Change management is not project management

Change management is one of those jobs that you have to explain to people.

You can’t just say that you’re a Change Manager and expect everyone to nod and understand what you’re on about.

It’s not like saying you’re a Doctor or a Fighter Pilot, it’s more like saying you’re a Waste Transformation Consultant; the sort of fancy unclear title that people suspect is just another word for a Garbage Relocation Operative.

There is an understandable suspicion about new-fangled job titles like “Change Manager”. Any job that we used to live without has a whiff of superfluousness about it. Do we really need change managers? … and what is change management anyway?

Change Project

Change management is not project management

The most common misunderstanding is that change management is the same as project management.

It isn’t, but the confusion is understandable. There is obvious overlap; a project delivers change, and a change initiative is a project.

Definition of a project

My definition:

a set of tasks that share the same time-bound objective

The gang at Wikipedia, with less desire for brevity, describe a project as:

… a temporary endeavor with a defined beginning and end (usually time-constrained, and often constrained by funding or deliverables), undertaken to meet unique goals and objectives, typically to bring about beneficial change or added value.

My definition was better.

They go on (and on) to describe project management as:

… the discipline of planning, organizing, motivating, and controlling resources to achieve specific goals.

The Wikipedia reference is “A Short Course in Project Management” from Microsoft which strikes me as a bit of crappy reference, compared to, say, the Project Management Institute.

The PMI define a project as:

a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result.

They focus on “temporary” and it producing a “unique” outcome – so it has to be have some deliverable which is not just business-as-usual (i.e. a change!)

But this is still pretty broad. Any sort of delivery of change is a project – but does that mean that change management is just the same as project management?

The renovation of a house could be described as a project, and clearly project management skills would be valuable, but it would be absurd to suggest that house renovation and project management are one and the same thing.

If a project is any group of tasks headed in the same direction with an end date then this includes everything from baking a cake to hosting the Olympics – but no one thinks that the ability to manage the former qualifies you for the latter.

So why do people make the same sweeping assumption about “change management”?

What is Change Management?

Seeing as the CMI (Change Management Institute) (who only have 36 Twitter followers, including me!) don’t define change management*, let’s go back to the guys from Wikipedia again). They say Change Management is:

an approach to shifting/transitioning individuals, teams, and – in general – organizations from a current state to a desired future state.

Yeah, but … “current” to “desired future state” could mean anything – it could be a style makeover, a new office building or business process re-engineering; and calling it “an approach” suggests it’s just a technique.

This doesn’t do it for me – at best this feels like it makes change management into just another type of project, a people-y subset of a broader category.

Change management is more than that.

This blog post by Minniie K. Juneja is much better. It makes an interesting and slightly different distinction, seeing the two as complementary disciplines in achieving business transformation:

Project management is a business decision enabler while Change management is a people behavior enabler.

She uses a nice triangular diagram to explain this but while I think she makes some good points, I don’t fully agree. It’s nice, and it elbows out some space for change management, but I think we’re still missing something.

Identity Crisis …

We don’t confuse project management and house renovation because we easily understand house renovation as a distinct thing that whilst it makes use of project management skills, it still has its own identity.

I think that’s the problem, that Change Management lacks sufficient identity.

Definition of Change Management

So here’s my go at change management:

Change management is about transforming how people deliver within an organisation.

I think this is broader than the key tools of training and communications and the traditional areas of corporate mission statements, brand values and espoused culture – I think it’s about everything that effects how people deliver.

This means that on a project like an IT implementation, a Project Manager leads and perhaps there’s a change management workstream. On a project like an organisational culture change, project management is one skill-set in many helping to deliver the change.

What do you think?

Is it accurate?

Is this clear enough? Does it establish identity and create a distinct space that is easy to understand?



* The CMI don’t define change management, but do define a change manager:

A Change Management Practitioner has mastery of the change principles, processes, behaviours, and skills necessary to effectively identify, manage, initiate, and influence change, and manage and support others through it

Which I don’t like very much – lists of skills without being at all clear about how those skills are applied.

The ACMP (Association of Change Management Professionals) goes for the very overlong:

ACMP defines change management to be the application of knowledge, skills, abilities, methodologies, processes, tools, and techniques to transition an individual or group from a current state to a desired future state, such that the desired outcomes and/or business objectives are achieved. Change management processes, when properly applied, ensure individuals within an organization efficiently and effectively transition through change such that the organization’s goals are realized. Change management is an integral part of the overall change process and ideally begins at the onset of change. ACMP’s definition assumes that the organization has agreed upon the need for change and has identified the nature of the change.


Little wonder no one understands it.

A much better one here from Gail Severini.

Change management addresses the human risks in strategy execution.

I like that.


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