Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

Survey says “Issues of the 21st Century are more complex”. Guest post Walter McFarlane (“Culture eats Strategy” series Part 3)

“Culture eats strategy (change) for breakfast.” True? Are our current organizational cultures up for the strategies of 2011?“. 

Yes, and survey says …

This question was posed on LinkedIn in the Groups “Organizational Change Practitioners” and “Strategic Leadership Forum” back in January and over 600 insightful posts were contributed.  This is the second guest post in a series excerpted with permission from that discussion. 

Walter McFarland is an experienced, consulting executive who believes “The human and organizational performance issues of the 21st Century are more complex–and more important–than ever before.  Building a high performing 21st Century workforce will require fresh perspectives and bold action.”.  His post:

I just wrapped up a research project for Oxford and HEC Paris that looked at one facet of internal Change Leadership. It was a qualitative look but had an interesting sample: 3 Fortune 300 or better organizations and two global not-for-profits. Central question turned on what most influences leaders’ thinking about Change?

You guessed it. Recent experiences with Change in the context of the current organizational culture was first of the lot. In fact, the leaders I interviewed were unable to discuss Change outside the context of their organization. They saw deep understanding of the current culture–and how to function within it–as a key qualification for Change Leaders.

They also frequently spoke about the notion of building a “culture of Change” in order to better align the culture with the new reality of nearly continuous Change. Interestingly, they both loved and feared this notion. On the one hand, such a culture might be faster and more agile in executing Change–hence giving competitive advantage. On the other hand, such a culture might be distracting to core business operations. In their minds focusing too much on Change could threaten viability. They often mused about what an optimum 21st culture might look like.

A common answer–at least to them–involved creating cultures that integrated Change into the culture not as a discrete activity–but as an increasingly routine business activity.

Walter is on LinkedIn here.

If you are interested in creating a “culture of change” – a “nimble” organization (“one that has a sustained ability to quickly and effectively respond to the demands of change while continually delivering high performance”) – check out a few posts from the master of change, Daryl Conner, here.  

And, if you would like to discuss strategy execution approaches we have implemented successfully for other Fortune 100 companies, it would be a pleasure to connect – you can reach me at

Most posts coming on this topic – subscribe above left so you don’t miss any.

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Call to Leaders re strategies too important to fail – the biggest risk (Part 1 of 2)

Back in the day, there was a bit of a joke – not a “ha ha” but an “ahem” – how many tries does it take for an organization to implement a strategy?  Today, most organizations get one shot, that’s all.  The alternative could be bankruptcy (consider the bleak horizon facing Nokia).  A few of the brave and lucky, and prepared, can succeed at “turning that yacht around in a bathtub”.

 If you are approaching a ‘too important to fail’ strategy, and have not sponsored a transformational change program recently, then this conversation is for you.  Or if your program is in urgent need of remediation, stay tuned.  What is the biggest risk? Leadership follow through. 

First the context – does this sound familiar?

Inside of organizations, we all know it, there is an inertia.  As hard as leaders try to coax, push or demand, sustained traction remains elusive. 

Projects still start off with bang, or sometimes a room temperature “yea” or very cautious WIIFM, then head into a grind of excuses, delays, short falls and near misses. 

You know it – it usually starts with lots of meetings where leaders describe the vision, scope creeps in, then delays, then ruthless scope cut, then a massive puuuussshhh.  Sometimes a launch emerges but more often a compromised end product and sometimes at complete fizzle out (usually under cover of some other event, such as an economic decoy or re-org, etc).  You don’t need statistics to tell you that ~70% of transformational change fails.

None of us can afford another failure of this kind. 

Remember the mission – the calling

We need success like never before.  Our economies and our communities need revenue growth, and job creation, where ever feasible. 

The stakes are higher than ever – and the risks are just as high.

Project funding is too precious.  Competition is too fierce. 

Leaders must, and can, get strategies airborne.  And there are many internal and external resources who want you to succeed. 

This is not a square peg, square hole problem – the challenges are different

Yesterday we were manufacturing-driven and we were great at it, so great that it is difficult to leave the memory of the glory days.  Efficiency and effectiveness were enough to get 10, 20, 30% costs savings and that was great.  It still is, take it whenever you can get it. That was transactional change – reforming processes and  technology.  The largest of this is Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) –  this crosses the line to transformational change – where we need people to change the way they think about their work, not just the order in which they operate.  This enters into the territory of the riskiest of strategies.

Take this another step forward and, amongst all of the economic challenges we are dealing with, our focus must evolve again. 

We are an increasingly digital society.  So what? Well, as we are increasingly information-driven there are more moving parts to opportunities and those parts themselves are more dynamic. 

Is  your organization looking at service-driven strategy, e.g. “partnering” and “collaboration”,  or becoming innovation-driven?  These involve the most difficult of change – changing the way people think about their jobs and their colleagues, about how they perform on a daily basis. 

The implementation approaches that work on transactional change, that were successful in the glory days, are inadequate against this so-called “soft” side of change.  ‘Telling the vision’ and issuing compliance-driven instructions are insufficient in complex, dynamic change where we need the passion and judgement of our people as the ROI pivot.

This is the first of the round peg, square hole dilemmas.  Something must change to get success.

Round peg, square hole dilemmas – risks

The laundry list is significant:

  • Our organizations are leaner than ever before and our people are more fatigued  – there is less tolerance in the organization for change and few people (less time and energy) to do it right.
  • The organization has aimed high and fallen short before – there is low confidence in ability to follow through to the end successfully (look hard at the track record and be honest – these strategies are often ‘all or nothing’ bets).  
  • There is significant hesitancy – telling people what to do will not generate enough passion, enough commitment, to sustain momentum.  Engaging them cannot be lip service.
  • This is not the only important strategy ‘in flight’ in the organization concurrently.  Are we competing for priority, for precious resources?
  • Gen X, Y and M – as critical as they are in our Human Capital plan – have very different attitudes to work and this complexity must be factored in.
  • The dimensions of the strategy are neither linear nor shallow – yet our organizations are built for linear from workflows to the chain of command reporting structure.  Now there is diversity and complexity in execution, and in adoption.  The problems are different and require different thinking and solutions – Daniel Pink gives an awesome explanation of this here.
  • We cannot use the same project implementation processes of the past alone (RACIs, critical paths, gantt charts) – they are wildly insufficient. Even combined with basic change management competencies, they will fail.  This kind of change requires organized chaos, disruption and re-birth. 

So what is the single biggest risk? Survey results are resounding: leadership.  Leadership in the form of insightful and accurate strategic planning and change stewardship (sponsorship). Leaders are the only individuals within the organization with the purview and authority to deal with these risks.  And this does not point to a single leader (tho that is important) within the organization – success relies on the synergy within the leadership team.  The biggest risk is leadership follow through – from concept to realization.

Okay, we covered a lot of ground for a single blog post. In Part 2, scheduled for early August, I will come back to: “Reason for hope – great leaders are great learners” and “What does it take to be a great change leader (sponsor)?” and we will link to some great Conner Partners’ research on “the characteristics of effective sponsorship”. 

Meanwhile, if you’d like more check out Daryl Conner’s “Sponsorship” series here on his ChangeThinking blog.

If you would like to discuss strategy execution approaches we have implemented successfully for other Fortune 100 companies it would be a pleasure to connect – you can reach me at

What is “Change Management”? And, is definition important?

Ask 10 people “what is change management?” and you will get 10 very different answers.  So YES definition is important!

Many Leaders come to the term “Change Management” and intuitively believe they know what it means – and that they are already doing it.  However, behind these innocuous words is a highly specialized discipline that has been evolving over the past 60 years.

Understanding Change Management offers untapped opportunity to drive more value to the bottom line.

The broad definition 

It’s about “managing change”, i.e. taking a strategy and managing the implementation right? Well, yes, in the broadest sense.

My own definition starts from strategic alignment and extends through delivery to seeing the results track in.

Change management encompasses an array of multi-disciplinary capabilities:

  • Leadership and Strategic Planning
  • Project specific capabilities, e.g. Strategic Marketing, Organization Design and Development, Business Process Re-engineering, Technology Implementation
  • People Change Management (PCM), Training and Communications
  • Portfolio / Program / Project Management

Realizing full ROI only happens when ALL of these are INTEGRATED and OPTIMIZED.

Of note, you will see “Change Management” appear on many position descriptions and job postings these days.  This reference typically refers to a general understanding of the nature of change and high level awareness of the process that might be required for straightforward transitional change.

Underneath this broad definition though is a deeper, more powerful, resource – what I term “People Change Management”.  It is increasingly recognized that this so-called “soft stuff” represents the highest risk to transformational change.  It also represents the greatest opportunity for driving value and for competitive advantage.

The deep definition – People Change Management (PCM)

Kurt Lewin got us started and many others have continued the work of understanding how to help people traverse change.  The business notion is that the faster we can get employees to stop doing the old thing and start doing the new thing, the faster the ROI comes in.

Some of the renowned names in the field include: William Bridges, John Kotter, Peter Senge.  Others have gone deeper and applied it to the “hows” of  managing change faster and better:  Linda Ackerman-Anderson, Dean Anderson, Rick Mauer, Jeff Hiatt and our own Daryl Conner.

How do I think of  People Change Management?  It:

  • Reduces people-related risks (eg resistance and misunderstandings) that effect costly delays, re-work, error / waste and turnover
  • Increases and expedites user “adoption, proficiency and ultimate utilization” (Prosci Learning) thereby optimizing business results
  • Encompasses a structured process and tool sets
  • Includes: Leader (Sponsor) support, stakeholder management, change readiness, business impact, communication, training, and change metrics as well as contingency planning and interventions as required
  • Engages users in the change, shares information, improves solutioning and expedites the transition to the ‘new state’ 

How does Conner Partners define “Change Management”?

Change management is the orchestration of change in a way that identifies and addresses the human risks involved in implementing change. This strengthens the individual and organizational ability to handle change well and increases the chances that the change will be put successfully into practice.

Of note, this very tactical and process-driven application of Change Management is deployed within Programs and Projects.  It is substantively different than the generic competency requirement on position descriptions and job posting.

Mastery at this level prepares Leaders and Practitioners to deal with high risk, disruptive change – transformational change.  Mastery often encompasses Organizational Development capabilities associated with: organizational behaviour, organizational design, learning and development, compensation, culture change, etc.

PCM Current Maturity Levels?

Prosci Learning has a neat little Maturity Model here that articulates a development path from novice to mastery.  My experience is that few organizations have reached level 5 – and even fewer have an integrated, end-to-end, execution approach (a PMO is not “it”).

Most organizations are great at some components of change or they would not be around today. However, few (very few) are great at the whole array.

What a great opportunity for developing competitive advantage!  In fact, many Fortune 500 companies are going beyond adding the generic competency onto position descriptions and beyond adding Change Management checklists into project management methodology.  Many are in the process of developing Enterprise capability through Change Management Communities of Practice, Centres of Excellence and even dedicated leadership positions.

Deeper still – specialties within Change Management

In a recent discussion on LinkedIn one of the practitioners I have come to respect, Faith Fuqua-Purvis, proposed the notion of specialists within Change Management (much as within engineering there are Civil, Mechanical, Electrical, etc). I see this as key, for example “Communications” in Change Management is NOT the same as broadcasting information – it is not a PR or MarCom definition – it requires engaging Change Targets in 2-way dialogue. Furthermore, the notion of “risk communication” is also important here – effectively communicating with people who are “in crisis” is very different than day-to-day communications.

The specialities could include:

  • Defining strategic intent at an operational level with a realization focus, e.g. developing Vision and Mission Statements (not as simple as it sounds – I have seen many a project set the wrong trajectory with the wrong vision / mission statement – and this is NOT something that should be a whimsical engagement ploy)
  • Training and coaching sponsors and agents in change leadership/management
  • Enrolling sponsors and targets in this change.  Surfacing and resolving resistance.  Building and sustaining commitment.
  • Developing and deploying communications (informational and conversational, commitment focussed)
  • Anticipating, designing, resourcing and deploying specific types of interventions
  • Risk Management (against proven risk frameworks)
  • Etc

And, by the way, these are not mutually exclusive requirements – to the contrary, they have mutually compounding benefits.

Only when practitioners can clearly delineate

the different specialties and competencies within Change Management,

 describe their benefits and understand their relationships

– only then are they are really prepared to deliver “Change Management” value.

So, while this does not require that our definitions be identical, I ask my colleagues to give more consideration to contextualizing what you do and relating it to what other specialists within the same space do, i.e. don’t sell just your capability. Please consider the breadth and depth of change management and build up the team to meet the client’s best interests.

If you are researching Change Management to deploy within large-scale strategic change, I’d be delighted to share more with you – you can reach me at .

_ _ _ _

Faith and I both believe that Change Management is a critical component of successful business change.  As such, and along with some others, we are committed to expanding the general understanding of Change Management and will be posting multiple articles on this topic over the next several months.  Some articles will be collaboratively written, others written and posted individually.

We hope you will visit both our sites.  To see Faith’s blog, follow this link.

If you want to know more about who we are, you can find us both on LinkedIn. You can also read more about Faith here and if you want to contact us, you can reach Faith here and me at

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“Culture is like the fundamental laws of physics” guest post Olivier Riviere (“Culture eats Strategy” series Part 2)

Can you absorb a 25% hit to your program ROI? 15%?  OR, what if you could drive 100% of the projected ROI? 

All organizational changes (projects, programs, initiatives) are integrated into or, more often, rejected by the culture. Clearly this is an issue that is on the minds of leaders and change agents.  Over 600 insightful posts have been shared  on the topic “Culture eats Strategy (change) for breakfast” on LinkedIn in the Group “Organizational Change Practitioners” and more in the “Strategic Leadership Forum” since January (and the discussions are still running). 

The voices of the contributors are so powerful in their original form that I have asked a couple of participants if we could re-print their point of view here.  This is the second post in a series that will probably run to about 8 guest posts.  The first guest post is from Olivier Riviere – Olivier is an international Business Consultant and Interim Manager with over 25 years in-house experience based out of Germany:

In my humble opinion, whether Culture eats strategy or not depends on how well or bad the company is managed at the highest level, and not on CM planners or consultants.

Culture is like the fundamental laws of physics. It is there and won’t go away. But it is more complex and diverse than the laws of Physics. Even in a single organization, culture is like a daemon that changes shape constantly. But it is there and influences the course of things.

For the good and for the bad, Culture determines the strategic thinking capabilities of an entire organization. As long as the established culture enables the organization to find a relevant strategic response to a threat or an opportunity, everything is “fine”. Designing the strategy, moving to implementation, adapting the organization and driving change is relatively straightforward and represents the “usual” challenge of CM (surely not a piece of cake but still a “business of management as usual”) . The problem gets MUCH bigger when culture comes in the way and – even at the stage of design only – prevents the organization from defining an adequate strategy (typical example: SAP unable to tackle attacks from ORACLE). In that case, the key role of the leadership team is; first to drive the strategic thinking process in a way that works around collective mental limitations, and second, to drive the cultural (and organizational) change that will enable the implementation. This is no minor undertaking and it takes a long while (SAP’s last CEO failed rapidly). You are talking of changing behaviours, beliefs, symbols, rituals and the impact of all these on your management system and social interaction within the company. Big deal! If you don’t do it, the system will simply go back close to it is initial state and your strategy will fail miserably.

A lack of a deep understanding of culture and identity, and the subsequent incapacity to manage them are at the origin of many, many failed strategies, including most mergers and acquisitions. It is strange and sad that so few authors and consultants talk and write about this (if I am wrong, please tell me).

Now “managing culture & identity” does not mean that you can treat them like a production line (Six Sigma? No thank you!). Managing Identity is more like driving a super tanker and, sometime, riding on a storm. But it is a top manager’s job. Great leaders have the instinct and/or the analytical skills to manage culture and identity. But they are rare (and not necessarily famous and recognized for their incredible skills). The others need to be lucky….

Olivier is on LinkedIn here  and you can check out his blog here.

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