In my experience (incremental waterfall development/technical projects) there are two parallel models running in sync:
- The Formal Model: This is what the published project plan says coupled to what the methodology says should be happening
- The Unwritten Model: This is what actually happens “at the coal face”
The first one is what gets published and reported upwards and outwards in the organisation in the project manager’s progress reports, both formal and informal.
The second one is kept private within the project team (including the project manager).
In the formal model, which is where the formal and agreed change control method lives, no change should be unaccompanied by formal change control that understands the cost, both in time and money, of any change or deviation from the plan and specs and maintains approval of all stakeholders at all times.
The problem is that strict adherence to the letter of formal change control, with all the attendant information gathering and approval cycles, is costly. In this world there is no such thing as a small change because of all the consequences have relatively far-reaching effects and costs.
So in the informal model both the technical personnel and the project manager operate with greater flexibility within their circle of trust. As has been documented elsewhere here, developers will make unapproved changes without engaging Change Control if their risk is low. This can be a problem when the developer does not fully understand the risk and underestimates it. This can and does happen. The project manager will recognise it and seek to limit the damage because we absolutely don’t want anyone above the level of PM sniffing around at this level commenting on unapproved changes. However, for anything above a trivial change one hopes that the developers would seek the advice of the PM before making such changes.
Here is where the natural balancing act comes into play for PMs. Yes they know they may not allow changes through without going through Change Management approval. But they also may know that this will involve greater time and cost or even just a lot of painful hassle for all, with no clear benefit. A PM may sometimes, under these circumstances, allow a change to proceed “under the radar”. But the PM will also know that the buck for that stops with them and if the wheels fall off the wagon then they will have to take the responsibility for it. So the PM will probably think long and hard about it, and take several options into accounts. The point is to balance risk against reward and, in my opinion, it takes considerable PM experience coupled with domain experience before you get this right. Most PMs will have the scars from earlier in their career when they allowed through a “simple” change which then grew arms and legs, failed in testing and ended up breaking the budget to put right when it shouldn’t have been allowed in in the first place
Anyone that denies that the informal level exists is either incorrect or they exist at a level that just doesn’t see it. Any PM knows that they have to be in the loop of the informal level and will play the game of give and take it requires. If a PM is not in that loop then life will get very hard for all parties.