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Nicole Tiefensee

Project Change - More Than Just Scope

Find out about project change and how to stay on top of it in this second part of our blog post series on project control.

When we think of project change, the first thing that jumps to mind is scope change. While managing project scope plays a significant part in keeping your project on track, you might also encounter other changes along the way, such as:

  • Changes to your target delivery date and project milestones.
  • Cost changes, for people or other resources required to deliver the project.
  • Technical changes, e.g. a shift to a new technology or software.
  • Change in assumptions, e.g. about who your target audience is, which might lead to;
  • Change in priorities.
  • New rules and regulations, such as the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulations that recently came into effect.
  • People leaving the project and/or new people joining the team.
  • Etc.

Essentially, a change is anything, that will have an impact on other aspects of your projectmost notably the project schedule, the budget, the scope and resourcing.

In this guide, let’s look at how you can effectively handle change. But first, a small recap:

What is a project change

A project change is a modification in your originally defined project plan that you agreed upon with your client. This change request can impact the project budget, tasks, structures, processes, other projects in your pipeline, and other aspects.

Interestingly, project changes go beyond small scope changes — extending to modification requests to deliverables, timeline schedule, payment terms, project specifics, and the resources working on a project.

The changes you encounter in your project plan can also be big or small. For example, a long-term client may request a more senior staff member (say someone they’ve worked with in the past) to complete their project. Or a client may request urgent delivery. 

What are the types of change?

Some changes are planned or, rather, expected. For instance, your client could say they’d share more details that may impact the project scope when data from their market research comes in.

Knowing the types of change, however, helps you deal with unplanned changes. After all, smoothly managing change requests is first a mindset game, followed by the strategy part (how you handle the execution).

With that, here are the types of change:

  • Happened change. A change that happens because of external factors and no one including the client has any control over it. For example, new mailing regulations.
  • Reactive change. A change that happens in response to an event. For example, poor user feedback to a new feature you roll for a client.
  • Anticipatory change. A change that you’re expecting as a result of an event or a chain of events. For example, changes to team structures and leadership due to recession.
  • Operational change. A change that’s implemented to get an edge over the competition. For example, a competitor ramping up their marketing campaigns.
  • Strategic change. A change that happens due to changes in the management. For example, a new leader in the client’s organization might want to do things differently.

Why is project change management important? 

Managing change well is an excellent professional muscle to build — one that impresses, wins, and retains clients. 

It’s not to say that all requested changes are needed, or that project managers should be uber-flexible in allowing for changes any time the clients want. Instead, create a solid change process that tells clients when it’s okay to request changes and how. 

For example, having a change request form in place indicates to clients that you won’t entertain every small, unneeded change request they ask for. Instead, they’ll have to explain the need for the change for you to implement it.

This type of flexibility in project management improves client satisfaction while also helping you set boundaries and tight project scopes.

When you entertain and correctly execute important change requests, clients realize they’re getting the most bang for their buck. The result? Happy clients that you are better able to retain.

Not to mention, rigid processes can impact the quality of the deliverables. Certain project changes can, however, improve deliverables, helping the client win.

Now for how to manage project changes. 

Embrace change - it’s inevitable

Whether a change is big or small, one thing is inevitable: There will always be changes in a project.

It’s impossible to know everything upfront (if you did, your job would be obsolete!). Change is a product of learning and you, your team and your client will learn new things everyday as the project progresses. Rather than seeing it as something that should be avoided at all cost, see it as something that has the potential to make your project outcome better.

10 tips to manage project change

Managing changes is important, no matter what project methodology you use to deliver your project. If changes are not assessed, discussed and appropriately dealt with they can lead to unrecoverable schedule slips, resource conflicts and cost overruns

Here are 10 essential tips to manage change on client projects:

1. Know your baseline

The baseline is your initial plan that you have agreed upon with your client. It is documented in your statement of work and should include:

  • scope and high level requirements
  • goals and objectives
  • budget
  • project schedule
  • key milestones
  • target delivery dates

2. Know your client’s priorities

Make sure you agree with your client on what’s important. Firstly, understand how fixed the scope, budget and timings are. Secondly, take a look at the scope and determine with your client which requirements are absolute must-haves in order to achieve the objectives, and which ones are nice-to-haves. This will inform your change process (see below) and will help you assess and communicate the impact of changes further down the track.

3. Define the change process

At the start of the project, outline to your client how you will be dealing with changes in general, and scope changes in particular, and document it in your statement of work or initiation document. This doesn’t need to be anything elaborate, but at a minimum you should outline:

  • that changes are inevitable (you can never tell this to your client too many times!)
  • how you define change.
  • how you will be dealing with changes throughout the project.
  • who can request changes; and
  • who will sign-off on changes.

Ideally you want to put together the change process with your client, to ensure you have their buy in and everyone understands what’s involved.

4. Know the decision makers

Make sure you are talking to the right people at the client side and understand who the decision makers are. This ties in with the point above - who will sign-off on change? It’s not uncommon that the client side project lead can sign-off on changes to some level, but needs to bring in their manager if budget changes exceed a certain $ amount.

5. Document changes

Information about a change can come to you in lots of different ways. The client might request the change directlyin a meeting, via email or over the phone. Or you might come across it during a team meeting, e.g. when your tech lead mentions that changing the technical architecture would make the project more robust in the long-term.

A good practice is to document all changes in a change log so you don’t lose track of them. There’s lots of free templates out there you can use. I personally like a girl’s guide to project management’s change log template as it’s nice and simple. I’d also recommend using a G-sheet or Smartsheet so you can easily share your change log with stakeholders and collaborate on it with your team.

6. Communicate about change - early and often

Make sure to tell your clients about possible changes as soon as you learn about them. Review the change log with your client during your weekly meeting, and  include an update in your status report.

7. Review the change and assess impact

Once you have come across and documented a request for change, you, or someone on your team, will need to take a look at the potential impact on scope, schedule, delivery dates, budget, quality and resources. Collect all the facts, then put together a recommendation so you and your client can make an informed decision on how to move forward. One thing to be aware of when dealing with lots of change requests is the “impact of the impact”. It’s most likely that the people on your team will be involved in assessing the impact of change, which will take them away from their current work.

8. Get approval

Make sure you have an audit trail / formal process for signing off on changes so there are no misunderstandings.

9. Go ahead with the changed plan

Lastly, once the change is approved, go ahead and update your project plan, budget tracker, schedule and any other documentation you use to track and report on your project.

10. Beware of all the little things creeping in

I don’t know about you, but “just” seems to be my client’s favourite word. “Can’t you just quickly do this?”, “It’s just changing the copy.”, “Can’t you just copy and past this from another project?” Doing your client a little favour here and there is totally fine and can help you build a good working relationship. But remember, you’re not running a charity, and lots of small changes will add up, so don’t be afraid to say no and stick to your process.

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