Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

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

4 Comments so far
Leave a comment


You are so smart! I love your posts. You will not allow leaders to “blame” the problem on their direct reports/management, or the rank and file. After all aren’t the leaders accountable for the ways changes are sponsored, delayed, prioritized, resourced, etc.? Me thinks so and until leaders understand they can make a huge difference it makes we will continue to see failures.

I may offer a tweak to the joke:
How many does it take to unscrew a light bulb? Just one; the leader. If the leader does not lead, the change comes unscrewed. It may take “everyone” to make the change, but poor leadership can easily derail it. Make sense?

Bob Dodge
Strategic Change Leadership Coach

Comment by bobdodgeecm

Thanks Bob! It’s mutual – your work inspires me. And, I love the joke – so true. We are not suggesting they can do it alone but certainly the team cannot do it without them.

I often think we all expect too much of leaders – in the sense that most have ‘graduated’ to their current positions by demonstrating great capability for transitional change. However, the nature of change (and change leadership) required today in transformational changes (and by concurrent transformational strategies) is unprecedented in their careers.

Many leaders are ready to acknowledge the difference and to leverage one of the other great competencies they bring with them – “great leaders are great learners” – more in part 2 coming next week ….

Comment by Gail Severini ©

You are zooming in closer and closer to specifics while talking about big picture issues- Change Management at its finest!

I would add there is a leadership piece just before the “practice of leading”, that is the willingness and capability to see end states in the eyes of others.

Without the ability to frame make-sense-why from a different direction no amount of leadership skills is going to move the yacht in the bathtub.

And force just drains the water, floods the room and causes a completely different need for change.

Comment by Garrett Gitchell

Thanks Garrett. A great insight – as always. Gail

Comment by Gail Severini ©

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s