Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

“Organ rejection” and other reactions to consultants

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”—Aristotle

yin and yang2.pngA couple of years ago I was working with a great team of consultants (externals) on a major strategic change for a national bank.

It wasn’t going well. Two change management practitioners had tried and failed before me to help the project get traction.

In a team meeting, one of the consultants complained, “It’s like organ rejection: they need us, we can help them, but they keep rejecting us.”

What does “organ rejection” look like?

The symptoms included: tolerance of briefings and assessments; polite acknowledgment of principles, best practices, and theory; lip service to the consultants’ recommendations; requests for more justifications, explanations, reports, and plans (which were summarily filed), and…no action whatsoever. It seemed like plans went into black holes.

I think there were several reasons for this:

  • Some of the project work had been falling short for a while and the credibility of the team was decreasing, exacerbating an already poor relationship.
  • The senior partner on the consultant side was unwilling to keep confronting the client on core issues and hold them accountable. It also seemed likely that the client was not accepting the partner’s assessment of the risks. (To do so would have required uncomfortable changes.)
  • The relationships between most of the internal resources (internals) and the consultants (subject matter experts in various fields) were inconsistent and often perfunctory.


We got a very lucky break: the person assigned to lead the “Transformation” workstream changed. The new leader was inexperienced and the lead consultant immediately invested in and built a strong relationship.

The workstream consulting team agreed to make another change: we would make the change management work eminently pragmatic. This meant changing our language (talking “turkey,” not theory) and generating very tangible chunks of work (i.e., meeting the client where they were).

It worked: we got some small wins and the relationship between the consultants and the internals in the Transformation workstream began to improve.

Optimizing internal and external resources

The global conference for the Association of Change Management Professionals is April 14 – 17 and I will be moderating a panel entitled “Perks and Perils: Optimizing Internal and External Change Management.” On the panel: Supriya Desai, President, ASC Advisory; Richard Batchelor, Change Management & HR Strategy; Garrett Gitchell, President, Vision to Work, Inc.; and Ania Szpakowski, Change Director, Zurich Insurance.

Combined, we have 52 years of internal experience (AIG, Air Canada, Bank of America, Cisco, Chevron, Coke/Odwalla, CIBC Insurance, CN Rail, Danish Post, Ericsson Communications, JP Morgan Chase, Lowe’s, Pepsico, and Pratt & Whitney) and 55 years of external experience (Conner Partners, IBM, PricewaterhouseCoopers and independent practices).

As we have been preparing for the panel we’ve shared stories like the one above. We have all served as both internals and externals (i.e., we have been on both sides of the fence).

We have condensed our shared observations into a brief presentation which I will share here after the event. The learning objectives we identified are:

  1. Understand the trend toward building in-house change management capabilities
  2. Gain perspective on the nature of typical internal change management entities
  3. Explore the success factors of working as an internal or an external change practitioner
  4. Explore scenarios for optimizing internal and external change management practitioners for success

Different roles, different advantages―the importance of synergy

While both internals and externals can, and should, bring deep understanding and experience in change management methodology, tools, and skills, it quickly became clear to the panelists that either role creates important systemic dynamics.

Internals tend to have advantages like:

  • Deep knowledge of the organization and its culture,
  • Established reputations, and
  • Existing relationships of influence and trust.

Externals tend to have the following advantages:

  • More access to senior leadership within the organization and fewer political barriers for difficult conversations (in fact, there is often explicit contracting to have these difficult conversations)
  • Objectivity and equanimity
  • A wide variety of experiences with other organizations on which to draw
  • Access to thought leadership that can be brought to bear

What became very obvious is that we are less effective independently. Together we are formidable.

Raising up internals

On a side note, I have also observed that we externals can raise the status of internals when we consciously invest in making the organization stronger.  In fact, we are often referred into organizations by internals who know that the organization needs to put more priority on their role.

The positioning to their leaders is often “This strategy is different than the change we normally implement and, frankly, our organization’s track record for this kind of change is not great―just think about projects x, y and z.  I know a firm that specializes in high-risk strategy execution. Can I set up a ½ hour call?”.   After the appropriate tire-kicking and mutual qualification, this usually leads into sponsor and agent training (certification if the organization faces long term disruption), shoulder-to-shoulder execution and re-framing of the contract between sponsor and agent.  Inevitably the internal agent, and the organization, is in a stronger position at the end of the day.

Sounds kind of funny to deliberately work yourself out of a job but really that’s what every external should be doing.

Related posts:

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4 Comments so far
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Great topic and best of luck at ACMP. I honestly have to say I noticed a dramatic difference in how an organization leveraged my skills literally overnight. One day I was a paid contractor and the next I was a new hire. Same role and responsibilities but now being “internal” reduced my influence with several key sponsors. Organization placed such a perceived value on external consultants to the detriment of skilled internal resources.

Comment by Chris

Thanks Chris. I know it’s uniquely tough being an internal. You have so much value to offer – it’s “the good fight” – hang in there.

Comment by Gail Severini

I am hoping that your presentation also touches on the concept of internals from two perspectives: internal COEs focused specifically on change management and change practitioners embedded within business units… Similar to other disciplines such as Lean Six Sigma and project management there are pluses and minuses to both models, and different ways an external can impact depending on the source of engagement and relationship (COE versus business). Would be interested in your views on this if not via the presentation!!

Comment by Yvonne Thevenot

Hi Yvnonne. We applied for a 90-minute presentation slot however all of the slots were reduced to 45 minutes. Faced with the choice of cutting some of the content or doing an overview, we chose to do an overview of the four key points. So we covered some of what we wanted on how CM COEs are set up and where organizations are positioning CM (internals and externals) but really just scratched the surface. The issue of where practitioners were located on an org chart was discussed (i.e. centralized in a COE vs decentralized in a LOB) and very general principles for how to work together were offered (deeper in the handout) but we did not have runway for detailed discussion. I agree with your point entirely “there are pluses and minuses to both models, and different ways an external can impact depending on the source of engagement and relationship”. Perhaps you’d like to take this topic forward for next year? It’s a good one.

Comment by Gail Severini

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