Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

What’s missing from Strategy Execution? (Strategy execution methodologies series. Post 5)

It’s a seductive challenge: strategic change may be the most exciting endeavour of an executive’s career. It compares with climbing Mount Everest―not everybody makes it on the first attempt, some don’t survive, but those who succeed are considered heroes.

The difference is that for most organizations committed to a strategic change, it is a business imperative. There is no backing down. Re-tries have additional risks.

We are not talking here about linear, progressive change, but rather 90- degree turns or even 180s―we are talking about the kinds of strategy that makes or breaks the organization’s future. This is the kind of change that is rocket fuel to start-ups like Facebook and LinkedIn; the elusive Fountain of Youth for dinosaurs like Kodak, Nokia, Canadian Pacific and JC Penney; and Buckley’s Cough Syrup for every organization in between.

Because strategic change is so complex and dynamic it takes years to develop successful, comprehensive approaches. Previous posts (links below) in this series have described early attempts such as Project Management and Change Management. Anecdotal information suggests that these have improved effectiveness and yet still there are gaps.

 The legendary “70% failure rate” and the real rate

Since 1993, when Hammer and Champy famously quoted the following 70% failure rate, it has been burned into our collective conscious: “Sadly, we must report that despite the success stories described in previous chapters, many companies that begin re-engineering don’t succeed at it…Our unscientific estimate is that as many as 50 percent to 70 percent of the organizations that undertake a re-engineering effort do not achieve the dramatic results they intended.” [1]

This has been reiterated in subsequent studies (for example “Success Rates for Different Types of Organizational Change” [2] and repeated ad nauseum by every consultant selling a solution.

Notwithstanding all the sales pressure, it has resonated with leaders and managers alike precisely because it reflects our common frustrations.

The real rate is unknown. However, the only real rate that matters is the organization’s rate of success/failure. This can be examined and improved.

Breaking it down—and building it back up

As with most complex problems, it has taken time to break down change management into discrete and treatable elements. Project Management has been elevated to address delivering on-time, on-budget and on-scope at the Program and Portfolio levels as well. Change Management emerged to increase commitment and adoption.

Yet, even after closing these gaps, there were still shortfalls. Even in projects where strong project management and change management are effective there are still places where teams have to “muscle through”.

End-to-end, top-to-bottom

“We moved past change management 10 years ago,” Daryl Conner, said. We were talking about Strategy Execution with a client and there was an obvious moment of reflection in the group. “Yeah,” I thought.

Conner Partners (formerly ODR) is most well-known for advancing theory and practice of change management. And yes, while the methodology includes change management, this is only one part of their Strategy Execution approach.

Daryl went on to explain, “As we studied the patterns of winners and losers in transformational change, it became clear that there were gaps beyond change management. Our current approach addresses these.”

Differentiating between symptoms and root causes is not easy.

An example: It is widely accepted that the most significant critical success factor in executing change is the performance of leadership, specifically the sponsors’. Even after breaking down more specific role definitions and competencies and getting leaders to fully lean into these important activities we still found gaps – between sponsors.

It became clear that we had assumed full commitment from all sponsors and that they would cooperate together. However, systemically, organizations are not set up this way. Most hierarchical organization charts require tasks to be parsed apart and delegated discretely. Getting tight alignment at the leadership level for cross-functional, transformational change requires specific activities and explicit contracting. Building a successful consulting offer to tackle this obstreperous challenge has not happened overnight—we do this today through a comprehensive offer we call “Managing Intent”.

The fact is that on the market today, there is no public end-to-end, top-to-bottom approach. Some come close, but ultimately those organizations (or even teams) who are determined to compete will develop their own.

What else?

What are the frontiers of strategy execution and change management?

  • Full leadership (including Board) oversight on benefits realization: the notion that installing projects, usually through Project Management, then expecting results to track in has surely been proven insufficient by now.  More is required.  Considering the spend on strategic change and the risk involved it is inconceivable to me that more accountability is not already demanded.
  • Formal integration of Project Management and Change Management: Rumour has it that The Project Management Institute (PMI) is releasing the next (fifth) edition of the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) and will introduce a new practice area. Word is that it will be change management. This is likely to be a very tactical approach addressing low-level communications and training requirements. Users will have to be vigilant to ensure that they include adequate treatment for the nature of change.
  • Change Management and Change Leadership: The debate as to whether these are the same or different, separate or connected continues—mostly fueled by those with self-interest in the answer they are promoting.
  • Comprehensive: Imagine if the organization had a repeatable and reliable process to take strategy from cradle to rising star. Today, in most organizations, this process is patchy and clumsy, and, at times, dysfunctional and counterproductive. A review of your organization against a Maturity Model can be enlightening.
  • Project Change Management vs manager/leader competencies: I don’t hear many conversations about this and yet I see opportunity here. “Change Management” shows up as a competency on most position descriptions today, but ask an HR manager to tell you more about what that looks like and the well runs dry quickly. They would benefit from alignment.
  • Organizational agility (the nimble organization): Now here is a competitive advantage. This is the richest opportunity for organizations in a position (or a corner) to invest in expediting results.

Get into the 30% of successful strategy execution

“Nice”, you say, “but we have a strategy that we HAVE to execute.  It is precarious and we HAVE to get the results.”

So call me (416 845-3040).  At the very least we’ll have a robust debate about how to get your organization into the % of strategies that succeed.


[1] “Reengineering the corporation: a manifesto for business revolution”, Michael Hammer and James A Champy, Harpercollins, 1993.

[2] “Success Rates for Different Types of Organizational Change”, Martin E. Smith, PhD, Performance Improvement, Volume 41, Number 1, January 2002.


Now available for 2014: Building Transformation Capability

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” -African proverb

Email me and we can design a program for your team –


Related Posts:

4 Comments so far
Leave a comment


Thank you for a most interesting article. I also quickly read your paper and I would be glad to collaborate if you want to review/expand it.

What are the frontiers of strategy execution and change management? I wonder if, at the strategic level, the term change management takes a different meaning and leans outside the “people” realm to a broader perspective including all organizational cababilities enabling the organization to deal the “change” portfolio. This brings me to another question on terminology: How is strategy execution defined in Conner Partners’ approach? Does it include both current operations and the change portfolio in the realization of an organization’s objectives and outcomes?


Comment by Jean Deslauriers

Hi Jean. Thanks for reading. On the terminology, we still use Change Management to refer to the work of helping people transition to, and commit to, the new strategy. When we refer to Strategy Execution we are referring to the more encompassing work that spans from to aligning executives, further defining intent, building all change plans and connecting it all to project management.

I am not entirely clear on your last question. Our approach is deployed on a change – whether that is a whole strategy or a program or a large scale project. It supports the realization of the objectives and outcomes promised to the Board in the Strategic Plan, Business Plan or Business Case supporting that change. Sometimes that requires discussing issues that might be traditionally fall outside the scope of such, for example validating solution design against organization design, compensation and talent management as examples.

Thanks for reading the white paper and for your generous offer to collaborate. I admit that I am still mulling over some of the issues. When I am ready to tackle it again I will reach out to you.
Great to hear from you. Hope all is well.

Comment by Gail Severini ©

I wonder if one of the challenges is that the corporate world seeks and hires leaders who are wonderful thinkers. Great ideas, new ways of looking at the world. But the likes of implementation are neither glamorous nor interesting… Who ever asks for an 18 month post-implementation checkpoint of change realization? Maybe the root cause lies in the organization’s hiring model, and reward structure…perpetuating the cycle of idea launch, promotion, and leaving the tough grind of execution, and benefit realization to the leader who comes behind…so much easier perhaps to lob a new idea of your own…and so the cycle continues…

Comment by Yvonne

Yvonne, you make some great points! I have also seen terrific operations leaders promoted into roles that require competencies beyond their experience. Such situations set leaders and organizations up for failure.

These, and other issues recently, have me wondering where is Board oversight? More coming on this soon.

BTW my list of top 10 competencies for change leaders is here – what would you add there?

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