Creating a culture of partnership

between Project Management and Change Management


Advances in Project Management Series


By Gabrielle O’Donovan

Dublin, Ireland


The dismal results achieved by organizational change initiatives over the past decades drive home the need for a step change in how we deliver projects. We can no longer be satisfied to hop along with a ‘one-legged approach’, where only Project Management methodologies are used or, alternatively, limp along with Project Management in the driving seat and Change Management playing second fiddle. Rather, a firm-footed ‘two-legged approach’ to project delivery, that employs both Project Management and Change Management methodologies and expertise, will enable projects to stride forward in confidence and derive business benefits. Achieving this requires the thoughtful integration of Project Management and Change Management methodologies throughout the end-to-end project lifecycle, and the cultivation of a culture of partnership between Project Managers and Change Managers – a twenty-first century solution to a twenty-first century problem.

The current disconnect between Project Management and Change Management feeds the well-documented projects failure rate (40–70 per cent), and the laying of many a dud egg.  While much work has been done in recent times to try to address this issue, cross-discipline integration efforts thus far have only touched the tip of the iceberg (policies, practices, and processes), ignoring that below-the-surface subterranean cultural component that can divide or unite project teams. An effective joint value proposition between Project Management and Change Management must incorporate both perspectives.  By way of an example, on any given project team shared assumptions drive the expression of shared attitudes and behaviours.  These in turn impact what gets done and what doesn’t, and cultural assumptions at play are reflected in project outcomes and results. For instance, if the project team holds a shared assumption that successful measurement of project delivery is simply ‘on time, on scope and on budget’, they will not appreciate the need to secure end-user adoption of new ways of working, and are likely to see the work of Change Managers early on in the project cycle as little more than interference and a distraction. They may rationalize this mind-set by saying, ‘If we don’t have a system, we won’t need users to be on board.’ Where this assumption is in action below the surface, strategies and plans that involve Project Managers’ cooperation with Change Managers early in the project cycle (e.g. to agree how the end user will be impacted) may prove very difficult to implement, and undermine business benefits realization.

Making Culture Explicit and Measureable

Because mapping any given culture could be a never-ending task, it is essential to define the parameters of such work. Context is one such parameter and the context here is ‘the integration of Project Management and Change Management methodologies for projects’. The other parameter I am employing is a three-part framework designed by Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus, MIT, on those universal ‘problems’ or challenges that organizations face:

  1. Deepest assumptions about universal macro issues.
  2. The second part of the framework considers those challenges that the organization faces as it adapts to its external environment. My new additions supplementing Schein’s original list include getting consensus on the ‘shared approach to problem solving’, and ‘shared approach to risks and issues resolution’ – challenges that are in the forefront for project leaders and teams.
  3. The third part of the framework considers those universal problems that the organization faces in terms of internal integration. Newly identified challenges added to Schein’s original list include getting consensus on ‘maximizing problem solving capability’ and ‘openness to feedback’.

These problems are as relevant to change projects as they are to business-as-usual. The project is, after all, an organization, albeit a temporary one. While leaders may give considered thought to some or even all of the problems above when considering the larger organizational context, they rarely give these problems due attention in the temporary projects environment – and certainly not in terms of how they can define a network of cultural assumptions that will help resolve these issues. Therefore, these challenges are an excellent reference point for doing just that, as they add a structured level of detail to that higher-level parameter of ‘Change Management/Project Management integration’.


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About the Author

Gabrielle O’Donovan

Dublin, Ireland



Gabrielle O’Donovan
has clocked up more than 30,000 hours over 20+ years working on change programmes that have covered the full spectrum. Clients have included Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Unilever, the London Metropolitian Police, Lloyds Banking Group, Friends Life Insurance, the Ministry of Justice UK, Invensys Plc, Dublin Airport Authority, Cathay Pacific Airways and HSBC Hong Kong. Projects have been global, regional and country-specific in scale.

Gabrielle O’Donovan has some significant achievements under her belt: her culture transformation programme for HSBC Hong Kong plus five subsidiary companies embedded a customer-centric culture and won an ASTD Excellence in Practice Award (USA, 2005); at Dublin Airport Authority, Ireland, her work as Stakeholder Management Lead for the building of Terminal 2 was instrumental to securing capital expenditure; Gabrielle’s first book ‘The Corporate Culture Handbook’1 was rated “In the top 1% of best business books for 2005” by USA reviewer Business Book Review; in 2010, Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus of Sloan School of Management, MIT and founding father of organisational culture, referenced Gabrielle and her HSBC culture change programme in his 4th Edition of ‘Organisational Culture and Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2010). Schein also shared Gabrielle’s ‘Characteristics of a Healthy Culture’ typology in his book, referring to her 23 new culture dimensions as “noteable”.

Gabrielle O’Donovan is the author of Making Organizational Change Stick: How to create a culture of partnership between project and change management, published by Abingdon: Routledge in 2018.