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A Practitioner's Guide to Change Management

A Practitioner’s Guide to Change Management

This article offers you a field-tested approach to (Organizational) Change Management in the practical context of limited resources and no extra time. It provides both links to expert literature and, more importantly, practical advice that can be leveraged from the very next working day. So, bear with me for 5–10 minutes and I promise it will pay off.

Change Management—No Room for Illusions

I have worked in project management for too long to be naive about change projects. They are always a mission critical thing, and yet, when it comes down to budget and other resources, priorities almost always seem to be elsewhere. But why is that the case?

Imagine Charly Beyou, who for many years has been working in various roles in medium-sized organizations and large corporations—from operational roles to positions in lower and middle management. She or he might just be one step closer to the C-level career dream, if there wasn’t (again) this one and only business re-engineering, turnaround, quick-win, top-down, whatsoever change project, which is all so important to the company’s fate. Change management is key, by the way … but budget? No, of course not. The money needs to be spent on IT stuff, which is expensive as always.

You might have heard about people like Charly, or you might even find a certain resemblance to yourself. The point is: change management is an often (ab)used, but also misunderstood term. One of the central challenges in change management is to prepare people in a structured way to do something they are not used to; people who are very busy with their daily work and who are typically all but keen to struggle with new tools.

Be Clear about Why You Need Change before You Start It

It may sound obvious or even cheeky, but the most important advice you should follow with any change initiative is this: be clear about why you need change and what you expect from it before you start your change project. If you don’t have a clear vision right from the start, it might only be in the middle of your change project that you find out that the change you have initiated is not what you really needed. And then it is probably too late; not too late to stop, but too late to turn the ship around and still keep everybody committed and motivated.

With this in mind, investing in a couple of days of external change management consultancy can save you a lot of time and money in the long run. Once the goals are clearly defined and documented, it is time to kick off the change project and get all parties involved committed.

A Hands-On Guide to Change Management

If you are interested in theory, there is a lot of great literature about change management out there. I have put together a list of recommended articles for you, which you can find at the end of this article. However, I often find that there is a significant gap between change management theory and the practical conditions you have to deal with in actual change projects.

Therefore, I have drawn together a list of hands-on suggestions and common communication opportunities combined with a set of corresponding strategies that should help you to leverage your change project’s full potential with little to no additional effort. They will be best suited for change projects introducing a new system or solution, and might need adaptation when applied to a multi-year cultural organisational transformation.

Executive Commitment & Endurance

Change management always requires a lot of executive commitment and endurance in order to be successful. It is your boss who decides on your professional well-being (and salary). So, if she/he does not care, why would you? The message for every executive leading a change initiative is:

  • Every change initiative needs to have a dedicated sponsor/owner
  • A one-off show is not sufficient—keep up the pace and regularly speak for the change
  • Be a role-model—talk about, but also work on the change
  • Plan, do, check, act, repeat

Communication is Key

The common denominator for change management across all the sources discussed above is, without a doubt, the need for communication. Therefore, if you are in the position to manage a change project, first of all ask yourself: where within the project do you have the most communication opportunities to the (future) users?

Standard Project Meetings

Your standard project meetings—those meetings, that you have to plan and need anyways—offer a great opportunity to drive communication and truly involve both key players and users. So, be careful to invite the right people.

  • Kick-Off
    Invite the future key users. If you have budget for a bigger event, invite even more people or representatives (from the ground). Be honest and tell them what they can and cannot expect from this project.
  • Weekly / Monthly Newsletters
    This could be a diluted version of the progress reports that you have to deliver to the steering. Make it light-weight, relevant, short, tangible. It will show achievements and challenges to your organization. Manage it, otherwise coffee talks would do.
  • Go-Live Get-Together
    Organize a Go-Live get-togehter (or even better: a party) to celebrate achievements. Make sure, though, that go-live means that users are using the system—not only technical installation.
  • Repeat
    Do you remember things you hear only once? Do what good promoters do: repeat the key advantages of the change or advice many times, even to the same audience.


Prior to go-live, you have to prepare people for what they have to do differently in one way or another. This is fair and raises productivity. I recommend that you:

  • Train key users
  • Empower key users to train others and spread the message (train-the-trainer concept)
  • Make sure that the training’s content is put into practice effectively: test and observe the results, ask for feedback and retrain if needed


How dull, how boring … no! Testing is vital for success. (Functional) testing ensures that WHAT is required is correctly implemented/returned on the surface. It is a software engineering task that could make up for about 25–50% of the overall project budget (across all test types). I recommend to:

  • Involve key people/users in requirements engineering
  • Involve those people also in the concurrent test preparation (against the requirements)
  • Motivate various stakeholders/users to participate in test execution. Make them part of the production, the achievement. People want to contribute, so make it THEIR participation, their achievement, their progress, …


Rollout is an organizational masterpiece. Make sure to involve your organizers and communicators and together answer the following questions:

  • Did we transfer all data from the old system/archives to the new one?
  • Have we thought about when to stop the old system (= way of working) and switch to the new one?
  • Have we informed our customers and suppliers?

Always remember that change is multi-dimensional. Involve more than just one perspective or one talent to get this done in a comprehensive way.


Last but not least, gamification elements can be a huge driver for the success of your change project. Because: who doesn’t like games? We all like to try, dear, win, and gamble. With this in mind, you could for instance try to combine countable work items with a point (reward) system.

  • Who is the test champion based on the most test cases executed or the most (confirmed) defects/bugs identified?
  • Who trained the most people?
  • Who migrated most of the data sets manually?

Change Management Theory

Now that you know my practical recommendations for change management, it would be a great time to browse the change management literature listed below and see what the experts‘ advice is. You will certainly find very good ideas and interesting concepts. However, you should always question them with regard to their practical applicability in the context of your organization and your change project.

  • Change the Culture, Change the Game
    (Roger Connors/Tom Smith), Portfolio editor (2012)
    Roger Connors and Tom Smith developed the Results Pyramid model about how leaders can achieve record-breaking results by quickly and effectively shaping their organizational culture to capitalize on their greatest asset: their people.
  • How to Get Aboard a Major Change Effort
    (John Kotter), Harvard Management Update (1996)
    John Kotter provides an expert interview on the key role of middle managers in change efforts and wrote several books on OCM. Kotter is a real expert.
  • Leading Change Why Transformation Efforts Fail
    (John Kotter), Harvard Business Review (2006)
    In this paper Kotter describes the eight steps that leaders who successfully transform businesses do (in the right order).
  • The Hard Side of Change Management
    (Harold L. Sirkin, Perry Keenan, Alan Jackson), Harvard Business Review (2005)
    Sirkin, Keenan, and Jackson elaborate the DICE framework: Duration, Integrity, Commitment, Effort

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