Big ideas aren’t enough to change things. You need powerful sponsorship.
This anecdote has played out more times than reruns of the original “Star Trek” series, so bear with me as I set it up.
A highly motivated, energetic, experienced new hire is brought into the organization as an agent of change by the business unit’s president. The new hire is brought in because she thinks differently and has rich and relevant experience in organizations that look the way her new organization’s president and leadership team say they want the business unit to look over the long term. She is the poster child for effective organizational change leadership in appearance, word, and deed.
The new hire does what all highly motivated, experienced hires do: She gets to work. Carrying the president’s imprimatur by virtue of being hired, she starts propagating new ways of doing things—perhaps on processes like project management or in performance areas such as pricing or cost efficiency. She’s driven. She’s smart. She’s organized. She’s logical. She’s practical. She is, quite possibly, right.
The president of the company, sensing the strong glow of a great hire, lets her “do her thing” without guiding or intervening. After all, that’s what great leaders do: They let great people go “do their thing.” Right?
The organization’s leaders quickly sense a world of pain coming from changes to the ways things have always been done. The changes aren’t necessarily bad—just different.
Fast forward to a year later. Our motivated change agent is watching the clock. She’s waiting for 5:48 p.m. every day (that’s just late enough to not signal that she’s thrown in the towel). Her great ideas sit on white boards and in documents across the organization. But progress has been slow. She’s figured out that the organization really didn’t want all of her resume—just a few parts. Her job is easy. Her life is hard.
The leadership team, having figured out that she had no power in the first place, decided that the change agent’s recommendations, while smart, were too painful for them to implement. They have marginalized her through passive and deliberate pseudo-compliance and back-channel opting out. When one functional leader delays participation with good reason, the rest simply follow suit.
The president has entertained every grievance. By making backroom agreements on who needs to comply and who doesn’t, he has undermined the change agent—unintentionally, but still.
The organization likes her. But, hey, “Those great ideas could never work here.” And besides, the president sure didn’t seem to mind that key leaders opted out.
The president wonders why there hasn’t been more traction on his new hire’s ideas, but in reality, he just likes the fact that the business unit is performing well this year and that everyone will achieve nice bonuses.
The change agent polishes up her resume.
When our once-motivated, now-crushed change agent leaves for greener pastures, the organization gives itself a self-righteous pat on the back. See, they were right all along.
The change agent and the president (if he is a person of vision and integrity) wonder what happened.
Here’s what happened
First, the president quickly moved from a position of obvious sponsorship (he hired the change agent, after all) to a role of spectatorship. He removed the most important tool in his change agent’s toolkit: the lever of executive sponsorship.
Second, the change agent—armed with the confidence that her ideas would work and work well—fell into the trap of idealistic pursuit vs. practical and pragmatic progress.
Both have ignored the practical realities of power—call it influence, pull, or realpolitik. They misjudged the power of an organization’s culture to reject even the best ideas in favor of the status quo. They let the organization and its culture crush a valuable addition to its midst.
Don’t kid yourself: Culture is heavy. The weight of any organization’s culture will crush any change agent.
There’s no such thing as a “fire and forget” change agent. The agent—whether in the form of an initiative team or a seemingly heroic individual like our anecdotal new hire above—must have real power.
In any change program or worthwhile process, there comes a point in the organization’s journey where the broad population realizes that change is hard. They have an “Oh, shit” moment. At that moment, there must be enough momentum and felt need (or other sources of power) to move the change forward. Otherwise, change won’t happen.
In turnarounds, the momentum and felt need is easy. Either we perform or we’re gone. The change agent can drive change with that implication alone.
In improvement situations, the reality is far more nuanced. Going from good to better is hard. Really. How often do you see people who are in great shape make a New Year’s resolution to get in better shape? Not often. They make choices that diversify their focus vs. intensifying it. They want to spend more time with their kids, take up art, or shoot for that promotion at work. Their health is secondary because, well, they already have health.
That’s the problem with change in organizations performing “OK” or, especially, performing great but in an unhealthy manner (a diversified business with a few bright spots that carry the portfolio comes to mind). The organization—convinced it’s “doing alright”—sees the change as an annoyance. This is especially true in the absence of a transparent agenda. And that’s where power comes in.
Executive sponsors and change agents have to agree on the source of power that will ensure the change. And they must follow through on it!
The agenda must be explicit and have teeth. The change agent has to be able to walk into any room with the full blessing of power, and with a ready set of implications for non-participants and opt-outs. But the change agent should never have to articulate them!
For the other leaders in the organization, opting out must be a visible, deliberate action that is advertised to the highest levels of sponsorship. Opting out has to have consequences. Or else, why bother?
Cognitive dissonance being what it is, human beings aren’t wired to admit that they individually are the problem. Chances are, you read the anecdote at the beginning of this article with a real notion of who the victim was, and the victim probably looked a lot like you. The reality is that all parties in the anecdote hold responsibility. So, here are some things to do about it:
- Sponsoring executives have to stay engaged and deliver their positional and personal influence through their change agents. Tell the organization that the agent has power and why. Never, ever leave that communication to the change agent. Define—honestly—the agenda the agent is working to implement. And, for goodness’ sake, don’t undermine the change agent by entertaining back-channel grievances and allowing one-off deviations from the plan without explicit, advertised, and good reasons. Sponsor the right behaviors through influence or force.
- Change agents need to clarify the source of their power. Can they state in a short sentence what would keep the organization from opting out? Are the power dynamics such that the change agent is set up to fail? Remember: Idealism is great, but not sufficient. Just going and doing a good job is not enough if the power structure isn’t in place.
- Group or organizational leaders have to own and explain their priorities. To be sure, there are myriad good reasons—ranging from timing to talent—for opting out of change initiatives. Handled transparently, these reasons can be managed well. If handled passively or through backroom deals, however, opting out sends a signal to the rest of the organization (that doesn’t have such good reasons for it) that opting out will be tolerated and accepted. So, why bother?
If you deploy change agents, be sure to back them with enough power to make them effective. Practice sponsorship, not spectatorship. Define your agenda. Lead. Clear the way.
If you’re a change agent, be sure you have enough power through sponsorship to achieve what the organization expects you to achieve. If you don’t have it, get it. Can’t get it? Move on.
What do you think?