Creating change leadership



The Reality of Change

Change is inevitable! It happens every moment and all around us. It can occur in our personal lives, with immediate family members, in our extended family, and in the neighborhood. On a larger scale, we are impacted by changes in our cities, states, countries, and the world. Change is everywhere, this paper specifically addresses change in the workplace.

It's difficult to carve out workplace change from the other sources of change we experience. We all have an ability to absorb change and all change, regardless of the source, is additive in its impact. Each one of us has a limit to the amount of change we can handle and it changes with our circumstances. Your organization will change, financial pressures are continuing to press for more, faster, and with less. Often the change response is to reorganize or hire a consultant. Industry change strategies have been less than successful.

The issues is not if there will be change, but rather:

•  How fast will the change happen?

•  How disruptive will the change be?

•  How much will the change cost?

•  Will the change achieve its objectives?

“If we want things to stay as they are, things have to change.”…—Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Past Change Strategies

Sometimes the need for a change strategy is recognized and sometimes it isn't. When the need for a strategy is recognized the effort is often underestimated and mismanaged. Surely everyone will understand that this new method, process, or practice is better and will start using it immediately. Or perhaps you're under the belief that just because the boss says it will happen, the change really will occur. It's strange how organizations invest in defining change without thinking at all about the strategy that's going to get employees to accept the change.

Even in situations where the change is customer or regulatory agency driven, getting the organization to accept, use, and commit to the change is difficult. What usually dooms most change is that organizations have no strategy or approach to get the change deployed and used. This is a result of weak or non-existent change leadership.

Usually it's the employees trying to define and deploy the change that also have to drive change strategies. Management has been slow to assume their responsibility to actively lead change and make it “stick.”

•  30% success rate for reengineering implementations

•  20–30% of quality improvement programs have a satisfactory return on investment

•  25% of culture change initiatives are successful

•  40–50% of customer service improvement programs are successful

•  30–40% of new technology deployments are effective.

Change Experiences

Why change fails is best shown through examples. The first example is from my personal experience. Here change was slow and then accelerated when change leadership was established. The second was taken from several articles about Jack Welch at GE. As I read the articles, I could see the change leadership.

My Change Experience

I was the Director of Software Engineering at a large avionics manufacturer that had sustained rapid growth over a 10-year period. The software engineering staff had grown from five to 250 engineers and the software content in the products had grown even faster. Our development processes did not keep up with this rapid growth. Test and rework were making our projects unpredictable in schedule and cost. Besides these internal issues, there was a federal regulatory agency that was not happy with our software processes. We started just trying to meet their process requirements and found ourselves just doing process for their benefit with no value to us. We made them happy, but caused a lot of extra work for our employees.

After several years of this folly, we adopted the SEI CMM and started to implement the level 2 Key Process Areas (KPAs). This worked reasonably well as long as I owned the process, could allocate the resources, and deploy the changes. We deployed software configuration management and quality assurance quite easily but ran into road blocks trying to get a process definition for project planning, tracking, and requirements management.

Exhibit 1 (My Organization) shows the problem. I could see no value in applying the project planning, tracking, and requirements management KPAs just to the software organization. While I could sponsor change in the software engineering organization, I could only champion change in the systems engineering and program management groups. These groups also had to change to make the CMM based improvements return any value to the organization.

Exhibit 1. My Organization

My Organization

Exhibit 2. Cascading Change Leadership

Cascading Change Leadership

The Directors of Systems Engineering and Program Management would not sponsor change in their organizations. They were glad that the software guys were getting themselves organized but it didn't effect them, “they didn't do process.” Even the VP of Engineering would not support my efforts. When approached, he'd pull out the division's financial data that showed increasing profits and say, “So Rich, tell me what the problem is?” These unwilling participants stopped my change progress in its tracks. We had an SEI CMM assessment at this point and the findings depicted a lack of organizational leadership for software development improvement change. If level 2 was to be achieved, change leadership had to be established to get the change spread across the organization.

The Solution

Through the efforts of one person at the Corporate Technology Center, a team was formed and sponsored by the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to “solve the software problem.” The team met for a year and generated a plan to create change leadership within the corporation. To be successful, we knew we had to focus on change leadership and show executive management a plan that they could understand. We set strategic goals that were aligned with their business objectives and then created a plan to accomplish the goals.

The team got active sponsorship first from the CTO and then from the Chief Operating Officer (COO). We listed what we expected from them, and then listed what they could expect from us. We personally visited each Business Unit President to explain our plan and get their approval to proceed. Once we had their approval, we requested, encouraged, and convinced the COO to set corporate SEI CMM goals. Our plan called for a small (8) team of internal software consultants to work with software developing organizations. Their task was to assess current processes, provide training, propose changes, and help with local executive sponsorship. I became the first Director of the corporate software consulting team.

Exhibit 3. The Change Model

The Change Model

Let me tell you what happened at the division I left. Remember how I couldn't generate change leadership outside of the software organization? Well the COO could. When the General Manager got the SEI CMM goal put into his incentive plan it became important to everyone in the division. The VP of Engineering suddenly started letting his direct reports know that this “CMM stuff” was going to happen and they'd better get involved. Exhibit 2 (Cascading Change Leadership) shows what happened as change leadership began to cascade down through the organizations. Changes that involved systems engineering and program management started to accelerate.

Within a year the division achieved SEI CMM level 2 and launched on toward level 3. The benefits of value-added process became evident to all and change became the norm as a continuous improvement ethic was born.

Change Leadership at GE (a short contrast)

“When Jack Welch became CEO of GE in 1981, he found too many under performing businesses. He saw too much organizational bureaucracy and he began restructuring. Welch decided to focus on performance. He pushed to get his objective of four management layers and he created an organization that forced managers to delegate. Welch began to change the management norms.”

These excerpts from “The Leader's Change Handbook,” Conger, Spreitzer, and Lawler III, depict strong change leadership from the very beginning of his career at GE. I underlined all the direct references to Jack Welch's first person change leadership. Would I have liked to have this kind of change leadership instead of having to build it? The answer is obviously yes, but there are very few Jack Welch's around. Through the examples we've seen change leadership. Now let's define change management in terms of the activities that can develop change leadership.

Change Management

Adopt a Change Model

This Change Model (Exhibit 3) is a simple but powerful tool when followed. At the present state you are at one level of performance and you want to transition to a desired state at a higher level of performance. It's usually understood that the desired state will be attained at a later time. What's not usually appreciated is the dip in performance that is experienced as you move to the desired state. The shorter the transition state or the faster the trip to improved performance, the more successful the change. Strong change leadership accelerates passage through the transition state.

Change Roles

The change model is facilitated by defined roles that must be performed to accelerate change. The absence of a role or a weak performer in a role will decelerate the change and the transition state will be longer. Change leadership MUST be exhibited by change sponsors for change to be successful.


The Authorizing Sponsor legitimizes the change and demonstrates periodic change leadership. He or she possesses sufficient organizational power and influence to initiate and maintain commitment to the change. The Reinforcing Sponsor provides continuous change leadership at the local level by removing barriers and providing resources to accomplish the change plan. All sponsors must EXPRESS the need for change, MODEL the desired state behavior, and REINFORCE those moving through the transition state. Expressing, modeling, and reinforcing are critical change leader responsibilities.


The Champion agrees that a change needs to occur and works to obtains peer change commitment. They advocate the change to the sponsors and provide support throughout the change process. While they have no resources to allocate to the change, they can help push the Reinforcing Sponsor to commit resources.

Change Agents

Change Agents identify the need for change, plan change activities, and implement the change. They estimate the resources needed and make those needs known to the Reinforcing Sponsor. They build support for the change throughout the organization and assist the initial users of the change. They manage the change using appropriate project management practices and make periodic progress reports to the sponsors.

Change Agents need to possess an effectiveness or ability to influence others. The ability to influence others comes from successful personal and organizational history, knowledge of the change, and the ability to work well with people at all levels of the organization.

Change Targets

Change Targets are those who will need to change some learned behavior to adapt to the new desired state. Some will put up resistance to the change because they're comfortable with the present state and are fearful of the transition. Their resistance is natural and they should not be treated harshly. You are changing the way they know to be successful in the organization and you should expect some resistance. Getting Change Targets involved in the change process and encouraging them to push back when they can't see the value of a change will lessen their fears.

Identifying Change Roles

Each individual named on your organizational chart will play one or more of these roles. If individuals are not performing their proper role, they must be moved into that role. All levels of management must have a sponsor role. If there's a sponsorship “hole,” change will not happen in the organization that reports to them. Most readers of this paper will find themselves in the Change Agent role, seeing the need for change and wanting to make it happen.

Managing Change to Create Change Leadership

So Now What?

•  I understand the inevitability of change.

•  I understand the importance of change leadership.

•  I understand the Change Model.

•  I need to generate change leadership!

Your Change Leadership Goal

As a Change Agent you need to apply the change management concepts to generate change leadership while the Change Model is being executed. It will be your task to initially accept a lot of the sponsor role until you get them moved from Change Targets to sponsors where they will EXPRESS the change, MODEL the change behavior, and REINFORCE those in transition. What you have to do is: accept accountability, establish and align a change coalition, set reasonable expectations, promote sponsorship, communicate, and involve employees.

Accept Accountability

The Change Agent must gather the change team, establish a plan, assign responsibilities, periodically review progress, ensure resolution of issues, demonstrate commitment, and establish communication to publicize the change. You must get the change process started.

You may think it strange that promoting change leadership is not first? Most often change starts with the passion of one (or more) person who is the catalyst for change. They then draw others into the change process. This individual (or group) makes themselves accountable for the change and drives the management of change until there's sufficient momentum to approach management to establish change leadership.

Establish and Align the Change Coalition

Change Agents need to find others in the organization (at all levels) that agree with their proposed change and get them involved. Create a charter and set objectives that coalition members can support. The coalition needs to manage resistance if it arises, it won't just go away so address resistance head-on. Let people know about change successes and celebrate your accomplishments.

The proposed change also needs to be aligned with other organizational initiatives such as ISO or Six Sigma programs. Search for other divisions or corporate organizations that support your change, the connection can add stature to your efforts.

Set Reasonable Expectations

Don't set expectations beyond the strength of your current change leadership. Without strong change leadership you will not be able to make large changes over significant portions of your organization. Achieving numerous smaller milestones will build momentum and sponsorship as results are recognized. The same organization that underestimates customer project costs and schedules will do the same with internal change projects. Resist the temptation to set unrealistic goals just to get your change project approved.Promote Sponsorship

If you have weak change leadership, view the sponsor as a Change Target with resistance that needs to be transitioned to a desired state of exhibiting strong change leadership. Some ways of dealing with weak sponsorship:

•  Don't assume anything about your sponsors. You know more about the change than they do! What seems like an arbitrary decision may be due to lack of information. Communicate consistently with your sponsors.

•  Understand sponsor resistance. Why are they reluctant to be an active sponsor? Make sure that they know what they'll get out of the change?

•  Look for one-on-one opportunities to educate your sponsors. They may not understand the need for the change as well as you do. Education will help them be better sponsors and others will be influence by their knowledge of the change.

•  Use Champions to influence inactive sponsors. Champions may have more influence than you.

•  Create a business case to show what's in it for the business. This is a must; align your change with business objectives. Show clearly how your change will support the business!

•  Some sponsors don't know what the duties of a sponsor are, so tell them what you want them to do.

•  Draft communications for sponsors when necessary. This is a great education opportunity when you walk them through the materials.

•  Communicate, communicate, and communicate.

Communication to Change Targets

During change you cannot communicate too much. If there's an information vacuum it'll get filled. It's your job to assure the information vacuum gets filled with the truth and not rumors and guesses. Below are questions that Change Targets should not have to ask. The answers should be in front of them often enough that they know the answers.

•  What is in the change for me?

•  What is the purpose of the change?

•  What is the picture of the desired state after the change?

•  What is the plan to accomplish the change?

•  What is their role in the change?

Involve Change Targets

Change Targets have the best knowledge of the present state. Use them to identify best practices and then capture them in a format so they can be reused. Change Targets must “own” the future desired state for it to be lasting. Getting them involved in the change definition teams will help get them moving from change resistance to compliance to commitment. Organizations can only manage so much change at a time. By getting Change Targets involved you'll also be able to get a good assessment of how much change the organization can handle.

Recognize Role Models

If you continue to recognize (reward) present state behavior, you'll continue to get present state performance results. During the transition you have to reward desired state behavior. Recognize whole teams, not just managers. Find ways to publicize accomplishments. Make sure management knows what you're doing for them.

Don't Give Up

If all your attempts to generate change leadership fail:

1. Continue to change what you can. The scope of your change will need to be reduced so that you can effectively sponsor the change. Remember from my example that I had to focus on changes where I could effectively remove barriers and provide resources.

2. Use the Change Management principles to move management from Change Targets to sponsors that show strong change leadership to the organization.

3. Have patience; change takes time. Maintain your commitment to the change. This may become difficult, but if you believe the change is necessary…it is.

Parting Thought

“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”—James Baldwin


IMA. “One-Day Class Presentation Materials.” Brighton, CO: Implementation Management Associates.

Verma, Vijay K. 1995. Organizing Projects for Success. Upper Darby, PA: Project Management Institute.

Conger, Jay, Spreitzer, Gretchen, and Lawler III, Edward. 1999. Leader's Change Handbook. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
October 3–10, 2002 • San Antonio, Texas, USA



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