The single greatest contributor to the success of a change initiative

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The Story

Within eight minutes, two years of work came to a halt.

The organization had been working for months on a significant process change that involved a few executives and many middle managers. Various task teams had contributed to hours upon hours of meetings and analysis, requests for proposals, and a rigorous selection process for a tool to address the process change. The group had come together for what was supposed to be a rubber-stamp, go-ahead approval by the CEO. The collective assumption was that everyone, including the CEO, was informed, on board, and supportive of the change. Project leaders presented the change, the background, the solution, and what had been done to fix it.

And then the CEO spoke. He asked a few questions about how the proposed changes would align with other businesses the company worked with.

The answers weren’t clear. The nuts and bolts that held the project together started clanking and rattling. Various executives and managers began defending their positions, while others (including some who had been involved on task teams throughout the process) seemed to quickly sway from confidence over to the CEO’s apparent caution. Within a few minutes, the nuts and bolts of the project were popping off at the seams.

The CEO then delivered the final blow: “It doesn’t seem like we are settled with this direction. Let’s hold off.”

And, with that, all the nuts and bolts were scattered over the floor, and the project went back to square one. Because the executive sponsor was not adequately involved or informed throughout the project, the initiative was halted.

The Solution: The Primary Sponsor

Unfortunately, this scenario isn’t isolated. Multiple organizational change efforts fail. (A commonly quoted statistic is that nearly 70% of all organizational change efforts fail, although some question the validity of that statistic). These failures are generally attributed to a handful of reasons, including poor communication about the change, failure to engage end users, or—as in this case—failure to identify and adequately engage the primary sponsor.

According to Prosci’s 2014 research of change management across 822 organizations, the single greatest contributor to the success of a change effort is active and visible executive sponsorship. This same finding has been replicated over eight previous studies conducted by Prosci. The role of the executive sponsor should not be under-estimated in a change initiative.

Recommendations

Below, I offer a few recommendations to ensure the executive sponsor can contribute meaningfully to the success of your change efforts.

  1. Identify the executive sponsor early on. As soon as a project begins, identify who the executive sponsor is. Where possible, identify a single individual who is willing to attach his or her name, time, and resources to the change initiative. Generally, this individual should be adequately empowered to sponsor the change in terms of money, time, and executive decision-making and influence. Note that if an executive sponsor is not willing to attach his or her time, money, or executive influence to the project, it’s likely that something is fundamentally wrong to begin with (and you should probably have a bad feeling about it). Reluctant sponsorship likely reflects the low priority of the project, and consequently lowers the chances of success right out of the gate. If you don’t have genuine sponsorship, consider how well the project aligns with your organizational strategies and priorities. You may need to make force some hard conversations, and propose that the project be (1) given higher priority, (2) placed on hold until it is given a higher priority, (3) ended indefinitely, or (4) moved forward, but with a very clear, agreed-upon statement of the risks of disengaged sponsorship to the project’s success.
  2. Set expectations for the executive sponsor’s participation. Project/change leads should set a clear expectation that the executive sponsor participates actively and visibly throughout, and following, the change. Executive participation should be included in the project/change management plan, with specific activities, purposes, and audiences. Interestingly, active and visible participation is not only for the sole benefit of getting others on board with a change, but is also critical for keeping the sponsor on board. According to persuasion research by Robert Cialdini (see Influence, Chapter 3: Commitment and Consistency), a key factor to build someone’s commitment to a cause is to encourage active, public, and effortful participation in the cause. When we’ve actively and publicly committed to a cause, we feel psychologically compelled to remain consistent and true to that cause (see Festinger’s work on Cognitive Dissonance). The net result of the executive sponsor’s participation is that it builds greater commitment and buy-in to the initiative for both others in the organization and the executive him or herself.
  3. Make it easy for the sponsor to be active and visible throughout the change initiative. Project/change leads should provide as much support to the executive sponsor as possible, particularly in matters of communication. Project/change leads should provide proposals for emails, talking points, summary documents, presentations, et cetera for each planned sponsor event. Note that, according to Prosci, the executive sponsor’s messages should focus on the strategic value of the change initiative, while mid-level managers and direct supervisors focus more on the personal, day-to-day implications of the change.
  4. Keep the executive sponsor in the loop. Involve the sponsor in conversations about the business reason and benefits of the change initiative. Provide regular updates to the executive sponsor about the initiative roll-out. Executive sponsors should not be surprised or blind-sided with new or unfavorable developments. Inform the executive sponsor as soon as possible about any negative risks or new opportunities that develop as the change rolls out. Also, get regular feedback to ensure the project continues to align to the executive sponsor’s expectations.
  5. Thank, encourage, and praise the executive sponsor often. Executive sponsors are typically very busy people who trust and rely on those around them to help them succeed. In many instances, project or change management leads need to coach upwards with executive sponsors, who may not be well-versed in the change management discipline. Genuinely thanking, encouraging, and praising the executive sponsor for his or her ongoing participation will promote further participation, lead to more understanding and buy-in of change management as a discipline, and model change behaviors for the executive to follow as he or she leads others in the change.

Evaluation

Take a few moments to evaluate the strength of executive sponsorship on your change projects by considering the following questions:

  1. Have you identified a single executive sponsor for your change?
  2. Is your executive sponsor adequately empowered to support the change in terms of costs, time, resources, and decision-making?
  3. How well can your executive sponsor articulate the change and the reason for the change?
  4. How bought-in to the change is your executive sponsor?
  5. Have you included the executive sponsor as a regular contributor in your communication plan?
  6. What plans do you have to regularly update your executive sponsor about the project roll-out?
  7. How will you get ongoing feedback from the executive sponsor?