written by: Ivy N. McQuain MBA
• edited by: Ronda Bowen
• updated: 11/12/2011
As with anything in life there will be changes. Sometimes you know about the change and sometimes you don't. As a project manager you have to be prepared for changes, seen and unseen and you have to prepare your team for unknown changes while maintaining the integrity of the project.
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Have you ever heard the saying, “Change is inevitable?" Well even if you haven't, these words apply in everyday life because regardless of how hard you try to remain consistent, change is going to occur. And this applies even in the constant changing world of project management. These changes include budget shortfalls or overage; lack of manpower to complete the project; and a host of other conundrums. Understanding what you should do and can do is very important as a project manager. Unfortunately, there will be times when you don't have all of the information about when changes are to become effective and what the change will bring. Yet in still, you have to be ready and able to identify your options for communicating changes that even you are unsure about.
Let’s take a look at a scenario to help you prepare for communicating change before it happens.
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You are completing the execution of a community wide event for the opening of a new civic center. As the project manager, you are in charge of every aspect of the event, including organizing local officials and community figureheads and finalizing the details for the civic center. You have your team in place and have been delegating assignments as you see fit. You have secured locations, speakers, events and a host of other must-haves for this community wide event. One day, you are called to an impromptu meeting with the builder of the center and told that the completion date will be delayed and the exact date is uncertain. You know that the final date is needed for the opening and community wide events. Despite the builder's uncertainty, you must continue planning and finalizing the details for the center and events.
Internally, you are frantic because you just got news that could create a dramatic shift in the morale and support of the community, so what do you do?
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Before You Communicate
As a project manager, you first need to analyze the received information in order to determine if there are immediate alternatives. Processing alternatives will allow you to understand how to mitigate any damages or losses from the unknown change. You can create alternative plans based on worse and best case scenarios. Understand that just listening to one side of a situation is never a good practice. As you create your best and worse case scenarios, think that the individual or group telling you about the uncertain change may have placed their best interests before the actual project. This should help you better understand how to create effective alternatives.
You need to ask questions to determine a resolution. In the above scenario, you only know one thing, that the project will be delayed. When you only know about a change, and there are no other identified barriers or end-results, then you have to ask questions. Asking questions can help you find resolutions on how to plan and finalize other processes for the project. Oftentimes, asking questions can help you immediately identify an alternative solution. Asking questions also help with identifying any resolvable issues. In the scenario above, if you take the time to ask a few important questions, then you may be able to find out where the delay originated from. Questions also help you identify and create a new communication strategy regardless if you are still uncertain of when a change will become effective.
Once you have analyzed the necessary information and asked the important questions, you should begin working on a new plan of communication. Your communication plan should detail the project, the changes and your estimated time for implementation. Again, if you are uncertain of the change effective date, do not worry because you will still have a plan to implement. If you are working with a team, then you also need to communicate the change with them.
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How to Communicate Better
If you have a staff, then you need to set a meeting with them to discuss the issues with the project, the identified changes and any identified solutions. Meeting with your staff allows for everyone to remain on track. Failure to align any new information you have received against the old information will result in chaos and confusion. Meetings also allow for brainstorming to help identify any barriers for the project with key stakeholders.
Once you have clearly addressed the internal change management processes and communication plans it is time to disseminate information to groups and individuals who are not necessary to the project completion. Creating various memorandums, letters and other forms of communications that explain the change will help everyone stay on track and also allow you to control the process as much as you can. It is important that you are honest with expressing your lack of knowledge on when the change will become effective and give as much information about follow-ups and questions for updates.
As you prepare for a change in your project, you must remember to not disclose information you are not certain of. Miscommunication occurs when opinions override the actual information that is communicated. So a good rule of thumb is that if it’s your opinion, then do not share it with your team. In a situation where there are open-ended project changes it is helpful to only discuss what you know, rather than what you think. A new communication plan is essential and helps with how the new changes will be implemented once finalized. Regardless if you are communicating change before it happens or communicating information as it happens, remember to only state the facts and prepare yourself and your team effectively.