Updated: Oct 10
After delivering change, transformation, business and process improvement projects for over thirty years, it is difficult not to accept that one of the most important elements in change project success is effective and proactive sponsorship. In fact, without effective and proactive project sponsorship, the project will eventually fail. There are three key elements to support the project: ‘Say’, ‘Support’ and ‘Sustain’! Common sense is not always common, similarly effective and proactive sponsorship is not always applied, thus change does not always deliver the intended benefits.
“Sponsorship is the single most important factor in change success” ~ Peter F Gallagher
Delivery of the change project is a strategic element of the Portfolio and the CEO will expect project investment in terms of organisation resources, time and effort and it will be part of delivering the organisation’s strategy. The Change Sponsor should be identified right from the start as outlined in our registered a2B Change Management Framework® (a2BCMF®). To ensure change success, it is usually the Programme, Project or Business Improvement Lead who has to have the initial conversation with the Sponsor. Sometimes this is a difficult conversation. A Sponsor is usually a trusted senior executive with many years of experience and with widely accepted organisational creditability. However, a large number of change and transformation projects fail to deliver the benefits originally stated or promised. In some cases, this can be due to the Sponsor performing a project oversight role, where this should be the responsibility of the governance or steering committee. There are three key elements that make for successful sponsorship: ‘Say’, ‘Support’ and ‘Sustain’.
Say: Sponsorship starts with providing vocal support for the change. The ‘Say’ is the foundation and is all about communicating the business case for the change to all affected stakeholders. Communication is key to change success and an extremely important first step:
~ Articulate the Strategy: All change projects should be aligned to the organisation strategy, vision, mission and objectives, as they are all fundamental in delivering organisational value through the portfolio. The project Sponsor should communicate the change, along with the project or programme business case and why it is important.
~ Vocally support the Change: During the change project lifecycle the Sponsor should continually communicate why the organisation is implementing the change. Simplicity is best, people need a clear understanding of why there is a need to change. Simple messaging could include ‘what is in it for me?’ (WIFM) and what is expected of each employee.
~ Constantly Communicate: If you think you are communicating enough, then multiple this by ten. No matter how well you believe you are doing, the message does not always get through to the target audience. Working collaboration between all change project team members and the work streams is paramount to project success. You are unlikely to be criticised for over communicating or explaining the change business case and how it aligns to the organisation’s vision and the employee perspective in terms of the ‘WIFM’ factor.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” ~ George Bernard Shaw
Support: Having built the foundation of communication, ‘Support’ builds on the ‘Say’, and it is in this element that the Sponsor starts to actively and overtly support the change:
~ Promote the change: Employees of the organisation will watch the leadership team, what they say and how they support the change. If they see genuine support from their leaders this will indicate the change is important. The Sponsor’s role is to ensure it is an important agenda item throughout the change.
~ Provide quality resources: One of the key issues that causes conflict on most projects are resources. Change agents can play a pivotal role in organisational change, especially in supporting the Sponsor and communicating the change message. The Sponsor must be clear with the organisation and ensure capable resources, if not future leaders, are members of the core change team.
~ Coach the organisation: The Sponsor should have the ability to act as an organisation and personal coach, this will start to move the organisation from the current state ‘a’ to the improved state ‘B’.
“Each person holds so much power within themselves that needs to be let out. Sometimes they just need a little nudge, a little direction, a little support, a little coaching, and the greatest things can happen” ~ Pete Carroll
Sustain: ‘Support’ is much more important than ‘Say’, but ‘Sustain’ is critical for the organisation to deliver value and achieve the strategic goals. This is without doubt the biggest challenge in any change journey, gaining employee adoption of the new way of working and the new desired behaviours. ‘Sustain’ proactively builds on the foundation work from ‘Say’ and ‘Support’ and this is where the Sponsor’s efforts will deliver sustainable change. For the change to be a sustainable success the Sponsor has three critical tasks:
~ Recognise and reward: It is hard to find an individual that does not like to be praised when performing well, everyone likes to be told they are doing a good job. Praise acknowledges positive action and reinforces behaviours. This will go a long way to embedding and sustaining the change.
~ Intervene to ensure success: One of the most difficult roles as a leader or manager is to intervene and provide feedback to employees with poor performance. Having been involved in many organisational changes, this seems to be a missed opportunity and if the Sponsor does not make a quick intervention when first spotted, the chances of change success will dissolve.
~ Embed and adopt the new way: The main objective of any change project is to get the organisation to adopt the new ways of working and to change behaviours, to create the new culture. The secret of success is for the Sponsor to continue to follow-up after the change introduction. Success should not be celebrated too quickly, to ensure the solution is embedded. Final success should be based on the original business case KPIs and should be validated independently.
“Without effective and proactive sponsorship the change project will eventually fail, the change will not be adopted by the employees nor be sustained, and it will not deliver the intended benefits” ~ Peter F Gallagher
Peter F Gallagher is a Change Management Global Thought Leader, Expert, International Speaker, Author and Leadership Alignment Coach.
Ranked #1 Change Management Global Thought Leader: Top 50 Global Thought Leaders and Influencers on Change Management (May 2020) by Thinkers360.
Business Book Ranking: Change Management Pocket Guide - Leadership of Change® Volume 2, ranked within the top 50 Business and Technology Books (Jan 2020) from Thinkers360 Thought Leaders.