Is Your Project Lost In A Black Hole?

Trying to create change without the engagement of key stakeholders is as risky as a one-man band trying to imitate an orchestra.

Don’t kid yourself. The change you try to orchestrate in your workplace does not occur in isolation. No matter how brilliant your ideas may be, no matter how compelling your case for action, no matter how much personal credibility you believe you have, your change cannot succeed without the engaged and collaborative involvement of others. Period. You must build a coalition.

My friend Dave, a seasoned change consultant, was working with a manufacturing firm. The CEO/owner had an idea for four minor process changes that he was certain would (1) dramatically improve through-put and productivity, (2) reduce unit cost of the product, and (3) free up time on the production line. At 7:00 one morning the CEO met with production workers and showed them sketches of his idea, followed by his order to “make it happen.”

Later that same day the CEO checked on the line. Nothing whatsoever had changed. He was dumbstruck. He couldn’t believe that a commandment sent down from the mountaintop by the CEO himself did not result in immediate, unquestioned obedience. So he called Dave, the change consultant. Here’s the essence of their conversation:

Dave“How often do your people see you?”

CEO“Four times a year, just like clock work. I have a meeting with the production people. If I can’t be there, I send a video.”

Dave“Who do you think has the most influence with your production people – you, or the guys who supervise them every day?”

CEO“This is one of those questions where if I get it wrong you’re going to be disappointed in me, aren’t you?”

The CEO made the classic mistake of failing to engage people with the desired change rather than merely announcing the change.

If you expect your people to “make it happen” with your proposed change, consider following these five steps.

(1) Tend to Your CAST of Characters

To help clarify the resources available to you, let’s review your CAST of Characters:

  • Champions are people who favor the change but lack the power to sanction it.  As advocates for the change, Champions must willingly work to gain commitment and resources for it.
  • Agents are people who plan and execute the implementation of the change. This includes diagnosing potential problems and addressing the problems strategically.
  • Sponsors are people who authorize, legitimize, and demonstrate ownership for the change. You can (and should) have different kinds of Sponsors. Authorizing Sponsors have sufficient organizational power and/or influence to commit resources like time and budget. Reinforcing Sponsors help promote the change at the “local” level. Sometimes a single person can fill both of these roles, but successful change efforts usually involve multiple Sponsors. In short, Sponsors are responsible for creating an environment that enables change to occur.
  • Targets (or end users) are people whose knowledge, assumptions, attitudes, emotions, and behaviors must be altered for the change to be sustainable. Targets play a critical role in both the short- and long-term success of the change. They must be educated to understand the changes they are expected to accommodate, and they must be appropriately engaged in the implementation of the change.

It’s probably obvious by now that a person can fill multiple roles, even simultaneously. It’s common for a Champion of a change to fill the role of change Agent for the same change at the same time—promoting the change while managing the details of execution and implementation. In some instances, that same person may also be a Reinforcing Sponsor.

Nearly every member of the CAST of Characters starts out as a Target. Before you can engage someone as a Sponsor, for example, you must understand and address his information needs, assumptions, and attitudes.

(2) Avoid the Black Hole

An example of sponsorship failure was seen in the story of the manufacturing company CEO who assumed his unilateral command would automatically produce the change he wanted. His change got lost in an organizational black hole.

The term “black hole” is borrowed from the field of astrophysics where it’s used to describe those regions in space from which nothing – not even light – can escape. There’s a frustrating equivalent to the black hole in the corporate universe. Management “announces” a change initiative, then all traces of the change vanish in the bureaucracy. Akin to the black hole in space that consumes everything that travels in its vicinity, various players in the middle of the organization either distort or withhold information so it simply disappears. And it’s not necessarily deliberate. In many organizations, these black holes are a major cause of the “change du jour” mentality.

(3) Use Cascading Sponsorship

Most successful change is accomplished through an effective coalition of players. To ensure clear communication along the way and to improve the likelihood of stakeholder engagement, the Authorizing Sponsor (likely with the help of Champions and Agents) builds a network of Reinforcing Sponsors. This cascading sponsorship is an important key to any successful change effort. It’s so critical, in fact, that its absence virtually guarantees failure.

After doing their data-gathering homework, smart leaders first make their case for change to their senior colleagues. Then, if the case for change survives the checks and balances of honest dialogue, the leader dispatches this first layer of Reinforcing Sponsors on “listening tours” throughout the organization. Good dialogue can turn resistance into commitment. (Of course it can also alert a leader to speed bumps he didn’t anticipate.) The next wave of Reinforcing Sponsors can then take the change message deeper into the organization and help create the right atmosphere for effective implementation.

The primary message here? Cascading sponsorship develops an infrastructure of people who continue to reinforce the integrity (business case and psychological case for action) of the change.

Take time to cascade. It’s easier to prevent a black hole than to fill one in. Also, remember that black holes can prove fatal to leadership credibility. Any time there’s a discrepancy between leadership pronouncements and the reality experienced by your stakeholders, a black hole forms and you lose twice. First, you fail to get the change you want. Second, you teach people to ignore you in the future.

(4) “Map” Your Coalition

Literally create a “map” of your coalition showing each of the key members of your CAST of Characters.

Because this key role map will change from time to time, you may prefer to create it electronically. Computer software like PowerPoint and Keynote can do the trick, as well as other programs specifically intended for mind mapping. The “map” may look a bit like a standard organization chart, but in this case the emphasis is on roles, not corporate hierarchy or rank. A visual representation of roles and relationships is much easier to work with than a mere list of people. Remember that your coalition must be constantly monitored and managed.

(5) Contract with Your Key Players

Unclear expectations are a common problem with change efforts. Contracting provides the needed clarity, and it’s one of the most important things you can do to boost the likelihood of success for your change.

I’ve found it helpful to commit the contracting to writing, literally. Call it a Memorandum of Understanding or anything you wish, but it’s still a contract – an explicit agreement on mutual expectations.

Because cascading sponsorship is so critical to every change effort, let’s consider how you might contract with a Reinforcing Sponsor.

First, challenge your own assumptions. Just because a person has a relevant title (manager, supervisor, etc.) does not necessarily mean he or she is ready (or even willing) to provide the sponsorship support you need. So in identifying people to fill the Sponsor role, give yourself honest answers to questions like these:

To what extent does this potential Sponsor . . .

  • Have credibility with the Targets you want to influence?
  • Clearly understand the impact this change will have on targets?
  • Communicate in a way that encourages direct feedback?
  • Promote collaborative problem solving?
  • Demonstrate ownership and personal commitment to the change?
  • Walk the talk – personally behave (privately as well as publicly) in ways that are totally consistent with the change message?
  • Have good relationships with people who are implementing the change (the Agents)?

You get the idea. Effective sponsorship is about specific behaviors, not about titles or position. Even though your Sponsor authorized the budget or gave a nice kick-off speech, don’t assume he will instinctively do and say all the things you need to keep the change effort on track.

When you sit down with your Sponsor for the contracting sessions, it’s imperative that you’re well prepared. Use a specific list of behaviors you need from the Sponsor. This is not the time to tip-toe around. The Sponsor behaviors should be clear and explicit, with no hint of doubletalk.

Your contracting document can begin with something like “Because (name of your change effort) is so important to the future of our organization, (Sponsor) and (You) agree on the following mutual expectations.” Then you list – in very explicit terms – the actions you expect from the Sponsor, and the actions the Sponsor can expect from you. Again, it’s important that the language be explicit. Also, it’s a good idea to talk in terms of SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-Bound).

This contracting document needn’t be notarized because that might imply mistrust. But it should be signed by both parties. Simply emphasize that the purpose of the document is to calibrate and align mutual expectations. Drafting this document often requires a second meeting with the Sponsor. That’s okay, because it’s critical to get this right. You want to be sure the Sponsor gets no surprises on the requirements of sponsorship, and the Sponsor certainly has a right to clarity on what to expect from you.

Building a coalition is not a particularly complicated task. But it’s absolutely imperative. You will simplify your life (and probably improve your sleep) if you go about this work strategically. It makes all the difference.

This column by Dr. Duncan was also published by Forbes where he is a regular contributor. Follow on Twitter @DoctorDuncan

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Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.

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