Project Managers are Not Change Agents

How often have you heard the words “project managers are change agents”?

From HealthCareITNews.com…

“Project managers are change agents in an organization. Change agents are nothing other than someone or something that brings about change. But a skilled project manager is aware of this and helps orchestrate and manage change.”

I don’t agree. 

There is, and always will be, a general misunderstanding of what we do and what we are.  Typically, this is sector related.  Maybe the healthcare sector really believes this.  IT does.  Construction doesn’t.  I don’t think engineers do.

Maybe I would be more comfortable if the above said “Project managers IN THE HEALTH CARE SECTOR ARE OFTEN REFERRED TO AS change agents in an organization. Change agents are nothing other than someone or something that brings about change. But a skilled project manager is aware of this and helps orchestrate and manage change.”

Project managers are not change agents and projects do not necessarily bring about change.

Some will say that building a new product delivers change.  That’s a stretch and it seems to me that the words are being used to justify the title.  A new release of an app delivers change?  No.

Some projects do deliver change. A new internal process. A new product release that will require users to act, think and react differently.  Sure.

Project managers should be aware that some projects will cause angst in people: fear, nervousness and concern. All of this needs to be managed.  But any good organization that is causing a lot of change with the implementation of a project should understand this well in advance and hire the right people to manage the process. It is not the project manager’s job.

If, during your due diligence process, you discover that a project you are being asked to work on will be delivering a lot of change within an organization, be very careful.  Raise the red flag and make sure the right people are in place to make it a smooth and stress-free implementation.  You can then go back to doing what you do best… manage the project.

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5 thoughts on “Project Managers are Not Change Agents”

  1. Hmmm….I see it differently…

    Project managers are the facilitators of the change and need to be able to bring the people together to do the change together, with people instead of to them. They absolutely are agents of change…they don’t OWN the change – but they are the facilitators of that change by bringing the people together that can make that change a reality from the leaders in the organization through to the people doing the work. Only one person has their hand on all the pieces.

    We must equip them to drive it. We much teach them how to do it. Abdicating responsibility of the people parts of change leaves the PM only with the role of project administration, box checking, and work machines can do. That PM is replaceable, cheap, and not very valuable. That’s not a leader. That’s a project administrator. Boring.

    There’s art and there’s science. The art is the change management – doing change with people and through them instead of to them. How do you get buy in, attention, support, focus, and results? Change management. Not beating people over the head or chasing them down for status.

    This is the way PMs stop being task administrators and start being leaders…

    Laura Barnard

    1. Thanks Laura – spoken like a true ‘Impact Driver”. I agree with you – they do not own the change but, when required,but they are the facilitaors. Maybe my point is that this is one of the important roles of a PM. But some folks believe that this is THE job a PM and I do not believe that. As I suggested, not every project involved change and the PM still has a critical role in those projects.

  2. David you are absolutely correct.

    Managing change is not just implementing a new process or adjusted system. There may be Change Management support to a project to ensure people are informed, involved, respected, and honored for their past and current contributions. This support, however, is just marshalling the organization’s existing priorities, leaders, goals, and accountabilities to deliver an effective project outcome, as opposed to changing HOW the organization values and rewards action.

    Real Organizational Change involves adjusting the organization’s reinforcing mechanisms to better align with leadership’s revised strategic direction. Reinforcing elements motivate key behaviors and include people decisions (expressed in the org. chart), performance assessment criteria, key metrics, and rewards, recognitions, and incentives.

    Project leaders are not mandated to change these elements. If they stray into these areas, most project managers will see the support they keenly need evaporate as managers and leaders withdraw as they perceive a threat to the rewards, incentives, etc. that affect them.

    Project leaders, with skill, leverage the organization’s current leaders, processes, and priorities to support their project. Project leaders need to see themselves as working within the organization’s ‘system’ rather than to also try an on-the-fly redesign the organization’s motivating elements while managing a project.

    As I have learned from a thesis project on Org. Change involving 72 organizations and over 30 years as an Organizational Change practitioner, Real Organizational Change is most successfully led by an external, temporary resource hired for this purpose. If attempted and led by an internal leader, in my very real experience, those who lose position, esteem, and career prospects from necessary changes have long memories and exert significant effort to bring retribution to the person they see as being the cause of their loss.

  3. David – I wanted to take a moment out to let you know how much I really appreciate and enjoy your articles. I especially love this article on the subject of change agents because I have encountered that before – where an organization brings on a PM and expects them to manage a reorg on top of the program, and people impacted. I was in a discussion with a friend about the topic of what role a PM plays in an organization and how some companies or departments are not fully aware so its our job to teach them. Its not easy but its certainly necessary and for the betterment of both the PM and the organization and/or department.
    -Tanya

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