As children, we’re taught to always have a fire escape plan. Whether at school or home, we drill exactly what to do to get out of a dangerous situation quickly and safely, so that if a real emergency comes up, we’ll be ready.

For project managers, a change management plan is like a fire escape plan for when you need to guide your team through change, whether it’s expected or unexpected.

Of course, not every change has to be brought on by a catastrophe such as an actual fire or drastic budget cuts. Change management also involves more routine changes, such as new personnel, new facilities, or implementing new software and tools.

The important thing—as we learned from fire drills—is to have a plan ahead of time. The day before you completely transition to your new project management software isn’t the time to scramble to get your team on board.

At its heart, change management isn’t entirely different from project management. After all, the essence of project management is adapting to change during the progression of a project.

One simple way to look at it is that change management involves people, while project management involves tasks. In other words, change management is about coaching personnel through change so that they can continue to accomplish their tasks.

Let’s take a look at some basic guidelines for crafting a change management plan.

Crafting your change management plan

By nature, some change is unpredictable. Say, for example, one of your beloved principals leaves on short notice to start a new company in Dubai, land of drone taxis. Now you have to coach your organization through accepting a new leadership structure.

A sound change management plan will give you a head start on dealing with unexpected changes, as well as change that is easier to prepare for. For example, moving your growing company into a fancy new building with an on-site coffee bar and yoga studio. While you may have years to prepare for a change like this, there’s a lot to account for such as where will everyone sit, how will they get to work, and where will they park?

Every change management plan has three primary phases: planning, direction, and reinforcement. Let’s take a look at each phase.

1. Planning

Change management plan: The planning phase

Plan to keep planning

It may seem redundant, but the first phase of any solid change management plan is planning. This phase may last several months, or just a few days, depending on the circumstances. But the more you’re able to get out in front of the change, the smoother you can expect it to go.

This phase includes steps such as:

  • Estimate how the change will affect your organization. Risk management tools can help you prepare for unforeseen costs. It also helps to consult an organizational chart to map out which teams and individuals will be significantly affected by the coming change.
  • Assemble a change management team. This team should be representative of every department within your organization that will be affected by the change. Leading up to the change, the change management team should meet—almost like a project kickoff meeting—to ensure organization-wide buy-in, and to make sure that all stakeholders voices are heard.
  • Establish a timeline for the change. This is where your project management skills can really come in handy. Using tools such as Gantt charts, burndown charts, and milestones, determine when the change will begin, when you expect it to be fully implemented, and what milestones you need to hit along the way to stay on schedule.

2. Direction

Change management plan: Direction

Change management gone awry

This is the meat of change management, because it is the phase when the change is actually happening. That could mean when your employees actually start using new collaboration software during a live project, the week that you actually move into your shiny new building, or your new CEO’s first few weeks. If you planned thoroughly, this phase should go smoothly.

This phase includes steps such as:

  • Training and support. No matter how much time your team has had to play around with the new software or watch training videos, there will inevitably be problems that come up the first day they start using it on the job. It pays to have a point person or vendor support at the ready.
  • Communication and responsiveness. Nothing can make your team feel more abandoned than a lack of communication during uncertain times. It’s not just about letting your team know when and why the change is coming, but communicating with them throughout the process and responding to concerns as they come up.
  • Adjustments. As change rolls out, despite your best planning, something will happen that requires adjustment. Maybe the formatting features in your new CMS don’t actually work and you need to continue drafting in Google Docs for the time being. Or maybe your new Scrum Master’s insistence on having the daily Scrum outside in the courtyard, even in February, is rankling the team and you need to step in.

3. Reinforcement

Change management plan: Reinforcement

Celebrate successful change

So you adequately planned for the change, your new software didn’t explode and burn down the building, and all of your employees have been able to stay on task without missing a deadline. That’s great! But you’re not done yet. Your team might be excited early on to use the new software or work in the new building, but your job as a change manager requires that you follow up to make sure that the change holds.

This phase includes steps such as:

  • Follow-up training. As new features roll out in your new software, you’ll need to make sure that your team knows how to use them. This is also a good time to check in and make sure that they’re actually using the software correctly, and get their feedback.
  • Continued communication. You may have caught on by now that communication is of the utmost importance during every phase of change management. Using the new building example: the first week or so will likely be full of the excitement of moving into a new home. But once everyone is settled in, you’ll want to follow up to find out how everyone is enjoying the new cafeteria, how the new parking garage is working out, or if anyone has been working from home four days a week because they’re convinced that the building is haunted.
  • Monitor the situation. This step neatly dovetails back into project management. Once change has been fully implemented and you’re no longer worried about whether it’s going to derail your team from accomplishing their tasks, you can go back to managing projects and preparing for the next change.

Are you ready to change?

After reading this guide, you should feel more prepared to take on the next changes that come your way at work. But if you think I missed anything, please let me know in the comments!