The ABCs of Change Sponsorship

By Scott Franklin

A majority of the Vietnam War POWs were U.S. Navy pilots who were shot down, bailed out of their aircraft and subsequently captured. As part of their pilot training, they had been instructed in evasion and survival techniques. Their training manual provided the guidance that, if captured, the best opportunity to escape would be while they were being taken to the POW camp. At the conclusion of the war when the POWs returned home, a number of them commented in retrospect that it would have been helpful if the manual had included a paragraph or two on how.

During a transformational organizational change, leaders throughout the organization are expected to sponsor the change. What oftentimes gets left out is any guidance on how.

Effectively managing change requires both project management (managing the technical side of the change) and change management (managing the people side of the change). From the technical side of change, the leaders provide the strategy and direction for the organization and include decisions on budget, resources and timing/schedule. These are important aspects of enabling the change, but have little to do with the eventual success of the change. The success of the change depends upon what happens after the project is approved and funded – and the most critical factor is what the leadership does.

Providing funding, resources and a timeframe provides the support for the change. Sponsoring the change, however, requires something different. It is shown through actions during the change.

"According to Prosci's 2009 Best Practices in Change Management benchmarking report, effective sponsorship is based on three behaviors – the ABCs of change sponsorship

A – Active and visible participation. Too often leaders tend to delegate the project to the project managers, only getting involved when problems arise, or they quietly monitor the change from their desks. Active and visible means going to team meetings, ensuring the project has the right team members, and attending training and special events. Leaders spend their time doing important things. If people see the leaders spending time in the change, then the change must be important. Remember “What interests my boss fascinates me.”

B – Building support with peers and managers.
The Japanese have a term “Nemawashi” which roughly translates to “informally meeting with other leaders to discuss the change and build support.” This is the politics of change and is performed by finding out what others think of the change, what their hesitations or concerns may be and how open they are to supporting the change. This builds the foundation for support and creates a personal connection to the change.

C – Communicating directly with employees. Employees want to hear the message directly and for it to be unfiltered. They especially want to know the business drivers for making the change and what the risks to the business are for not implementing the change. This is especially important when there is not an immediate crisis or the reasons for the change are not obvious.

As much as I would like to believe that this article is going to be read by executives, heads of state and captains of industry, the reality is that most of you have not reached these levels (yet) and therefore may not see how this directly applies to you. Executives and leaders want, need and appreciate your input on ways that they can be more effective. Providing leaders with opportunities to be visible and communicate increases their effectiveness and the success of the change. Most executives will gladly attend a meeting or kick off a training session as long as they are provided information about:

  1. Who is going to be there – let them know who their audience will be and what their interest and concerns in the change are.
  2. What to say – always give them suggestions for what to say. You know better than they do what the people are interested in hearing. This ensures that you don’t place your guest in the position of being embarrassed or looking out of touch.

Executing these three activities only requires a small investment of time and if effectively performed will greatly increase the speed and success of the change.

Prosci Best Practices data reference: (c) Prosci 2009.  Used with Permission.

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