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  • Writer's pictureDr. Christine Senn, PhD

The Best Project Management Involves Change Management

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

Well, hello, darlin’s! In preparing for Project Management Day, I was thinking about how I consider project management is different from how other people think of it, or at least there are different levels of it. So I'm coming to you today in scrubs, and this is what made me think about it. I was asked about a year ago to implement COVID-19 clinical trials for the first time ever across a very large research site. And this took a lot of project management. It also took a lot of change management.

And so that is one of the differences I see in how project management can look different between beginner, intermediate, and advanced. In the beginning, I see a lot of people doing just followup. You’re checking behind someone who said they were going to do something and maybe holding them to a timeline. Accountability is absolutely critical to any project.  However, the ideal is that we would have people on our teams who are accountable already. What we're really looking for is something that's more intermediate or even advanced.

At intermediate, you're working on logistics and timelines and budgets, but also some of the strategies and asking: What could we do better? Where is there waste in the process? How could the process be better in general? Is it efficient and effective between departments? This all goes into the concept of “waste” in the project management domain.

Then I think there is the advanced project manager which really gets to change management because whether you're talking about getting a new trial type when working in a clinical trial site or a new business line happening in a service industry or implementing new software, you're really asking your people to change what they're doing — and change is difficult.

This reminded me that I was interviewed by the wonderful Michael Causey at the Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP) last year about change management. And I would love to share that with you today because we had a great conversation and I think the concepts around change management can take your project management to a whole new level if you're at a beginner or intermediate stage. So I hope you enjoy it.

Michael Causey I am pleased to welcome you to another edition of ACRP TV today. Our spotlight is on change management, and we're here with one of my all-time favorite people. Christine Senn is the Founder and Chief Strategist at Research Designed. She is also an ACRP Fellow and so many other wonderful things. Christine, thank you for joining us today.  Christine Senn What a great intro. Thank you, Michael.  Michael Causey Completely heartfelt. Let's talk about change management. Obviously there's a lot of change. There's always change. It's inevitable, but you know, that overused phrase “now more than ever” … we're all dealing with a lot of change. And a lot of people don't like change. They're nervous about it and like things the way they are, but often it's not a choice. So let's talk about some of your thoughts on the importance of change management. First off, can you give us some of your insights because you're an expert; you've written on this a lot for ACRP and and presented as well. So let's pick your brain a little bit and talk a little bit about change management. Christine Senn I do love change management. I think it's putting together my psychology background with my interest in project management. Studies in psychology and economics show that people are more afraid of what they might lose, even if they don't value that thing very much. They're more afraid of what they might lose than what they might gain through a change. So it seems to me that change is hard-wired into us to be scary, which kind of suggests that everybody's afraid of change, but you know, that's not true at all. Some people love what's scary. The people who love rollercoasters, skydiving, risky investing. And so you end up with different people. Well, if you have a large company, then you have a lot of different types of people.  The question might be, "why is getting people to change hard?", and I think it's because we make the mistake of thinking everyone's alike. I've worked with managers who just assume their people will be afraid of change. So their approach to change is timid, cautious, it lacks a vision. You're going to lose a lot of people with that approach. You're going to also gain a lot of people with that approach. I've also worked with managers who see everything about change as an opportunity. It's the most incredible thing. And they assume their people will automatically jump to change. Well, we know that's not true. So both camps are right and wrong.  Michael Causey Okay, so it sounds like one of the things is don't assume people are like you — which is good advice in life and everything, but what are some ways maybe to gauge your people? You know, some people will obviously show aversion to change or grumble or whatever, but how do you as a manager or as a leader of a team sort of assess the people around you and read them?

Christine Senn That's a great question. I've thought about this a lot because our company started as a small company and it was very easy to get to know everyone, but you get to a point where you have to put out a change to people maybe you haven't even met yet. And I think that's especially true now for us because we’ve done a lot of hiring over the past few months and many people work virtually now. So there are people on our team who we don't really know yet. You know the axiom that you'll never be liked by everybody you talk to? Well, I think the same thing is true of your messages. Your messages will also never be liked by everybody. So what I go with is that your best chance of success is to communicate the change message from enough different perspectives that everyone can feel that some part of your message speaks to them. I'll give you some examples and this comes from the Process Communication Model, but I won't go really far into it. Michael Causey It needs an acronym or something. It needs something.  Christine Senn Yeah. It's really super boring name so we definitely won't talk about it, but it's a good model for just thinking about people. It's not an overwhelmingly great model; it's just a way to think.

  • Some people are planners, and they need to hear timelines. If they have a timeline, they can work through the change because they start planning that change out in their head.

  • Some people embrace change as long as they believe you are authentic and telling them the truth. They just have to believe in you. (I say “just” like that's easy, but that can be a big thing, right?)

  • Others are called harmonizers. They want to know that the company cares about them, supports them, and supports their colleagues who are their friends.

  • A pretty cool group in any department is the dreamers. They're the visionaries who thrive on sharing the ideas. So when they hear the change, they have this thing like, how can I contribute? Which is completely different than other types of people.

  • And then there are the doers. Basically, all you need to say is “We're doing this. Here's the direction. It's time to go.” And they're off and running. 

Michael Causey Christine, are there any universal tips or tips that could apply to everyone?  Christine Senn Yeah, definitely. So one thing is to always start with what's not going to change. I think that “what's not going to change” becomes the box, and that box becomes the framework for everything else you're going to say after that. So if it's “nobody is going to lose their job immediately,” then everything you say after that is within the box of “my job is protected.” Or you might say “what's not going to change is our company culture” And now everything else is within that box. It gives a lot of security. So always start with what's not going to change.

I would also say inspire people. Don't be vague though. They need some specifics, but talk about change as an opportunity and really paint the picture of the future. Lastly, I'd say remember that people are capable of handling more than you think. Everybody, even people who love change — and I'm one of those people who adores change — everybody has some fear. So when you address their fears by speaking to their language (whether it’s the Planner or whatever), then you help them overcome it and hop on board. And fundamentally everyone wants to be part of a group, and they want to be on board with the change. They just need to help have it happen. 

Source: Michael Causey, ACRP TV

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