Project Management and Organizational Change: a theoretical perspective and an evolving discipline.

Project Management
and Organizational Change:

a theoretical perspective
and an evolving discipline.

Roberto Bonanomi

Senior Trainer HURACT


The use of modern project management methodologies, including several specific tools and techniques thereof, to address organizational change is a practice which has been widely in use for a long time and is still proactively sponsored by professional associations and practitioners.

However, some authors have been arguing that the use of such instruments have little or no practical benefit at all except, perhaps, reassuring stakeholders of the change initiative thereof (Hughes 2010) or providing business for professional associations and consulting companies (Sorge 2004).

Is this the case? How do the multifaceted concepts of change and project management integrate with each other? Does the use project management methodologies really have such a limited practical impact for managing changes and are just there to serve vested interest?

Change Management defined

Even though there is no unambiguous and commonly acknowledged definition of ‘managing change’ (Huges 2010), change itself can be understood and studied by classifying it on the basis of different factors including philosophies or perspectives, triggers, and change agents. Such factors translate into different categorizations of change which may turn out to be useful to identify the cases in which project management methodologies can be productively applied.

With reference to philosophies or perspectives, Smith and Graets (2011) propose nine philosophies of change, namely rational, biological, institutional, resource, psychological, systems, cultural, critical and dual. Each of these philosophies features its own peculiar roots. For example, the rational philosophy lies on the assumption that change can be driven by management in response to environmental circumstances, using a planned step-based approach similar to the ‘unfreezing’, ‘change’, ‘refreezing’ model of (Lewin 1947).

With regards to triggers, instead, we can distinguish between external triggers, which can be classified using a PESTLE analysis (political, economic, socio-cultural, technological, legal, environmental), and internal triggers, such as the willingness to develop a new product or service (Huczynski and Buchanan 2013). It goes without saying that an internal initiative, such as a refocusing of the marketing strategy of a company, can also be the management’s response to an external trigger, for instance, the appearance on the market of a brand new, last-generation technology.

Finally, as regards change agents, Caldwell (2003) classifies four models of change and suggests that change initiatives can always rely on more than one type of change agents. Other than internal top executives that can launch strategic initiatives and internal middle managers that can get them rolling, Caldwell assigns a role to internal or external consultants who can operate in team with the other change agents providing expertise, project management skills and coordination.

Project Management defined

When it comes to defining project management, Olsen (1971 cited by Gauthier and Ika 2012, p 9) states that: “Project management is the application of tools and techniques (such as the CPM [Critical Path Method] and matrix organization) to direct the use of diverse resources toward the accomplishment of a unique, complex, one-time task within time, cost, quality constraints. Each task requires a particular mix of these tools and techniques structured to fit the task environment and life cycle (from conception to completion) of the task”.

Different modern methodologies have stemmed from the above mentioned definition of project management, such as the one proposed by the Project Management Institute (PMI) or the PRINCE2 methodology, which provide a consistent and broad range of techniques to manage a project.

Project Management as organizational change methodology

If we try to explain why project management methodologies have often been associated with organizational changes, which type of initiatives those methodologies have been used for, and the benefits they have added, we need to address two main points.

First, modern project management methodologies share the same theoretical background of some of the best-known approaches to change belonging to the rational philosophy such as the ‘ten commandments for executing change’ of (Kanter et al. 1992), the eight-stage process of (Kotter 1996) and the seven-steps approach of (Luecke 2003). The link between such approaches and the modern methodologies of project management is so straightforward that some authors have proposed a set of direct correspondences between the steps of the various planned step-based approaches and the techniques used by PMI and PRINCE2 (Parker et al. 2013).

Second, we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that some of the major changes in organizations are related to the process of digitalization, which started with mainframe computing in 1960s and was followed by the desktop computing in 1980s, open systems and networks in 1990s and more recently web systems. Such process determined the development of a ‘techno-changes’ perspective (Markus 2004) according to which the introduction of new paradigms -such as ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and CRM (Customer Relationship Management)- was driven mainly by an ICT perspective acknowledging the crucial role played by software vendors, consultancy companies and project management methodologies. Therefore it is not surprising that a ‘Magic Bullet Theory’ emerged, looking at ICT initiatives driven by project management methodologies, whose roots lie primarily in information systems development, as the ‘magic’ way to accomplish organizational change (Markus and Benjamin 1997).

As a consequence of this scenario, project management methodologies are nowadays regarded as primary drivers of change in those cases in which a planned, step-based change approach is adopted and/or the change is driven by an ICT initiative.

Indeed, this convergence between change management and project management is also sponsored by project management associations. “Effecting a change in the structure, processes, staffing, or style of an organization” (PMBOK 2013, p 4) is identified by the PMI as one of the purposes of a project.

There are other possible reasons why project management can be beneficially applied to change initiatives.

In the first place, certified project managers can be regarded as change agents. As previously stated, Caldwell (2003) argued that when the change agency is embodied by an internal or external consultant, they are usually expected to possess project management skills. Viewing certified project managers as change agents can be somehow beneficial not only thanks to the intrinsic characteristics of such profiles but also due to the fact that the same level of specialization and professionalism cannot be found elsewhere. Hughes (2010) reports that a change manager is more likely to hold a generic, business-oriented, postgraduate title, such as an MBA, rather than a specialization.

In the second place, project managers share a common body of knowledge and expertise and a common jargon that can facilitate the communication in large change initiatives. The PMP certification established a set of requirements both for acquiring the certification and for maintaining it (PMP Handbook 2016) and PMI has published a “Lexicon of Project Management Terms” (PMBOK 2013, p 2).

In the third place, organizations like PMI usually maintain an up-to-date, worldwide registry of certified professionals that can be easily accessed by companies looking for these kinds of competencies.

Does Project Management work as organizational change methodology?

Notwithstanding all of the above, one could wonder why, given all those benefits that the application of project management methodologies may bring about, it is often claimed that 70% of changes, even the ones that are considered well established initiatives, fails (Arnold et al. 2016).

We have found no evidence that such failure must be put down directly to the use of project management methodologies. For example, in their analysis of ‘why changes programs don’t produce changes’, Beer et al. (2013) advocate that the problem may arise from the fact that traditional change approach starting from the ‘top’ and aimed to change the knowledge and attitude of individuals, is flawed and should be integrated with a six-steps ‘task alignment’ plan moving from the periphery toward the centre and focusing on putting individuals into new contexts and roles. Kotter (1995), in identifying ‘why transformation efforts fail’, lists eight strategic errors from ‘not establishing a great enough sense of urgency’ when change has to be started, to ‘not anchoring changes in the corporation’s culture’ to make the change enduring. However, none of them blame project management methodologies ‘per se’ as responsible of change failure.

Limitation of project management as change methodology

Having said so, it is commonly acknowledged that there are limitations in the exclusive application of project management methodologies to the theory and practice of change management.

For instance, one such limitations lies in the fact that innovation and change initiatives that take exclusively a project management and ICT perspective, often don’t give the expected results because there is more to be considered than the system / technological perspective and that IT has not a ‘magic power’ (Markus 1997).

Sorge (2004) takes it a step further by critically seeing the application of project management methodologies to an organizational change as a business opportunity for consultant companies. Basically, he advocates that external companies and professional associations have a vested interest in proposing the project management methodologies as the panacea of all change initiatives, given that organizations cannot always rely upon internal skilled resources and are then forced to hire external professionals.

It is also worth pointing out that such external project-manager professionals may sometimes be totally unaware of internal culture, dynamics, informal processes which constitute the backbone of the business and this may cause a sort of rejection crisis that may jeopardize the change initiative. McDonagh (2001) advocates that introducing IT-enabled change can lead to underestimating some human and organizational aspects that permit to integrate IT with the business and this can be considered the main determinant of projects failure.

Another limitation is that it is commonly accepted that, as the model of change goes beyond the classical planned model, there is a need to introduce different or broader approaches. For example, Leybourne (2006) argues for embracing ‘improvisation’ as an approach to overcome some of the limitations deriving from project management methodologies and Buchanan (2007) reports an exemplary case where distributed change agency can successfully achieve organizational changes without an overall structure of project management.

Besides, project management methodologies suffer from a commonly acknowledged lack of theoretical underpinning. Leybourne (2007) underlines that the acceptance of project management as a ‘robust and evolved’ management discipline requires a strong academic position. Gauthier and Ika (2012) argue that to be recognized as a scientific discipline, project management still needs to be first recognized as a ‘construct’ and that there should be a set of ontological basics.

The future of project management

Nevertheless, project management methodologies, having been challenged by their own limitations and the consequent harsh criticism, are currently evolving following some specific patterns.

ICT project management is integrating with organizational study (OS) to support organizational change. Barrett et al. (2006) report an evolution consisting in the integration of ICT and OS to accomplish change enhanced or driven by an ICT initiative. The authors infer such convergence starting from the observation of a set of unprecedented behaviours of big market players. On one hand traditionally strategic consulting companies, like McKinsey, are extending their offerings toward ICT-related needs and, on the other hand, traditionally ICT based companies like IBM are trying to upgrade their business consultant services.

Project management is incorporating change management tools. Grundy (1998) advocates for importing tools from strategic management, value management and organizational change, into project management to enhance its effectiveness in dealing with strategic changes.

Project management is assimilating social-behavioural aspects. Leybourne (2007) points out that, based on his research on current and past literature, a need to evolve from a ‘tools and techniques’ approach to one that encompasses social and behavioural elements of managing a project, has been identified. The PMI has incorporated interpersonal skills like “leadership, team building, motivation, communication, influencing, decision making, political and cultural awareness, negotiation, trust building, conflict management and coaching” in the list of desiderata for a project manager (PMBOK 2013, p. 17).

Project management is evolving to embrace post-modern and complexity theories. Saynisch (2010) acknowledges that innovation, globalization and complexity require a new managerial approach to projects that goes beyond modern project management (called ‘project management 1st order’) toward a post-modern understanding of natural and social sciences leading to a new project management approach called ‘project management 2nd order’.

Last but not least, there have been attempts to set the foundations of project management even from an ontological perspective (Gauthier 2012).


In conclusion, we acknowledge that there are both benefits and limitations in applying project management methodologies to organizational change initiatives; that so far, project management methodologies have been used primarily to support or to lead ICT-driven changes or, more in general, change initiatives based on a rational, step-based approach; that in doing so limitations to apply project management where there is more than an ICT-driven initiative or a planned approach have emerged along with an evident lack of theoretical background.

Hence, project management methodologies have been somehow pushed to evolve toward a new, broader and theoretically based version of themselves.

Related training


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