“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”  ― Lao Tzu on Change

As a project manager, as with everything else in life, everything is constantly changing.

“But, wait Yada, my PMP Jedi Master,” you say. “Don’t you teach us the PMP exam precisely so that we have rules and procedures for every eventuality? Can’t we control everything and get it to flow according to a plan by simply following the project management rules?”

“No,” I reply. “Change is the only constant a project manager builds change, unforeseen differences, and difficulties into every project.”

The reality is that no two projects are the same. Your team changes, even slightly. Your customer changes and becomes less predictable. Weather, the economy, financial changes, even a bout of influenza can change your plans, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

That’s why it’s important to build change and flexibility into every project you do.

“The rigid tree will snap when the winds blow hard. The flexible tree will bend, not break. It’s better to be flexible than broken.” – Yadagiri Senapathy, “Yada”, the PMP Jedi Master

Guidelines for Planning for Change

Here are some of the guidelines that every project manager must follow to avoid the pain of not planning for change.

  • There is no autopilot. It’s important to remember that every project is unique and things will change. No amount of planning will make it go perfectly. There will be problems, concerns, and difficulties. The key is to go into every project knowing that. It’s also important to make sure that your client understands that as well. They need to know that there will be problems, but that you’re ready to handle those problems.
  • Every customer is different. Even if you work for a single company, you aren’t likely to be reporting to the same people every time. Even if you do, they likely aren’t reporting to the same people. Each customer, internal or external, is different and will react differently. This is where you’ll reach into your bag of management tricks and pull out the customer service hat.
  • Be flexible. That seems obvious in the context we’re talking about here, but being flexible inside of your own mind is the key to being flexible with the project. Let your vision of the project be fluid enough to allow it to change and grow as circumstances change. Be positive in your attitude, proactive in your vision, and light in your feet. That way change can’t knock you over.
  • Work with your team. Don’t just give instructions to the team and let them go. Be hands-on, working at their side. Not only will this forge a stronger relationship with the team, but it will also allow you to see potential issues before they become problems. Most “crises” started out as a minor issue that was allowed to grow into a 1950’s horror monster. If you put the Blob in a jar when it’s only small, it won’t eat your project.
  • Revisit and review your plans. Every day, look at your plans and see how they might need to be modified or updated based on the newest circumstances. Revision is the art of the perfect novel and the perfect project. Don’t be afraid to change plans if that’s what needs to happen.
  • Don’t let technology ruin you. Too often we let some program that crunches numbers or decides timelines to rule over us like an overlord. Remember that all technology is here to serve, you not the other way around. If something that’s in a computer-driven plan doesn’t match up with reality, change the plan, not the project.
  • Take time to de-stress. Stress is a killer, of people and projects. Stress from you, the person guiding the project, will trickle down into the team and all of a sudden you have an entire crew squabbling and arguing with themselves and you. Take the time to step away from what you’re doing long enough to see it from a distance. It will show you what you might need to do differently.
  • Change your point of view. Once in a while, when I’m looking for something in my house or my office, I will get down on my hands and knees or up on a table to look at things from a different perspective. It’s the same way with projects. For example, if you’re doing a construction job project and something isn’t working right, look at from a different point of view.  Talk to a foreman or one of the workers. See what they see.
  • Improvise, adapt, and overcome. That’s a phrase you’ll hear a lot in the military. Learning to improvise and adapt to situations is, in fact, the only way to overcome difficulties. This reaches back to being flexible, but it also includes ideas like being innovative. Look for unique solutions to your problems. That will make it less stressful and allow you to get through concerns more quickly.
  • Talk to your team. Sometimes, we get in your own heads and don’t think about the fact there is a team of experts that have been chosen to work with us. Whether we chose them or someone else did, there’s usually a reason that those people are on the team. Tap into their knowledge and work together to find a great solution to any problems.

The Key is Flexible Project Management

Trying to plow ahead with a plan just because it’s the plan is a terrible idea. There are hundreds of examples of this in history, usually in military campaigns. The generals will often make a plan and then they will keep driving forward in spite of signs that they should change directions.

One important note: Consider the generals above. They will often power through because they promised some king or emperor that they would be doing things a certain way. Rather than go back and tell the “boss” that they need to do things differently. Your fear of total failure should always outweigh your fear of telling the boss you need to change directions.

If you find yourself with a customer or boss who doesn’t want to change the plan, you will need to sit them down and explain to them that forcing your way into the original plan is likely to end in failure and failure is worse than change.

Remain flexible and be ready to adapt to changing circumstances. In fact, be ready to make incremental changes each morning and you are less likely to find yourself having to make a massive change letter.

Being a project manager is like sailing. Adjust your sail moment to moment or you’re likely to capsize your entire project.

Flexibility is the most powerful tool in your toolbox. Without it, you’ll find yourself cleaning up messes of a project that have collapsed under the weight of your commitment to the original plan.