Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

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

This is the second post exploring the role of leaders in transformational strategy execution.  It is not the only risk, but it is the biggest risk.  Being a great leader is NOT a ‘gimme’ for being a great sponsor.  What do great sponsors do differently?

Reason for hope – great leaders are great learners

We have phenomenal leaders on this continent, and leaders-in-waiting ready to step up.  The first step towards a successful execution is to find the leader who is first prepared to learn how to be a great sponsor in this new world order.

“Let him that would move the world, first move himself” (Socrates)

Do you doubt that your role is so pivotal or that it is so different than yesterday?  The findings of almost every survey (from McKinsey to the Project Management Institute to Prosci’s ‘best practices’), states leadership is the number 1 success factor in the implementation of transformational change.  

And yet few leaders ramp up for this very different kind of change.  Transformational change is rare.  Few leaders spend their careers implementing such complex change.

In fact most leaders come to transformational change as operational experts and change novices.  Why? Two reasons:

  1. Such change might, in fact be a once in a career or once in a decade challenge
  2. Being a great Sponsor is NOT the same as being a great leader  

The single biggest risk to project success is the leader who underestimates his / her role and what must be done differently.

Most organizations have support groups, internal consulting divisions and Program Management Offices, very familiar with transactional change and who are eager to support.  That is a great base.   

Together we ask leaders:  are you ready to explore what it means to be a great sponsor of transformational change?  This will change the way we operate together and it will change the results we can achieve together.

What does it take to be a great Sponsor – a Change Leader?

Over 37 years Conner Partners has studied organizational change and has identified the characteristics of “winners” and “losers”.  This research is updated constantly (the latest version of the Change Execution Methodology was released last month).  BTW, the biggest change is still an opportunity for many organizations – integrating strategic alignment, people change management and project management.  And, this is not answered by installing a PMO.

What does the research say are the most important characteristics of great sponsors?  Here are a  couple of examples quoted directly from “How to be an Effective Sponsor of Major Organizational Change”:

  • Human impact of the change: The small movements of big wheels at the top of the company often translate into frantic movements for smaller wheels down in the organization. Sponsors who succeed understand how many people and groups will be affected by a change throughout their organization—they can appreciate the impact of their decisions on those employees.
  • Nature of resistance: Resistance can be a key barrier to the realization of a major change initiative. Successful sponsors deal effectively with the nature and intensity of resistance as the project is implemented.
  • Scope of the change: A major change can have a far-reaching impact on an organization that is both obvious and subtle. And some of these effects can lead to resistance, which could seriously impede implementation if they go undetected and/or are misunderstood. Productive sponsors identify the full range of implications for all their change decisions.
  • Change inhibitors: Sponsors who triumph during change proactively identify potential change inhibitors. To the greatest extent possible, they recognize and eliminate possible barriers before they become a threat to the project’s realization. Barriers that can’t be avoided are contained and managed.
  • Managing capacity: Change implementation sometimes creates unanticipated drains on the change capacity of those most affected by an initiative. Successful sponsors maintain a vigilance on any remaining capacity throughout the implementation process and take corrective action as required.
  • Commitment to sacrifice: Major change often requires a personal and/or political price for those who play the sponsor’s role. The productive sponsor understands that the costs for success are real and leads the way in paying them. He or she thereby establishes an understanding throughout the organization that sacrifice will be required when the price of failure is prohibitive.

The full list can be referenced on the website (behind the registration page here) and there’s also some great information on role definitions and cascading sponsorship structures.

None of these are as simple as they seem – it is the experienced judgement on the fly that makes the difference from good to great.  And that’s why Fortune 100 organizations retain external support on mission critical business imperatives.

Ready to contract for a great “Sponsor-Agent Relationship”? Check out Daryl’s series here on his ChangeThinking blog (tip: there’s a great free download of a tool we use in the first post). 

What’s next?

Sponsorship is not the only risk to strategy execution.  Over the next couple of months, I will come back to review other challenges, such as:

  • How to engage the passion of your people in authentic and meaningful ways
  • Organizing chaos and the anomalies of the phrasing ‘change management’
  • The horrors of overcoming a silo-driven culture that operates in the best interests of the whole organization

Curious? Interested? Subscribe above left. 

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

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

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

Is leadership, and leading change, like leading a symphony?

What does this have to do with leading change? Well “change” is the riskiest and most pressing demand facing organizations and their leaders today – and the most significant of this strategic change is of an imperative, magnitude and complexity that has rarely been attempted before.  Organizations can rarely rely on their track record.    

An overwhelming number of experts and veterans agree, the single most important success criteria for change is the quality, conviction and commitment of the leader.  If it comes down to leadership, isn’t it worth investing in getting it right?  Maybe worth a few conversations with leaders who have done this successfully before?

Here some great, and entertaining, perspectives that explore how symphonies and maestros do it so well:

  • “Lead like the Great Conductors” Itay Talgam on TED. An orchestra conductor faces the ultimate leadership challenge: creating perfect harmony without saying a word. In this charming talk, Itay Talgam demonstrates the unique styles of six great 20th-century conductors, illustrating crucial lessons for all leaders.
    continue reading here

Fatal assumptions and setting projects up for success

“If we always do what we always did, we’ll always get what we always got” – True and so what? 

Well, often (usually) we need to move ourselves and our people out of comfortable situations in order to achieve different (hopefully better) results.  And as ‘easy’ as this looks when we put together analysis and business cases – then convince ourselves even more as we buy into the initiative vision statement – we often have a nagging doubt that implementation and benefits realization are rarely that ‘easy’. 

What are the, often fatal, assumptions that could free us – could liberate our approach to do things differently?  That we ignore at our own peril? continue reading here

Top 5 Questions for Leaders responsible for Strategic Change results

We ask these questions because leading and managing change is the economic imperative of our generation. It’s not enough to know what to change – organizations must deliver … and deliver, and deliver.

Every organization struggles with it.  And this is why we have invested in Change Management mastery. What does it take?  The top 5 questions for leaders:

  1. Is driving results out of strategic change initiatives truly a top priority for you?  Enough so that you are prepared to change what you do to get it done?
  2. Has your team failed, or fallen short, often enough to know what it takes to succeed? Have they seen Change Management mastery?
  3. How much is enough? i.e. if mastery of leading and managing change requires ~50% of a leader’s time – where is that time coming from? And is a little Change Management (or junior CM capability, eg “Communications” or “Training”) in a project enough to achieve masterful results?
  4. If your organization is implementing strategic change across multiple SBUs or departments why wouldn’t you create organizational competence, capability and capacity?
  5. Would a shortfall of 2%, 5% or 10% make Change Management important enough to invest in mastery?

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The missing link – the third element for leveraging sustainable change

It is very common for discussions about Program or Project change to line up on 2 fairly mature perspectives. And furthermore, speakers tend to line up on one OR the other (for various legitimate reasons).  This is not, however, the full picture. 

The first 2 are Change Leadership and Change Management:

  1.  Change Leadership (read C-Suite, Sponsor, etc).  There are many terrific programs that train leaders and sponsors on the classic processes, their role inside of projects and requirements for success.  And external consultants are always happy to support Leadership.
  2. Project implementation  (within Project Management).  In fact, there is a growing trend to retain Directors (of ‘Change Management’, ‘Transformation’, even ‘Acceleration’) within projects.

Consider a national organization with a 5-year Strategic Plan that involves significant transformational change – let’s say new product launches, 2 or 3 re-orgs, 2 or 3 cross-functional systems implementations, i.e. multiple on-going Programs (encompassing multiple Projects and Workstreams). And, to make it interesting, let’s say that an acquisition is under consideration.

The third dimension is strategic – tying all of the change initiatives together reflecting the organization’s 5-yr plan and organizational capability. Sure the Human Resources Department, Project Management Office and occasionally a communications specialist from Marketing have roles but often they come together on specific projects only.

My own bias is that for change management to really be effective, for the investments to be fully realized, and to be taken more seriously as a discipline, we need to encompass all three (in the same way that the Finance Department manages financing, financials  & budgets)  – and always speak of them in relation to each other.

To put it another way: when we do focus on either Change Leadership or Management are we assuming that someone else is integrating the whole and building organizational capability? Are we assuming it is outside our scope (even tho our efforts affect it)? Who would do this – the HR Department? If so, are they engaged in developing the Change Strategy?

How can the people change components of this initiative be leveraged back into the organization – connected with overarching organizational development – for great value, traction and sustainability?

This conversation, undertaken at the right level in the organization, presents a meaningful opportunity for the organization to fully leverage individual project and training investments for more sustainable value.

Do you agree that these are the 3 elements? Vote here