You present your Business Case for introducing Change Management with gusto and enthusiasm. After outlining the costs involved, alongside the benefits to the organisation, the board all nod their heads in agreement. “Great!” one says. “Just what we need!” says another. “Go do it.” the CEO instructs. They all pat you on the back as you walk out of the boardroom.
One month later you’ve trained your key team of sponsors and change agents in PCI, given presentations to project staff on Change Management, and the tools and guides are all ready. There’s a task at the top of your to-do list requiring your immediate attention: Get your senior executive team engaged. Right! No problem. You book a half hour appointment in your CEOs diary, only problem is he’s fifteen minutes late and he’s distracted with urgent manners on his mind.
“How’s the change management project?” He inquires.
“Great.” You respond. “And I’d like to discuss your role as a key sponsor.”
“You’ve got my whole hearted support.” He says. “I give you full remit to get this in.’ He stands up, shakes your hand firmly and then shows you the door. “Well done.” He says with enthusiasm as he shuts the door behind you. Sound familiar?
One of the most commonly asked questions is “How do I engage my sponsors?” particularly those most senior in the organisation. Even the most seasoned change management expert hits this problem time and time again. Often your sponsor is your biggest advocate, loves change management and everything it stands for. It’s not that he doesn’t buy into it, in fact he probably agrees with it’s principles, it’s just that in the overall scheme of things, and on the scale of potential looming disasters, change management projects can often rate pretty low on the scale. And lets face it, although it’s a means to reduce risk and increase success of other projects, Change Management projects themselves rarely rate on the critical projects list.
Clearly you need an active sponsorship. Without it organisations struggle to get any project delivered with even moderate success. Change Management becomes a half-hearted implementation that is only referred to when people have the time available (which is rarely). It becomes a nice to have/a great idea at the time/lost under the ever growing lists of other critical projects. It’s also difficult to preach to others the importance of an active sponsor if you yourself don’t follow your own teachings.
So what can you do?
Ensure your sponsors clearly understand their role upfront
The role of sponsorship cannot be delegated. While it may be a great confidence boost to be given such authority, it’s a short-term thrill. You’ll quickly discover that without the backing of the senior executive team, Change Management will struggle to get off the ground. It may feel an admission of failure to say “Thanks but no Thanks!” but it is, in fact, more courageous to ensure they are engaged and understand their role from the very beginning.
Getting senior executives to commit money is often easier than committing their time. As part of gaining their commitment at Business Case time, it’s important that they understand what that commitment really means – it’s not just money and other people’s time. It’s a little bit of their time (not excessive amounts), and it’s their visible support for Change Management within the organisation. The sponsor team needs to share a consistent message that is highly visible through their actions.
Ask some hard-hitting questions
If times are getting tough and priorities have to be made – are they prepared to stick to their guns, within reason, with Change Management?
If a Programme Manager delivers a Programme to time and to budget with all systems in, but with huge people impact and poor adoption of the new ways of working – will the Programme Manager receive his or her bonus?
Are they prepared to include change management success criteria in the performance reviews of Change practitioners?
Give examples of what their involvement will entail
Don’t be shy to say upfront what you are expecting from them. Give them some real examples: such as they play a vital role in establishing the change imperative and deciding the future state. Be very clear about the impact on their time that the new approach to delivering change will have. Just like any other expense to a project, it should be explained and justified. The emphasis should be that the amount of their time would be kept to a minimum but that the impact should be regular, positive and reinforcing.
Make their life easy
A small quick reference card can be something that a sponsor can keep on his or her desk or take to a meeting, and it’s a quick refresher on the basics of what they are required to do on a change project. Providing them with a few key questions can also be helpful. If your CEO asks a Programme manager in the lift how the staff change adaptability is going for their project, you can bet that very quickly all your programme managers will ensure they can answer a similar question if put on the spot! The key here is not to overdo it. A few key questions that your sponsors can remember, have a better chance of success then getting them to read a report on the importance of their role (regardless of how good the report).
Explain the importance of their visible support
And equally important is the impact of their lack of visible support. If a senior executive says “if we had time to spend analysing people impact then great, but we’re just too pushed for time. Just get the new system in” – the impact is not just to the project involved, but also to the wider Programme community. Other programmes begin to question whether their commitment to change management will be treated as “not that important”.
Clearly there will be situations where cuts need to be made – be it to time, to the budget, to the quality, and also to people impact. As Change practitioners we can help ensure that Sponsors deliver message in a manner that has minimal repercussions.
There is no easy solution to engaging sponsors, be it on a Change Management project or any other. The key is engaging with your sponsor at the very beginning – ensure that they understand what it really means to be a sponsor, and what you require from them. Make their life easy with support, and hopefully you can achieve a state where your sponsor’s involvement is kept to an absolute minimum but when they are, it has real and positive impact
This article was originally published in the Changefirst newsletter, March 2008.