Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

Can we succeed at Project installation and still FAIL ?
June 28, 2009, 4:15 pm
Filed under: - People Change Management | Tags: , , ,

Do we really get project context right?

In my previous post (“The importance of context, of vision – “professionalism is overrated””), I considered the importance of context and as an example discussed that despite the resources that enterprises invest in developing and communicating their vision (to create a culture that can be leveraged strategically),  there is a very real gap in awareness that exists and there are costs associated with that gap.

If we can invest so much in vision and culture and yet still fall short, what does this suggest for strategic projects? The duration is typically tight, 1-2 years, and the payback is intended to generate immediate payback.

When we implement a strategic project – a transformational, cross-functional program where commitment to a shared vision is absolutely critical – do we really accomplish this fundamental requirement?  Do “all stakeholders in the project have the same understanding of the project, and context, as the leadership team”?  Do they understand the context for the vision?  Do they know their role in ensuring success?  Do they monitor progress and market forces and adjust consistently across the group?

We think they do.  What if their context is different? What if their assumptions are different? What if they don’t (e.g. project staff turns over, different departments have different agendas and success drivers, they just never heard the vision statement or saw the business case)?

What do context and vision affect?  They affect:

  • Speed of Adoption
  • Proficiency
  • Ultimate Utilization

Students of Change Management Methodology will recognize these terms from Prosci Research’s Certification course. 

Why do they matter?  Because they DRIVE costs and returns! 

  •  The faster our Change Designates adopt the new processes or role, the faster we get traction and begin seeing results.  Timing contributes significantly to annual returns. 
  • The better Change Designates become at the change the better results we will see. Imagine that the change affects sales performance or health and safety – it matters !
  • Ultimate utilization speaks to the plateau reached at the end of implementation – the better the ultimate utilization, the better the cost savings or returns. 

This crystallizes in the realization that

we can install a program successfully

and still FAIL

(to generate the business benefits). 

Reality check and change management

This is the reality. I am reminded of a scene from the movie “Parenthood” with Steve Martin where the family is dealing with a messy, stressful day and the elderly, charmingly eccentric grandmother tells her daughter-in-law “…some people don’t like the roller coaster, I love the roller coaster”. She knows intuitively what we forget – life is messy and highly dynamic, it is an intrinsic quality of our reality.  It is also the context for strategic change. 

The best practices of Change Management bring tools, techniques and strategies for managing these dynamics. It brings discipline to the chaos.  Often it is not about knowing the answers in advance, rather deploying insightful questions that will clarify context, that will align with the vision and keep the program on track with its original intent.

The importance of context, of vision – “professionalism is overrated”
June 28, 2009, 4:09 pm
Filed under: - People Change Management | Tags: , ,

“… professionalism is overrated”: in isolation this is an inflammatory statement for sure.  And like all information, it requires context to be properly understood.  How often do we assume context? How often do we get it right?  What are the risks and downsides of being wrong? What difference does it make in planning and implementation of strategic change?

“… professionalism is overrated”

The statement “Amateurism is underrated and professionalism is overrated.”  was made by artist Jorge Colombo.  He was quoted in yesterday’s Toronto Star article “iBrushes with greatness” by Isabel Teotonio (  The article speaks about the capabilities of technologies and a convergence with other disciplines, in this case art.  Colombo is no ordinary street artist – his iPod art was recently featured on a cover of The New Yorker. 

I take his point to mean that there is a place for both amateurism and professionalism and that intimidation of professionalism should not scare off those of who are learning or experimenting. That there is value in “amateurism” – this echoes the concept of the beginner’s mind and expands the calling. 

This is an interesting thought on its own; however consider the critical difference that knowing context made in understanding this statement.  Does a better understanding of context change the meaning, bring value? Yes, it definitely does.

Value of a better understanding of strategic context

Likewise a fresh look at planning and implementing strategic change is required – a perspective that considers what we think we know about planning and implementation.  After all if we were truly competent our projects would always hit ROI, on time and on budget – but they don’t. 

What we assume is often what causes re-work, delays and ROI shortfalls.  Often it is understanding context that can improve effectiveness.   Over the past fifty years or so organizations have developed disciplines around planning (e.g. market research, competitive intelligence, etc) – the front end of business casing has achieved a degree of approximation of reality, of context.  

Then we transition into implementation, often assuming that this set of assumptions (a) is 100% valid and reliable (b) while dynamic the assumptions will not vary materially over the course of the project and (c) that all stakeholders in the project have the same understanding of the project, and context, as the leadership team OR that (d) the Project team will monitor and accommodate market forces. 

Typically none of these assumptions are 100% true but for this discussion I would like to look at (c) “all stakeholders in the project have the same understanding of the project, and context, as the leadership team”.  

Strategic and tactical alignment

What would be the common denominator that many companies have invested in developing? How about a vision statement?  With so much effort invested in building that common understanding how effective have we been?   Stephen Covey illustrates this beautifully in a video (“It’s Not Just Important, It’s Wildly Important”) that describes employees’ “understanding” of their companies’ vision statements:

  • the leadership believes that everyone “gets it”, knows the most important goal(s) – they say “They know exactly”, “Everybody here knows that goal. I challenge you to go find someone who doesn’t”. Interestingly some admit “Certain people on our team know that. Do they all know that know that, understand that, no they don’t.”
  • What do their employees say?  Sure some seem to know but many do not:  “You’d have to ask my boss”, “I wish I knew”, “Safety in the pool area at all times”, “it changes a lot”. 

What are the risks and downsides of employees not knowing their organizations’ main goals?  They are more significant the more instrumental the employee’s role is in shaping the strategic direction of the organization – perhaps as in a strategic change project team.

Note:     There is a lot more to this video and I encourage you to watch it – you would join the Stephen Covey Community at, go to the Resources tab, 8th Habit Offer List and find Chapter 15 “It’s Not Just Important, It’s Wildly Important”.  I have found that this 5 minute video to be very effective with leadership teams to illustrate this point with some humor.

Does it matter – is ‘pretty good, good enough?” ?

Individually and organizationally, most organizations are pretty good – at strategy and execution.  Enough staff ‘get’ the vision enough to function well enough.  We approximate greatness – and executives and program teams fill the gap with individual leadership and talent – and decision making.

The question really is – is that good enough?  If most competitors develop comparable capabilities how will any one competitor pull away.  It may be fair to say that we have reached a plateau of competence where it now matters – that to pull away organizations will have to look harder at the finessing around delivery – ensuring a deeper mutual understanding and commitment around context.  This will become increasingly important in markets where:

  • Employees will collaborate across distances (in virtual teams)
  • There is great diversity in our teams (personal backgrounds and ambitions, work experience, generational context [Boomers, X, Y], departmental agendas, etc)
  • Turnover in organizations and project teams is dynamic (we cannot expect previous trusted relationships or networks in every project to be available to expedite delivery)
  • Decision making is dynamic – has to be responsive to changing market conditions; the leadership team needs a base (a context) from which to have productive dialogue and debate

What does that mean for strategic projects? 

Can we install transformational change and still FAIL?  We sure can. 

More in my next post.

I don’t know what I don’t know – do you?
June 8, 2009, 1:50 pm
Filed under: - Personal Reflections

It’s a cute but profound challenge – how does one understand, conceive,  or even glimpse that which one has no awareness of?

In the Western world, particularly in the dog-eat-dog Western business world it is risky, perhaps career-altering, to say “I don’t know”.  More usually there are euphemisms: “Can you elaborate on that?”, “Tell me more”, just plain old fashioned denial: if it doesn’t exist it can’t affect me or even more extreme – a vacuum.

What is “it”?  Could be many things:

  • a nascent but emerging trend – not long ago many of us had no idea what is “Twitter”
  • an advancement or refinement in a discipline – business analysis, as an example, is an area of management practice that is making many strides in developing tools, techniques and standards of practice
  • a radical development that begins to penetrate our narrow lives, like … terrorism, energy conservation, hybrid cars

The compelling thing about “what I don’t know” is that it will affect me – changes me – love it, hate it or ambivalent about it – it broadens my view of the world.

So I say, “bring it”.