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Controlling Change Requests in Projects

~ By Michelle Symonds

Tag with changes written on it

Changes requested once a project is underway are an inevitable part of any project. They can either be the result of external changes in the business or they can be internal changes requested because the original aims of the project were not clearly defined or understood.

Change requests resulting from external factors are usually beyond the control of a project manager and there is usually little choice but to deal with them. Most successful project managers will have already put a process in place at the start of the project to handle such requests and the plan will be flexible enough to cope without unduly affecting the final outcome.

But change requests resulting from internal factors should be handled very differently. In an ideal project many of these would have been avoided by ensuring the project objectives were well-defined, the requirements were clearly documented and communicated to all stakeholders, and the stakeholders understood what to expect from the final product. Of course, we don't always live in an ideal world and no matter how thorough and detailed the initial stages of a project are there will always need to be an effective change process in place.

Not all stakeholders and end users can visualise an end-product by reading documentation and studying diagrams. Even when prototypes are used to enhance the production of the requirements they are, by their nature, not fully functioning products and misunderstandings and assumptions will be inevitable on complex projects.

Nevertheless, good documentation and clear communication of the project objectives and requirements will minimise the number of change requests.

So what is the best way of controlling change requests in a project and still being able to deliver the completed project within an acceptable budget, time and scope?

Distinguish Between the Necessary and the "Nice-to-Have"

Every change request should have a business case to back it up in the same way the overall project had. Of course, this can be a very simple and short description, but is a necessary element of all change requests before they can be considered for inclusion in a project.

The most important element of the change request business case is the expected benefit, which should indicate the value that will be added to the project by the change. This, in itself, will indicate which changes are likely to be necessary. It is important to recognise the description of some business cases may not necessarily benefit the project in terms of time and budget, but are necessary for the client to remain competitive in their marketplace.

If the benefits are not explicitly stated then discuss the issue with the person who requested the change to determine if there is a genuine business benefit.

Better designed solutions, or nicer, more attractive features are not benefits unless they can be backed up by how this will have a positive impact on the project budget and schedule, or a positive impact on the end-user's effort required to complete regular tasks. Typical questions the business case of a change request should answer are:

  • "What external business change has resulted in this change request?"
  • "What internal factor has resulted in this change request?"
  • "How will this change affect the time taken to complete the project?"
  • "How will this change affect the use of the end-product?"
  • "What cost-savings will be made by implementing this change?"

Avoid Wasting Time and Effort

The most obvious way to avoid wasting valuable project resources on excessive change requests and the whole change management process, is to ensure the project starts with clearly defined objectives and requirements. It is also important the criteria which will be used to determine project success is documented succinctly at the start of the project. Ensure all of these documents are distributed to stakeholders and end users and that copies are easily accessible.

Schedule time into the project plan for dealing with change requests and if that time has been eaten up then defer outstanding requests until the following week. Ensure that all interested parties know this is how the process works.

Have Clear Acceptance and Rejection Criteria

Use some clear criteria to screen out those requests that will not, or cannot be, implemented. One essential criterion is a business case, so any request without one can immediately be sent back to the requester. Do not waste time tracking down the requester to find out what the business case is. It should be their responsibility to provide it initially (even if you later need to have discussions to refine it).

Be prepared to back up your reasons for rejecting change requests with a well-thought out description of why there is no case to include the change. Stick by your decision unless the project sponsor is prepared to increase the budget or time available for the project.

But do be prepared to be flexible and negotiate a trade-off by dropping a planned task in favour of the change when no budget or extra time is available.

Always apply project management best practices throughout every area of a project if you want the highest chance of success.

Michelle Symonds is a qualified PRINCE2 Project Manager and believes that the right project management training can transform a good project manager into a great one and is essential for a successful outcome to any project. You can study best practices, including change management, on project management courses for PMP Certification, APM Introductory Certificate and PRINCE2.


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