Change management vs project management

Project management gets confused with a lot of things, one of them being change management. 

And, unlike some comparisons that are more “apples and oranges” in nature — like project management and operations management — change management and project management often work in tandem.

For example, the changes implemented through change management can affect how projects get done. Sometimes, project managers actively participate in implementing these changes. But where does project management end and change management begin?

In this article, we’ll focus specifically on how these terms are different from one another.

But, to do this, we’ll first have to briefly explain: 

  • What project management is,
  • What change management is, and
  • What change refers to in this context.

So, let’s get to it.

Change management vs project management - cover

What is change in project management?

There are many answers to the question “What is change?”, from deeply philosophical ones like the evolution of the self to monetary ones like currency in the form of coins rather than paper cash.

In this article, however, we’ll only look at change as it pertains to project management.

According to Prosci — one of the global leaders in change management — change is a “project, initiative or solution being introduced in the organization to improve the way work gets done, solve a problem, or take advantage of an opportunity.

With regards to where change originates from, the PMBOK® Guide (7th Edition) distinguishes between the following types of change sources in organizations:

  • Internal sources — such as the inability to meet project KPIs, and
  • External sources — such as regulatory changes. 

By its very nature, any change in project management is a project risk, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wholly negative. 

Without context, we’d all agree that change in leadership midway through a project is not a desirable state of affairs. But if said leadership was incompetent and threatened to sabotage the entire project, it becomes hard to argue against change.

Change can be:

  • Reactive — like transitioning to remote work due to a global pandemic — or
  • Proactive — like switching to a new task management system because it is expected to cut down costs and increase productivity.

All of this is to say that, while the knee-jerk reaction to change might be unpleasant for most, change in project management is generally a positive prospect. 

What’s important is how it is implemented and managed.

The definition of change management

According to PMBOK (7th Edition), “Change management, or enablement, is a comprehensive, cyclic, and structured approach for transitioning individuals, groups, and organizations from a current state to a future state in which they realize desired benefits.

We could say that change management is all about: 

  • Getting people on board with the desired change, 
  • Preparing them to support this change, and then 
  • Working to reaffirm it.

We should note that change management is not the same as project change control, which deals with the identification and approval (or rejection) of changes to project documentation, baselines, and deliverables.

These terms sometimes get confused, but — to avoid scope creep and lengthy digressions — we’ll only talk about change management proper and how it differs from project management.

The definition of project management

As per the APM definition, project management is “the application of processes, methods, skills, knowledge and experience to achieve specific project objectives according to the project acceptance criteria and within agreed parameters. Project management has final deliverables that are constrained to a finite timescale and budget.

In other words, project management is the structured means of getting the project done on time and on budget, usually by following one of many project management methodologies.

That being said, we don’t want to present project management as something that’s simple, as it’s certainly not.

Proper project management requires mastery of these 10 knowledge areas:

💡 Plaky Pro Tip

For a closer look as to why project management is important, you can refer to this guide:

What are the differences between change management and project management?

Based solely on the definitions and explanations provided above, it can seem like project management and change management have very little in common. But in practice, the line separating the two can be murkier than it first appears.

For example, if an Agile SaaS development project wants to make changes that will affect its customers, both project management and change management can get involved. 

The project management side of things implements the changes, while the change management side of things works to get customers on board with the changes and prepare/train them.

In such a case, how do we know where project management ends and change management begins?

To clear up the distinction, let’s look at some of the blurry lines that can cause confusion.

Difference #1: Outcome and output

First, let’s define the success criteria for project management and change management.

A successful project is one where the final deliverable is submitted on time, on budget, and within the agreed-upon technical specifications. In other words, the goal of project management is output-oriented — to create the final deliverable.

Conversely, change management is outcome-oriented. If the desired state of affairs is to go paperless, reaching that outcome will indicate success. 

Now, this isn’t a binary thing — success metrics for change management can include the speed of this transition and how adept employees are at using the new system. But, by and large, change management isn’t as focused on time and money as project management is.

Difference #2: People and processes

You’ll often hear that project management deals with processes while change management deals with people. 

While this is technically true, it bears expanding upon so that there are no misunderstandings. After all, change management is often used to implement new organizational processes, which is why naming processes as the sole domain of project management and calling it a day can be confusing.

So, let’s say you need to construct a bridge — a textbook example of a project. 

You could attempt to do this without formal project management practices. You’d fail, of course, but given a simpler project, you might succeed. Project management statistics do show us that some organizations manage projects without formal PM methodologies — they even manage to meet their project goals 58% of the time, albeit by going over budget and over time in the majority of cases.

Project management is using these formal processes — like PM methodologies, Agile frameworks or hybrid project management — to increase the chances of project success. 

The more structured and formalized the project management processes of an organization are, the higher their project management maturity is.

So, when change management is tasked with changing a process — like switching to a better project management software — the outcome of this change will affect project management, i.e. how you get things done.

However, to get the change implemented in the first place, you need to get the people on board with it — this is why you’ll hear that “change management deals with people”. If a new process is introduced to supplant an old one, but employees keep doing things the old way, you can consider that change a failure.

To quote Prosci once again, “change management focuses on preparing, equipping and supporting individuals to adopt and use the changes.

Difference #3: Methodologies and models

Project management is a field that has been studied and improved upon for a long time. Testament to this is the sheer volume of project management methodologies that project managers can utilize to manage their projects from start to finish — like Waterfall. 

The Waterfall methodology divides the project into 5 stages:

  • Requirements, 
  • Design, 
  • Implementation, 
  • Verification, and 
  • Maintenance.

It also doesn’t allow backtracking to any previous stage, making it ideal for projects where things need to be done right the first time, like construction and manufacturing. 

Projects that need more breathing room in terms of requirements — like many software development projects — can instead utilize one of the many Agile frameworks — like Scrum or Kanban — to structure task management and prioritization. These frameworks allow the project team to make iterative decisions and changes and improve the product as they are making it.

Change management, on the other hand, uses completely different models — which aren’t quite robust enough to be called methodologies — to successfully implement and reinforce change in an organization.

PMI’s Managing Change in Organizations: A Practice Guide highlights the following 5 steps to implementing change within a project, program, or portfolio:

  • Formulate change,
  • Plan change,
  • Implement change,
  • Manage transition, and
  • Sustain change.

While this model provides a framework for how to structure change within an organization, most change practitioners also use the ADKAR Model, which describes the 5 stages people go to when adapting to change:

  1. Awareness,
  2. Desire,
  3. Knowledge,
  4. Ability, and
  5. Reinforcement.

As the folks at Prosci say, “Nearly any project, initiative or solution that improves an organization will affect how employees do their day-to-day work.” 

So, whenever you implement changes, you have to think about the people it will affect just as much as how you will plan and implement said changes.

Difference #4: Leadership and collaboration

Helming a project is the project manager, who works together with the project team to create the final deliverable. They need to have mastery over a range of project management skills, both soft and hard, to effectively coordinate project work and finish the project on time and on budget. 

We’re not trying to say that project managers don’t collaborate with their team members, just that — as project leaders — they have the authority that substantiates this “captain and crew” analogy.

Now, you’d think that the person at the helm of change initiatives would be a change manager, but this isn’t necessarily the case.

Firstly, the term “change manager” rarely gets used. You’ll run into it sometimes, but most of the authoritative literature on this subject uses the term change practitioner instead.

Secondly, the role of a change practitioner can’t be summed up with such a simple “captain and crew” analogy. The term practitioner already has a less executive ring to it than manager, which is more indicative of the role.

According to Prosci, the core roles in change management are:

  • The change practitioner,
  • The project manager,
  • Sponsors, and 
  • People managers.

Change practitioners prepare plans and strategies for change and support people affected by this change. While we could still call this a leadership role, they lack the authority over impacted employees that project managers have. 

Instead, change practitioners have to rely on communication to successfully implement changes.

Conclusion: Change management and project management support organizations from different angles

While different in many ways, change management and project management do have one key similarity — they both support organizations and their growth, albeit in different ways.

Change management instructs employees to do things the way leadership wants — which may be different from the way they wanted things done yesterday — while project management is there to get those things done.

✉️ Has mixing project management and change management led to any issues for you before? Have we successfully managed to clear up the differences or is there something we’ve missed? Let us know at and we may include your thoughts in some of our future posts.

VladimirSamolovac Vladimir  Samolovac

Vladimir Samolovac is a project management author and researcher who enjoys distilling various PM topics to their essence and presenting them to (aspiring) PMs in a streamlined and intelligible manner. As an experienced teacher and project management aficionado, his goal is to help create a library of useful resources that will positively affect his readers’ project success rates.