One of the key principles of Next Generation Change Management is to look up the power structure in your organization before you look down, especially in the beginning of a project. What we mean by this is as a Change Agent, you need to spend more time working with your Sponsors (to ensure they are Expressing, Modeling and Reinforcing the change) than trying to convince the targets (those people who will be affected by the change) about the logic and rationale behind it.
When most people think about change management, they automatically assume preparing targets (through training and communication) is the most important activity a Change Agent should be doing. But that is not the case! Don Harrison, the developer of the Accelerating Implementation Methodology (AIM), would argue the most important skill for any Change Agent is to effectively contract with their Sponsors for the actions needed.
The Art of Sponsor Contracting
Sponsor Contracting is the exchange of wants, needs, and offers between a Change Agent and a Sponsor. It’s an on-going process that needs to be repeated as the project evolves.
The good news is the skills necessary to effectively contract are trainable and can be learned with practice. In our change management training programs we spend a lot of time on the skill of Sponsor Contracting by providing practice situations that mimic real life Sponsor situations. Because we know not all Sponsor situations are ideal!
5 Tough Sponsor Situations and How to Handle Them
How many times have you met with a Sponsor only to walk away feeling like you didn’t get exactly what you hoped for? Or, that the Sponsor said you have their “full support” but in reality, they are unwilling to actually commit any of their time to doing what is really needed of them.
Here are 5 common, real-life Sponsor situations we talk about during our AIM Accreditation session and a few tips on how to handle them:
- Contracting with a Sponsor you don’t know or have never met
We’re sorry to be blunt, but the truth is…you can’t. Fundamentally, you have to have trust and credibility with a Sponsor to contract effectively. If you don’t have trust already, you need to find Champions with trust and influence, or other people who know the Sponsor, to have them help you prepare and even to participate in the contracting discussion.
- Dealing with a Sponsor who is several levels above you
If you already have a trust relationship with the higher up executive there really is no problem. However, as we said, you can’t contract with a Sponsor without trust and credibility. Our best advice in this situation is to go one level up to find someone with the right relationship with the higher-level Sponsor. If that doesn’t work, you will need to keep going up, level-by-level, to find someone with the right relationship and enlist their help.
- Sudden Sponsor turnover
This is a common problem in any business implementation. Just when you think things are going well (or just when you think things couldn’t get any worse) a Sponsor leaves or is “re-assigned” to a new initiative. Whether it’s an individual, or a few members of a Steering Committee who have left, there are 3 basic actions to take:
- Update a new Sponsor on the status by sharing what is going well and what is not
- Re-educate them on the importance of Expressing, Modeling and Reinforcing
- Coach them through what they should do to get the business outcomes they desire
- What to say when your Sponsor isn’t holding up their end of the bargain
When you are working with a Sponsor, the guiding principle is you have to get out of your own Frame of Reference and get into theirs. You need to ask yourself, “What is it that this Sponsor is trying to achieve?” Remember, it is not your objectives they want to accomplish, but theirs. Start this type of conversation with the "what is going well and what is not" conversation. Then frame the discussion around what they want to achieve from a business-case perspective. Remember, you do want to be honest, but you should not make things personal.
- What to do when your Sponsor is the one resisting the change
Unfortunately, this is a very common situation! It is critical to treat every level of the organization, from the senior leadership down, as Targets first. There is absolutely no point in trying to create readiness at the lower levels of the organization if the people in power are resisting the change. Instead, readiness needs to be cascaded through the organization level-by-level.
Sponsor contracting is not always simple and straight forward! It’s why we say change management is an exercise in power and politics. If you are handling a tough Sponsor situation, take our advice, first build the right relationship with the Sponsor (or find someone who has that type of relationship already). Then, remember, your conversations need to be from the Sponsor’s frame of reference, not yours! By preparing for these meetings in advance and following the tips above you’ll be able to handle any sticky Sponsor situation you find yourself in.