Lessons Learned About Building Commitment to Change

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Categories: Commitment

After three-and-a-half decades of being a professional change practitioner, I’ve seen my share of successful and unsuccessful attempts to generate enough commitment to reach full realization. If there is one thing I’m sure of it’s that the necessary momentum and critical mass of commitment toward desired outcomes is not easy to come by. Below are some of the more important lessons that have affected my practice.

1. The commitment process unfolds at both intellectual and emotional levels.

Usually, intellectual commitment precedes emotional commitment. Most people can grasp the implications of a change at a cognitive level fairly quickly. However, they often find that they need more time to make the necessary emotional adjustments.

This split-level commitment can produce confusion, mixed signals, and ambiguous communication for all involved. People can believe that they (or others) buy into a new approach (for example, a new way of organizing a work team), only to find that, once they engage in the new behaviors, there are consequences (such as changing relationships with co-workers) they are not emotionally prepared to deal with.

As change practitioners, we must learn to deal with both the intellectual and emotional levels of commitment our clients experience. The implementation plans we help develop and the client expectations we establish should account for the differences between the two. We also must learn to distinguish between deteriorating commitment and the mixed messages people convey when their heads have accepted the change but their hearts are still struggling.

2. Building commitment is a developmental process.

For sustainable commitment to grow, the process must be viewed from a developmental perspective. Of course, life is never as black and white as models suggest. However, the model I described earlier in this series shows the events leading to commitment are generally sequential in nature. Awareness, for example, is the result of successful contact and understanding that must occur before a positive perception can be generated.

Obviously, sponsors can skip some steps by simply announcing that a change has already been institutionalized. With this approach, the pronouncement is made, behavior is dictated, and compliance is achieved. When organizational change is handled in this fashion, however, the likelihood of strong, sustained personal commitment is low, especially if the change has a significant disruptive impact on the targets.

Shortcuts to high commitment simply do not exist. Each stage in the process depends on the successful completion of prior stages. To move targets to the highest levels of commitment, implementation plans and sponsor and agent behaviors must be consistent with the sequential stages presented in the model.

3. Commitment strategies must be formulated.

Executives often devote time, money, and energy to making the right decision about what should be changed while ignoring the need to build commitment to that decision. It is too risky to leave commitment to chance. A well-thought-out commitment strategy will increase the probability that people will reach the momentum and critical mass of energy directed toward the new ways of thinking and operating. Strategies for building commitment, however, should not be limited to targets only. Sponsors must develop plans to ensure that their agents are fully supportive, and agents often need to increase the level of sponsor support for programs that these same sponsors initiated.

Keep in mind that change projects do not all call for the same level of commitment from various groups. Some endeavors require only that they try it (experimentation). Others need a longer testing period (adoption). For many change projects, the intent of the effort will not be realized unless the change becomes formally sanctioned (institutionalization). If the long-range goals of a change demand high levels of support from the employees, maximum commitment is necessary (internalization). Before building a commitment strategy, it’s important to understand what levels of commitment are needed from which constituencies.

4. Commitment is expensive; clients shouldn’t go for more than they are willing to pay for.

Fostering organizational commitment is a complex and costly venture. Most sponsors want full support for changes they intend to implement but have little understanding of the dynamics involved. Once they do understand the resources required to build commitment, they often balk at the expense. They want strong target support but are not willing to pay the price to ensure it.

As change facilitators, our charter isn’t about convincing sponsors they should pay the high price for strong commitment…our job is to help them make an informed decision about whether such an investment should be made. We should be as proud of the projects we help sponsors terminate early as the ones we help reach full realization. We have performed a valuable service any time we help a sponsor determine early (preferably before announcing the change) that he or she can’t/won’t pay what’s required to generate the needed momentum and critical mass.

The activities outlined in the commitment model are costly, yet the payoff can be dramatic. It falls to us to ensure sponsors understand as rapidly as possible what the cost/benefit ratio is for an impending change and help them reach an educated conclusion.

5. Either build commitment or prepare for the consequences.

Although building optimum commitment is important, there are times that logistic, political, or economic issues make the cost of generating the proper commitment too high. If full commitment is not likely to happen (for whatever reason), it’s up to us to prepare the sponsor for the resulting resistance. Too often sponsors decide not to invest in building target commitment, and are then surprised and unprepared for the inevitable resistance. Both sponsors and agents must either do what is necessary to build target support or decide that it isn’t worth the cost. In the case of the latter option, they must determine ahead of time what their response to the resistance will be.

6. Who commits to what?

Multiple groups are involved in achieving realization of any transformational change. Although we want to orchestrate commitment to a single initiative among all of these groups, the specific content of what we ask people to commit to varies substantially depending on their role, phase of the initiative, etc. The same change may ask one person to commit to moving his family from one location to another and taking on a new job, while another person must commit to operating differently as a leader, learning to use communications and consequences more effectively with her direct reports.

From this perspective, the work of the change practitioner requires an understanding of the various groups and individuals involved, and the specifics of what they are being asked to shift in their mindset and behaviors. Although each initiative has its own unique constellation of groups and requirements, two broad themes characterize the nature and flow of commitment in most, if not all, transformational changes.

The What and How of Commitment

The what of a strategic initiative is the content of the change—the new way of operating that is intended to lead to the desired outcomes. Much of our activities are focused here—making sure people know how to use new tools and apply new approaches and skills in a way that reflects the true intent of the initiative. The primary focus of this work is on the targets of the change.

The how of a strategic initiative is the process used to execute the change—the chosen approach for implementing change, In many cases, the procedures, tools, and nomenclature are new to the people involved in the initiative. This means that sponsors, agents, and targets need to move through the commitment process with regard to how they will execute the change. They may have just as much difficulty adjusting to the change itself as they do with the implementation methodology used to reach realization.

Cascading Commitment

Commitment to the what of the change begins with the initial targets—the senior team (typically the initiating and primary sustaining sponsors). Then, as the intent is clarified and decisions to move forward are confirmed, commitment must be built among various levels of sustaining sponsors and ultimately among the full range of targets within and outside the organization. This is typically done through “cascading” activities, in which sponsors at each level are responsible for ensuring that commitment is transferred to the next level.

The change facilitator must plan the timing and impact of these cascades so they build two things:

  • Momentum (keeping the change moving forward at a speed fast enough to overcome the inertia of the status quo while building the level of sponsorship required to sustain results over time)
  • Critical mass (a sufficient number of committed individuals to ensure that the new way of operating is self-sustaining with little continued infusion of energy from the senior sponsors)

Commitment to the how of the change also begins with the senior team members. They must cascade the critical elements of the strategy execution approach to other sponsors, and also throughout the ranks of agents who are part of the execution process. This includes the core team, the design team, and on to implementation teams and local change agents—all of whom must typically adopt new mindsets and behaviors regarding the execution process.

7. Deepening Commitment

Clients typically cycle through the steps in the commitment model several times.

As the various phases of the change process unfold, successively greater levels of detail emerge about the change and its implications. This leads to more clarity about the particular individual shifts that must take place to support realization. At each new stage, people who have previously moved through the commitment process regarding their part in the change gain a deeper understanding of what is required of them. New information and implications lead them to move through the process again and again throughout the lifespan of the initiative.

Typically, the increased levels of clarity reveal increased levels of challenge and personal effort for those involved in the change. Although greater benefits and opportunities may also surface, the reality of transformational changes is that they require people throughout the organization to confront tough individual choices about how to move forward. Therefore, the additional cycles of the commitment process are not just repetitive exercises in understanding new information, but instead are necessary for people to address the more fundamental issues related to their own behaviors, beliefs, and assumptions and achieve deep, sustainable resolve.

8. Leaders can’t transform their organizations unless they are committed enough to transform themselves.

Many sponsors are eager to determine which part of the organization (or which individual or team) is in need of significant shifts in order to accomplish intended outcomes, but are unprepared to see themselves as in need of any substantial learning and/or adjustments. Sponsors tend to view their own readiness for action as impeccable, so any obstacles to realization must reside with others.

In reality, it is sponsors themselves who often end up being some of the most resistant targets. Their commitment is strong and steadfast until they realize they will also have to change.

It is often the case that leaders new to an organization are called on to “up their game” so they can provide the level of sponsorship needed. However, most of the time, it is even more imperative for incumbent leaders to take stock of their commitment to the transformation they ask others to engage. It is extremely difficult to be a long-tenured leader in the same organization where one is responsible for dismantling and rebuilding. Leaders tend to see themselves as not needing any special guidance to function in their sponsor role and/or they are unwilling to engage in meaningful modifications of their own style of operation. It can be done, but it takes a level of commitment many executives are unprepared for when they embark on a change journey. It requires a level of resolve that includes being willing to learn what is needed to perform their sponsor duties, including making significant adjustments to their style of dealing with others.


Our role as change practitioners is to work closely with sponsors to engineer a broad set of mindset and behavior shifts that build across the lifespan of an initiative, in order to achieve the necessary momentum and critical mass of commitment to reach full realization. Accomplishing all this while dealing with the anticipated and unanticipated barriers to movement through the commitment process is a daunting task and not one for the fainthearted.

As the process of change unfolds, commitment to the new way of operating should be demonstrated first in small groups of people (initiating and primary sustaining sponsors) and eventually in larger and larger target groups. This expansion of support for the change must also be facilitated by a growing cadre of agents who are committed to partnering with sponsors in achieving realization and are skilled in managing the human landscape of change.

When it comes to building commitment, as professional change facilitators, we have a central function and we must take our role seriously. It is vital that we understand the basics of what commitment is and how it is fostered. I hope some of my observations and findings can be helpful to you in your practice and I encourage you to share all you will about the lessons you’ve learned regarding the strengthening of commitment to desired client outcomes.

Posted on: March 08, 2011 08:35 AM | Permalink

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