, suggest in a recent article that picking the right approach is the difference between success and failure. In fact, they suggest that using the wrong approach is the common reason for failure.

Failure is common for one primary reason: using an approach that does not fit the type of change they are leading.

Strategies to Lead Change on a Project

Below are three types of change that should be used to lead change on projects.



  • Identify which type(s) of change your project will require–transitional, developmental, or transformational.
  • Simple change – developmental (improvements)
  • “What is” change – transitional (replace existing systems with something new)
  • Future state/radical change – transformation (unknown, change in mindset, behavior, and culture)
  • Pick the right strategy/approach to lead change on your project.

So, what happens when a project is delivered on time, under budget, and meets customer requirements? Value may still elude an organization’s return on investment. Why? Product, service, or result was not adopted, or there is a failure due to lack of change in mindset or behaviors.

Organizational Leadership – Steering Successful Change

Stakeholder engagement has been evolving over the last 10 years, and today stakeholder engagement is more important than ever. Let’s review some examples of organizations that have recognized a problem that needs to be solved and developed solutions to deal with change.

  • PMI’s PMBOK Version 5: the addition of a new knowledge area – Project Stakeholder Management with four processes
  • Today’s thought leader in this space of employee engagement is David Zinger. He has recently written a 21-page manifesto defining employee engagement into eight words: “Good work done well with everyone every day.”
  • Stanford University has developed a groundbreaking program around design thinking. The is a hub for innovators at Stanford. Students and faculty in engineering, medicine, business, law, the humanities, sciences, and education find their way here to take on the world’s messy problems together. Human values are at the heart of their collaborative approach.
  • Great things are happening in startups, small business, federal, and state and local government.

Change Insight from the Project Management Community

A year ago I held a #PMChat and asked a few questions about why it’s important to employ strategic leadership and engage staff early with project initiatives that impact the enterprise. Here is what our community project managers on Twitter (#PMOT) had to share.


Makes sense, right? On many projects I’ve lead I’ve had the early and late adopters. The best projects I’ve worked on stakeholder engagement was lead from the executive level down and out throughout the organization along with a strong culture that supported core values.

Key Change Leadership Tips for Projects, Programs, Portfolios

It’s our responsibility as project leaders to take action to lead the change. 


  • Take action to close the leadership gaps; download my ten tips for leading change on your projects (
  • Engage with your stakeholders; deploy a top-down strategy and understand why others resist change.
  • Simplify; make change easy, not hard.

As project leaders we have many teachable moments on our projects and in our organizations. We must continue to shape the maturity of the discipline of project management, strive to add value, leverage engagement to manage change, and measure excellence in our projects through customer satisfaction.

This article was originally featured at


Naomi Caietti will be presenting a free webinar with ITMPI on November 29! Sign up here: Projects Are Easy; Change Is Hard!

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