Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

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.

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