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Making Change Control Easy

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If you struggle with a lack of sustained discipline in your project change control practice, one opportunity may be to clarify the distinction between controlling performance and managing change.

As we move through a project, two types of triggers prompt us to reach for that change management plan and tap into our change control process. To effectively respond, we need to be clear as to what type of change are we responding to and what it is we are trying to control.

Why Control Performance?

On the one hand, change control is required as a result of performance variation. In this case, we may discover that our project is not progressing as planned, so we make changes to the schedule, resource allocation, or some other variable. That is, change control is needed in response to how the project or team is performing. Here we are controlling project performance due to variations from plan.

Our change control goal in those circumstances is to control project performance to either get it back on track, or to take steps to mitigate a future problem.

Why Manage Change?

On the other hand, change control may be needed as a result of people deciding they want something other than what’s in the plan. In this case, the project manager receives requests for changes, often from people outside the team. For example, a stakeholder may come up with a new idea and suggest, “Hey, let’s add this new feature,” or “Let’s do it this way, instead of the way we decided to do it originally.”

Our change control goal in those circumstances is to make sure that the change request gets handled in a way that benefits the project. We need to make sure that those requests are reviewed, approved, documented, and communicated as appropriate for the project. It’s also important to make sure implications for these types of changes are considered for all aspects of the project, including scope, time, cost, risk, quality, human resources, communications, procurement, etc.

Understanding the distinction between these two types of changes is the first step in taking our project change control practice up a notch. Understanding the implications of these changes for how best to respond is the second.

Controlling Project Performance

When project performance needs controlling (not to be confused with controlling the project team) because we are behind schedule or over budget, our change management plan should provide guidance as to how we respond. Do we get additional resources? Do we fast-track? These decisions made by the project manager with the team help guide how and when take steps to get the project back into alignment with the plan (corrective action) or take steps to minimize potential future problems (preventive action).

The other consideration is that there may have been risk identified pertinent to project work that has resulted in deviation from plan. In that case, tapping into contingency might be a response. Our change management plan provides guidance on how and when that is accessed. This, too, is part of controlling project performance.

For example, let’s say we plan to include training for a group of users as part of a project, and that when developing the plan we weren’t sure how much training would be needed (known unknown). If, during the project, we find out that we need additional time for training, we could access schedule contingency to get additional time for training, or we might decide to hold some training sessions after hours, or maybe hire additional trainers to run more classes in the same time period (access budget contingency).

Managing Project Change

When a change to the project is the result of stakeholders requesting something new or different, that is neither corrective nor preventive action. It is not about controlling performance, it is about managing change. Our response to that needs to be different.

Questions this may prompt include, Who needs to approve this? Does this need to be run through a change control board? Are there thresholds under which the PM can approve it? What about the time to research what is required to implement the change and the impact on other parts of the project – do we need approval for that or is that time/money handled with contingency? Do we need to tap into management reserve if it’s something unforeseen but within scope?

This is still about change control on the project, but it’s a whole different arrow in the quiver of project change.

Ensuring that your stakeholders understand that things are not going to go as planned can help mitigate frustration with perceived poor planning. It’s a benefit to them and the project to have a plan for how that reality works on your projects. Remember: Change, per se, is not a problem; unmanaged change can be.

Frequent, informal reviews and mini-lessons learned along the way as part of the change control process help make it sustainable. A simple change management plan is also important to capture the key points as to the Who, What, When, and How that need to be communicated to help set expectations.

Consider whether or not your project would benefit from renewed thinking as to how most effectively and efficiently to respond to changes that come up – both when project performance is not consistent with the plan, as well as when requests are different than what’s on the current project roadmap.

Importantly, this doesn’t need to be overly burdensome. See our templates page for a change management plan template that you can modify to meet your needs.


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