Transformational Change Is Hard:  Overcoming the Challenges of Extreme Change

Posted by Paula Alsher on Thu, Mar 03, 2016 @ 01:43 PM

Recently, IMA president Don Harrison led a webinar entitled, Change Challenges: Extreme Edition” in which he discussed the extreme challenges faced by organizations during transformational change.  For theCrossing the Abyss of Transformational Change past 30+ years, Don has focused his work on helping organizations to implement large-scale, complex changes in organizations.  

As the principal designer of a systematic and practical approach to predicting, managing and accelerating the implementation rate of large systems changes called the Accelerating Implementation Methodology (AIM), Don is often called on to help implement (or fix) thorny enterprise-wide changes such as technology implementations, cultural changes, M&A integrations, or re-structurings. Below is his guidance on how to overcome the typical challenges of Extreme Change.

What Qualifies as Extreme Change?

Change can be classified into three categories:  

  • Minor: Causes a minor disruption to a Target’s Frame of Reference.  Examples include a routine change to policy or procedure. There is minor disruption, so therefore minor resistance to change.
  • 1st Order: This is frame-bending change where you take what you are doing now, and do it a little better, a little faster, or a little differently. These changes create significant disruption. An example is a new ERP system or the introduction of a project portfolio management tool.
  • 2nd Order: Frame-breaking change completely alters the current operating structure, with massive change to processes, people, and typically technology. Examples are Mergers & Acquisitions and shared services solutions.

Extreme Change is 2nd Order Change.  It is transformational in scope and cannot be done incrementally.  Why?  Because once you tell people that we are completely altering the status quo, you can’t just say, “Well never mind.”  Or put another way, you can’t leap an abyss in 2 jumps!  This means an Extreme, (aka transformational) Change, can’t be made totally safe—it requires a leap of faith. 

So here are a few of Don Harrison’s tips and tactics on how to overcome the barriers to Extreme Change.

Extreme Change = Extreme Challenges

Challenge #1 – Change Saturation

Today’s organizations are busy.  In fact, they are busier than ever before.  There are countless projects in various stages of completion all chasing the same limited resources.  The cold, hard truth is organizations today will never have enough resources for all of their initiatives. There is no shortage of good ideas, but there is a shortage of resources to implement those ideas. That’s why it is so important to have a clear line of sight as to the total number of projects that are in play, where resources are being spent, and the prioritization and sequencing of each initiative.

Remember, no change occurs in isolation, it always occurs in the context of all the other changes going on in the organization at the same time, and the organization's past history. That is why it is imperative to focus skilled resources where they will have the greatest impact. 

Challenge #2 – How to get Sponsors to do what is needed

Sponsorship is a very active role in implementation.  Project success depends on the demonstrated expressed, modeled, and reinforced commitment of all the managers and leaders who have direct reports that are impacted in some way by the change—not just the individuals who “sign the checks” for funding. This cascade of behavioral commitment
is the single most important factor in the speed of implementation for a transformational change project.  So it goes without saying that the primary responsibility of Change Agents should be to identify all the Sponsors and secure their active participation. 

But, how do you ensure Sponsors do what is needed?  First educate your Sponsors on their role, then use a Sponsor Contracting process to get commitment to action.  The “contract” is an exchange of offers, wants, and needs that ensures Sponsors are clear on what is expected of them at critical points in the project lifecycle.  Change Agents need to contract with Sponsors on an ongoing basis.  Note that we teach Sponsor Contracting in our AIM Accreditation Program, as every Change Agent must be skilled in the Sponsor Contracting process.  

Challenge #3 – Inefficient and/or ineffective governance

If you are investing in an organizational change that is transformational in scope and complexity, you can't have multiple approaches with no oversight. An efficient governance structure is needed in order to:

  • Establish project criteria
  • Manage implementation risks horizontally/vertically
  • Help define program outcomes
  • Provide control/monitoring
  • Resolve escalated inter-program conflicts and help coordinate dependencies
  • Measure results
  • Facilitate decision-making
  • Help develop organizational capacity/readiness

Whatever governance model you choose it must be designed to foster implementation at speed.  It must have a clear line of sight in order to encourage good decision-making, prioritization, and sequencing.  And it should be a two-way information and process flow that starts with the high-level strategy, then moves to portfolio, program, and project levels, and back up again.


Enterprise-wide, Extreme Change can be excruciatingly complex. But when you follow a repeatable process like the Accelerating Implementation Methodology (AIM), you will minimize business disruption, increase the speed of implementation, and manage the cultural and organizational risks that are always present.  That’s Don Harrison’s take on how you tackle Extreme Change. Is your organization ready to meet the challenge?

Free eBook:  Guide to Transformational Change

Topics: Transformational Change, Barriers to Change, Enterprise-wide Change