Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

Dispatch from the Conference Board of Canada’s annual Change Management conference (2012)

What is the “state of the nation” as far as “change management” goes in Canada? Titled “Agility, Performance and Engagement,” this conference had an unusual mix of theory, leadership thinking, and pragmatic case studies. I think that combination is an interesting comment on where we are in understanding, leveraging, and advancing this powerful competitive advantage.

There were ten presentations from representatives of TD Bank, Globalive/Wind Mobile, Lean Agility Inc, Shackle Associates, VirtualeTeams, Loblaw Companies Inc, Niagara Institute, SASKPower, and Centennial College, as well as several bright, experienced independents and authors.

Photo provided by Shirley Williams, WilliamPearl & Associates

Day 1 

  • To lead off, Aetna Bishka of TD Bank toured us through a lot of great research that underpins the theory of change management.
  • Next, we heard about driving change, muscling through with FOCUS (!)—thank you Brice Scheschuk for so passionately sharing the Globalive / Wind Mobile case brief.
  • David Hurst talked about “The New Ecology of Leadership,” from his book of the same name. He gave us a way to think about how organizations evolve: They are “conceived in passion, born in trust, grow in logic, mature in power, and then power freezes them.” He led us through his argument of how strengths become weaknesses and how to address this.
  • Craig Szelestowski incorporated all of that into some practical advice around creating agility by combining lean and change management.
  • Over lunch, Denis Shackel shared a dramatic personal story of tragedy and resilience, documented in his book, “Five Seconds at a Time: How Leaders Can Make the Impossible Possible”—a moving story told by a New Zealander with a flair for storytelling. He engaged us all.
  • After lunch, Jon Wagner shared some insights on collaboration and virtual teams. He encouraged us all to get engaged online.
  • Last up, the Loblaw story was an excellent change management case. Debra Millimaka Miles and Ursula Erasmus shared tips based on learnings from the supply chain consolidation challenge (four supply chains combined into one) to create a global leading-edge capability. They gave us both theory and examples of how the organization has built change management capability and ended with a model for organizational change management.

Day 2

  • We began with a great presentation on resilience. Jenny Howe of the Niagara Institute took us through principles and exercises that brought this important concept to life. I really appreciated her clarification around the impacts on absenteeism, presenteeism, and mental and physical health.
  • Next, Jim Diotte and Rob McRaven of SASKPower gave an outstanding articulation of breaking down silos (a huge challenge for so many industrial-age organizations). This was a great example of change management in motion—SASKPower engaged the leadership team in creating solutions, thereby building their commitment. Rob made the excellent point: “Bridges notes that beyond fear is loss. It was very important to understand what the leaders were giving up with the silos to help them move through.”
  • Last, Laurie Sanci shared a difficult culture change at Centennial College and Leona McCharles shared insights based on her personal experiences as a change leader at several telecoms and now at Royal Bank.

Throughout, John Brewer chaired us through the introductions and transitions with insight and humor—a great combination.

What did others think of the conference?

Shirley Williams, Principal Consultant, Owner, WilliamPearl & Associates and Social Media Chair, The Strategic Leadership Forum:

“The mix of group exercises and presentations highlighted the importance and value of having conversations on change management. I really liked the icebreaker where everyone at our table had to share their 10 words associated with change. This was truly intriguing. On my table, although all the words were relevant, not one word was the same—an indicator of how broad this topic really is, and highlighting the importance of alignment when establishing change. The two days reminded us of good change management concepts and the need to link it to pragmatic change solutions. It also reminded us that change is not a technical solution, it is a people solution.”

Len Nanjad, Principal, NPS Advisors and VP, Programming, The Strategic Leadership Forum:

“My biggest takeaways:

  • Letting go to be able to drive change well was a big common theme, yet not explored in depth.
  • Changing how you manage change was also mentioned in several ways and explored, to some extent, with a discussion on ecology, resilience, and managing culture change for diversity.
  • This capability is a fundamental leadership skill that can be learned and used to reinforce leadership development.”

My thoughts?

Overall, the conference provided an interesting perspective on the state of change management in Canada today. Basically, we are all using the term differently:

  • Some of the business-oriented folks use it in the context of “I am driving change with all that entails—from leadership, organization design (and re-design), to accountability and project management.”
  • Our OD community thinks in terms of research and terrific foundational and leading theory, including emerging findings in brain science. Names like Daryl Conner, John Kotter, John Bridges, and David Rock were floated, and I picked up a few names new to me.
  • Also mentioned was the very tactical application-oriented part of change management that referenced tools such as heat maps and names like Prosci.

My own experience (which is my reality) is that all of these are required for success. Models that incorporate real strategic thinking, along with OD theory and program application, are rare, and most of those are designed either for transitional OR transformational change.

The net? We are NOT there yet.  We have not established change management effectiveness in most of our organizations. Some are making excellent strides (like Loblaw and SASKPower) and they will own this strategic advantage.

My hope is that competitive Canadian organizations will invest in this competency and build out a capability that will serve their 5-10 year strategic plan. In addition, I hope this will not be a stand-alone or even an HR initiative; rather, it will be driven from the top of the house and integrated into what we at Conner Partners call “Strategy Execution”.

It is not easy to fulfill this ambition. Approaches that fulfill all the criteria are rare, and as one online friend likes to say, “There are many pretenders.” This discipline is still young, even after all this time, but the good news is that it is maturing. The rapid evolution of The Association of Change Management Professionals and The Change Management Institute are evidence of this.

Want more?

Daryl Conner writes a blog for advanced change management leaders and practitioners called ChangeThinking here.

If you have found my posts away from my home site, I write on Change Whisperer here. I focus on sharing all the change management resources I can find as well as my own opinions and reflections.

I am always interested in chatting with people who want to deploy or build this capability.  You can reach me at

What’s Next?

Along with Shirley and Len, I volunteer with The Strategic Leadership Forum. On May 31, 2012, on behalf of our Change Management Council, I will facilitate a breakfast debate, “Driving Change: What does it really take to succeed?” The venue is TBD and ticket sales will open here soon. Our panel:

  • Phil Buckley will share insights from global change management of the $18.9B Kraft Foods acquisition of Cadbury (40 change leads across 60 countries).
  • Len Nanjad will talk about bringing $100M back to the business at Loblaw through people programs, while going through the world’s largest ERP implementation and supply chain transformation.
  • Sheila Legon will share the multi-year journey taken by CIBC to hardwire this organization’s world-class change management certification program capability inside of the Enterprise Delivery Framework.

Format?  Roughly three ten-minute presentations, then a half-hour of audience questions and all-round dialogue and debate.

I hope you will come on out and talk with us about change management—from theory to nuts and bolts. We will tweet from @letstalkstrategy.

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