Change management in IT: What is it and how does it work?

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As Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, "Everything changes and nothing remains still, and you cannot step twice into the same stream."  Ironically, change is the only constant — not only in life in general, but also in IT processes. 

IT teams may need to upgrade their hardware, migrate from on-premise services to the cloud, implement a new security patch, or deal with server breakdowns. 

How do you handle these changes to ensure minimal to no disruptions to service quality? That's what we look at in this post. 

Here, we'll explain change management in IT, examine some of the changes IT teams are likely to encounter, and, most importantly, break down the change management process and provide some tips on how to promote effective change management. 

What is change management in IT?

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Change management in IT is a process that involves following standardized procedures when making changes to IT services and systems to minimize disruptions and control risks. 

Whether you're upgrading your IT infrastructure, introducing new IT services, or handling security issues, change management works to minimize incidents, ensure prompt processes, promote transparency, and facilitate continuous improvements to IT services. 

This process is important in overall IT project management because it:

  • Minimizes the impact of IT changes on business processes 

  • Promotes business-IT alignment

  • Facilitates quicker change implementation

  • Ensures compliance with government and business regulations. 

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The role of change management within IT service management

Change management plays a major role within IT service management (ITSM) by ensuring any additions, removals, or modifications to IT systems happen in a controlled and systematic manner. This minimizes risks and disruptions and allows for change reviews, allowing continuous IT improvements. 

Just a quick note, ITSM isn't to be confused with Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL), even though they're related. ITSM is a paradigm that views IT teams as their own entities and defines a specific way of doing things. On the other hand, ITIL is a set of IT best practices that promote better alignment between businesses and IT teams. Think of ITIL as the guiding framework for ITSM. 

ITIL is constantly evolving, with the most recent development being ITIL 4. This framework is a more holistic approach to IT service management and addresses some inefficiencies of ITIL 3:

  • Inflexibility

  • Limited focus on value creation

  • Lack of guiding principles for ITSM processes

With the recent ITIL update, IT project managers are better equipped to handle changes. 

ITIL 4 clearly distinguishes between organizational change management and IT change management. According to this framework, organizational change management is the process of ensuring smooth and successful changes by managing the human aspects of these changes. In contrast, IT change management focuses on changes related to IT services and infrastructure. 

4 types of changes

ITIL defines a change as an addition, removal, or modification of IT services or components that could impact IT services. It categorizes changes into the following groups:

1. Standard changes

Standard changes are low-risk, pre-approved changes that occur regularly in the IT landscape. They speed up the change management process as they don't typically require in-depth assessments and monitoring — there are already well-defined procedures in place for these kinds of changes. 

Assessments and monitoring are only necessary during the creation process and whenever procedures are modified. A standard charge could be as simple as getting a new ink cartridge or replacing a broken router with a new, identical one. 

2. Normal changes

Normal changes are non-emergency changes that can impact IT service or infrastructure. Since they pose a higher risk than standard changes, they need to be assessed and approved whenever a need arises. 

Depending on the level of risk they pose (high or low), these changes are subject to assessments and approvals by advisory boards or IT peer reviewers. A normal high-risk change is something like switching data centers, while a normal low-risk change could be updating your website. 

3. Major changes

These are changes that could pose significant risks for IT services or have significant financial implications. They require detailed proposals, in-depth analysis, and approval from advisory boards.

Further, they're often complex and involve numerous detailed processes, as teams must cover all their bases to avoid drastic service disruptions. An example would be adopting new enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. 

4. Emergency changes

As their name suggests, these are changes that follow a significant event. While they're not typically included in change management plans, they're implemented quickly to address critical issues. 

This isn't to say they don't undergo assessments and testing before approval — they're subject to the same level of scrutiny as major changes. But, since they're urgent, they skip some processes, like documentation and scheduling. 

An example would be implementing a new security patch to prevent your system from further exploitation if it has already been compromised. 

Change management vs. release management

While change and release management are closely related, the two processes are different. As mentioned previously, change management practices aim to minimize disruptions after additions, modifications, or removals to an IT system. In contrast, release management involves making new or updated IT services available for use. 

Think of it this way: Change management provides the input required for successful changes, like approvals, while release management focuses on the output, i.e., the successful deployment of all changes. 

The 6-step change management process

Change management follows a distinct set of steps — from change request, review, and plan formulation to approval, implementation, and finalization — to ensure minimal disruption to services and infrastructure. Depending on the type of change, IT teams may need to involve various parties, one of the most important being a change advisory board (CAB)

A CAB is a group of individuals who make change approval or denial decisions. A change manager typically heads the board and works with various experts to understand and assess proposed changes before approving or denying them. 

Here are the steps to follow:

1. Make a request for change (RFC)

A request for change is a formal proposal for a particular change. People within and outside IT teams — such as project managers, business analysts, and stakeholders like partners and customers — can submit these requests

Typically, an RFC contains information on affected systems and the possible risks and rewards of undertaking the proposed change. As such, anyone requesting a change must first collect all pertinent information. 

Some best practices to keep in mind include:

  • Invest in a self-service portal for streamlined change request management

  • Maintain a centralized repository for all RFCs for seamless collaboration between IT and development teams. 

  • Monitor the RFC process to identify bottlenecks and refine the process for easier submissions. 

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2. Review the change request

The review process involves assessing the change request's feasibility and necessity as well as checking the accuracy of the stated risks and rewards. The goal here is to determine whether a change is worth making and, if so, its likelihood of success. 

Since this is the initial review stage, a peer reviewer or change manager undertakes the process. Some best practices here are:

  • Evaluate the completeness of change requests. 

  • Assess whether the proposed change aligns with IT objectives or overall business strategy. 

  • Invest in automation to speed up the review process. 

3. Create a change implementation plan

A change implementation plan is a more comprehensive version of the change request. It documents rollout plans, required resources, expected outcomes, expected downtime, change roles, and backout processes, just in case there's a need to rethink the change. 

The change plan must detail all these aspects to help the CAB determine if the change is worth pursuing. Various individuals — including IT staff, developers, and engineers — may prepare this plan. 

4. Get change approval

Depending on the type of change under request, this stage may involve a peer reviewer, change manager, or the change advisory board. Peer reviewers and change managers can approve low-risk changes, while the CAB takes on high-risk changes. 

In this stage, the relevant authority assesses the change implementation plan and either approves or denies it, depending on its merit. Some best practices to have in mind include:

  • Leverage peer reviewers for low-risk changes to speed up approvals. 

  • Include people from different parts of the business in the CAB for multifaceted opinions  — you could include IT teams, finance staff, developers, and third parties like industry thought leaders, depending on the scale of the change. 

  • Hold virtual real-time meetings for your CAB instead of scheduling in-person meetings for speedy decision-making. 

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5. Implement changes

Approval from the CAB, peer reviewers, or change managers paves the way for implementation. A diverse group of people — including project managers, developers, and engineers — can undertake his process. It involves everything from scheduling changes to assigning and delegating tasks. 

For a successful change implementation process:

  • Encourage collaboration across teams for speedier and more effective implementation. 

  • Set up parent-child tasks for better organization and to ensure your team doesn’t miss any tasks. 

  • Leverage automation tools to help execute processes with minimal issues. 

  • Deploy changes in small releases to identify potential issues before full deployment and reduce the risk of significant incidents. For example, if you're launching a new ERP system, you can test its stability with a small group of users before full adoption to prevent a complete service outage. 

6. Finalize changes

This step, typically undertaken by the change manager, involves reviewing and closing implemented changes. Tasks include checking whether deviations from the approved plan exist and identifying and resolving present or potential issues. 

When resolved, the change manager can close the change and record it as successful, unsuccessful, or incomplete. They also need to prepare a report detailing whether the change is within budget and the estimated completion period. 

How to improve change management in IT

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Want to improve your chances of successful change management in IT? Here are some best practices to adhere to:

Assign roles and responsibilities

Regardless of whether you run a small, mid-sized, or large IT organization, you can't handle change management on your own or start the process without assigning tasks. Trying will only cause delays and inevitably result in mistakes. 

Establishing roles and assigning responsibility for change management tasks improves efficiency by ensuring nothing slips through the cracks. Some of the key functions to assign and who to assign them to include:

  • Assessing change requests: Change manager 

  • Approving or rejecting change requests: Depending on the risk posed, a change manager, peer reviewer, or CAB

  • Identifying suitable CAB members and leading change approval meetings: The change manager 

  • Change implementation and deployment: A diverse group of professionals, including engineers and developers 

  • Identifying and addressing threats associated with the change: IT security professionals

  • Change review: Should involve numerous individuals, including the change manager, IT operations managers, and professionals who interact with end users, like customer relationship managers and service desk agents. 

Specify key performance indicators

IT teams need to determine key performance indicators (KPIs) before implementing changes to help validate the efficiency of change management processes. By comparing changes to KPIs, teams can identify inefficiencies in their processes and, if successful, justify future changes. Some metrics relevant to the change management process include:

  • Number of successful changes implemented

  • Reduced change request backlog 

  • Average time to implement a change

  • Planned vs. unplanned changes

  • Fewer service disruptions 

  • Number of incidents associated with changes.

Invest in tools to automate the process

Why do more than you need to and risk change delays? Invest in change management tools to streamline the change management process. 

The right tools can help teams better manage changes by making it easier to assign responsibilities/tasks, monitor change requests and implementations, as well as close out tasks. 

For seamless workflows, find a tool with the following features:

  • User-friendly interface for easy navigation

  • Change request tracking for transparency throughout the management process

  • Collaboration features like notifications 

  • Calendar integrations for change scheduling 

  • Task automation for speedy progress 

  • Centralized repository for change documentation to promote transparency. 

Simplify processes with collaborative tools for change management

Change management is necessary to ensure continuous service improvements and minimal disruptions. However, it can be overwhelming for IT teams, as there are numerous documents to prepare and processes to track. 

Fortunately, you can leverage project management tools like to seamlessly manage changes and other projects, such as software implementation and bug tracking. 

With, you have access to numerous features, like customizable templates to cover a wide range of processes, a resource scheduler to help with change implementation, built-in time tracking to determine the time spent on change processes, and more!

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