AXELOS ProPath, the world's most powerful project, programme and portfolio best practice certifications

How to work with a change manager on a project

Helen Campbell
April 21, 2011

Change management is a relatively new and often misunderstood discipline when it comes to involvement at a project or program level, especially if the organisation isn’t very mature in their attitude to change.

The project manager’s job is to deliver the solution and the change manager’s job is to prepare people to receive the solution. One of the challenges is always that positioning. In my experience, the only time it works is when the change manager has equal influence to the project manager. They do two ends of the same job.

1. Project managers and change managers are naturally different

There will be a natural creative tension between the role of the project manager and the role of the change manager. That dynamic is deliberate because you’re pitching the deliverer against the receiver. The first thing project managers should be doing is understanding that natural tension. Their role is to use that constructively.

If they’re not, it isolates the change manager from the project team and makes it seem like they’re the only person around the table who cares about the business when they say ‘actually, that’s no good, the users don’t want a blue one they want a pink one’ and the team is going ‘I’m sorry, we’re doing a blue one, we only know how to build blue ones’.

So understand there is a natural tension that has to be there to get great outcomes from the business. Project managers and change managers come from different perspectives, and until you can please both sides you’re not going to get great outcomes from the business.

2. Project managers must listen to change managers

The change manager is there to make sure that the solution is successfully adopted and received and that everyone feels good about it. The change manager is there to make the project manager look good. If the change manager comes in and says the business needs a pink one, project managers need to listen.

There is a propensity among people who deliver for a living to shut their eyes and stick their fingers in their ears and drive the bus headlong into the business. However, it’s in the project manager’s best interests to actually listen to what the change manager is telling them about their customer’s view.

We recruit into project teams great delivery people: you tell them what you want and they work their butts off to do it, but they won’t necessarily understand the context in which that thing has to survive. Those people are usually not the people who can sit back, see the big picture and understand the context of the change.

The change manager will tell you that. The change manager will tell you ‘they’ve had a restructure and the system needs to be changed’. Delivery people usually don’t want to hear what change managers tell them, but my second wish would be for project managers to listen to their change manager. We’re not making stuff up for the hell of it, we’re going out into the world bringing back really valuable intelligence that the project manager should take on board.

3. A change manager is part of the project team

It might seem obvious, but the number of change managers I hear about that go on projects and say ‘should I be invited to the project team meeting?’ is amazing. It may just be because project managers are control freaks and have never had a change manager before and they’re not quite sure what to do with them. Change managers are as much a part of a project team as you business analyst and your programmers and whoever is in your team.

One of the underlying reasons why project managers reject their change manager is that the project manager is used to controlling things and then the change manager brings in news about the real world, which the project manager can’t control and it scares the hell out of them.

The fact that the project will crash into the business when it gets there and probably destroy it doesn’t figure up against the fact that they live in a world of certainty, whereas the world of the change manager lives in a world of uncertainty and unpredictability.

4. Project managers need to support change managers

Back your change manager. Particularly if you’re in IT projects; IT people are more control freaks than project managers and they’ve built a beautiful solution but the change manager says ‘sorry mate, that’s not what they want, you need to change it’. The project manager needs to back the change manager.

The project manager has to demonstrate to everyone else, the steering committee and the rest of the project team, that that information is valuable and they need to take it on board. The project manager needs to visibly back the change manager.

Helen Campbell
Helen Campbell has more than 20 years experience in project, program and change management consulting and leadership in the UK and Australia. She is the principal change management consultant at Catalyst Business Solutions and co-founder and Vice President of the Change Management Institute (
Read more