“Change is inevitable. In a progressive country change is constant.” Substitute “company” for “country,” and most people in modern organizations will nod and sigh deeply (although not many will know that the quotation is from British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli – and that it was uttered back in 1867).

Change is inevitable – in pursuit of better quality, lower costs or higher revenues. Whether resulting in process, technology or organizational redesign, one single factor will always contribute: people. No matter how automated a business is, there will be people required at critical points, the change will require them to alter their behaviors (the way they do their jobs) and there will be resistance.

Resistance is rarely malicious or stubborn. People resist because that is the natural human reaction in times of change, even when the changes are small. People’s resistance becomes more entrenched when the company does little to help them – or even makes it more difficult to change. This article gives some simple, common sense insights into the most critical success factor: sponsorship. These insights apply to process improvements driven by a Six Sigma and/or Lean initiative or by competitive or commercial pressures.

The ‘S’ Word

Sponsorship is the common factor across every single change method, and whether an individual is referred to as a sponsor, a Champion, or by any other name, most organizations are now aware of the need to appoint one when initiating change.

Sponsors are often senior leaders, are interested in and committed to the change, and have budget authority, but still the change often fails. What is often overlooked is that the individual may not be the right one – organizationally.

Most companies run on a management-by-objectives command and control system. Corporate objectives are set and cascaded down the organization, and at the end of each performance year appraisals are held and rewards determined. Employees know (or will quickly learn) that activities that further their objectives may be rewarded and other activities will not be.

This means that not only does a serious change need to be reflected in the objectives of all those directly affected, it needs to become the objective of employees’ managers and their managers’ managers. There is little benefit in agreeing to new behaviors with someone if the words and actions of his or her manager question, undermine or contradict them.

Given this deeply embedded dynamic within organizations, it follows by induction that the ideal sponsorship must lie in sympathy with the organizational structure – with the person who controls (explicitly or implicitly) the objectives of all those required to change.

As is often the case, ruthless logic leads to an unreasonable place: It means that every change involving cross-functional impact should be sponsored by the CEO. This is unsustainable because no individual can provide real attention to the number of projects that this would imply.

Choosing a Sponsor

The choice of sponsor therefore needs to be a compromise. It needs to recognize the realities of a performance-by-objectives culture and the practicalities of the CEO’s time and attention. The CEO can delegate the sponsorship to a leader who commands many, although not all, of those affected by the change. The chosen sponsor should be an individual with personal and political influence that can have an impact on all those not under his or her direct authority. This can be done overtly and explicitly – the chosen sponsor is given the full authority of the ideal sponsor.

The issue is one of risk. The further the chosen sponsor is away from the ideal set by the organization structure, the greater the risk of failure.

The same model can be applied on a smaller scale where the ideal sponsor is the head of a large business unit, or perhaps the manager of a large production site. Then, the sponsor may delegate the sponsorship to a leadership team member, but the same criteria apply: the person is responsible for a significant proportion of those affected by the change and has the necessary influence, authority, enthusiasm and resources (budget and people).

This test can be applied to any change that is being considered. Identify all those affected by the change (those whose day-to-day behaviors must change in order for success to be achieved). Map out their reporting lines up the organization (the lines of objectives and rewards cascading down the organization) and find out in whose hands they converge.

Having found the ideal sponsor, see who else could be successful as a sponsor (even if the ideal sponsor can accept the role, such people will be a great support to the ideal sponsor). Apply the same criteria: the person is responsible for a significant proportion of those affected by the change and has the necessary commitment, enthusiasm, personal and political influence, and ability to secure resources.

Then assess the risk incurred by the sponsorship: Given the individual’s suitability, is failure still likely? Is it possible or unlikely? Is the failure likely to be total and to cause delays and extra costs? Or just to be uncomfortable for those involved? Depending on such an assessment, decide how viable an individual’s sponsorship is and what mitigation actions are appropriate.

Handling the Decision

Needless to say, such analyses are sensitive and should be treated as confidential. Senor leaders will not appreciate the questioning of their ability to get something done. However, the opportunity to influence the choice of sponsor or to help coach a sponsor to greater success makes the activity worthwhile.

In the case where an initiative is already underway with a chosen (but not necessarily correct) sponsor, use this approach to evaluate the person’s chances of success and to choose an appropriate intervention. While no one likes to hear they are not capable of delivering against their commitments, most will listen if (with positive intent) one can explain the organizational barriers to their success, can identify the people that they must influence and can (possibly) identify to whom they should hand over the sponsorship.

Failure through incorrect sponsorship is bad for everyone – for the sponsor, the organization and for those affected by the change. A common sense approach that can help avoid failure is worth the small effort and some difficult conversations.

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