Project Management

Insights in Change Management—Interview with Kimberlee Williams, CEO, Ignitem (Part 1 Of 3)

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This is a blog about Strategy Execution, about implementing change and driving ROI to the bottom line. It is intended for: Leaders and for Program, Project and Change Management practitioners trying to manage the weather systems of change raining inside the organization.

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Insights in Change Management—Interview with Kimberlee Williams, CEO, Ignitem (Part 1 Of 3)

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Who knows more about change management than practitioners in the trenches? These are professionals who are vested in helping organizations achieve the promises to the Board (the strategy, “the change”) and who have dedicated their careers to figuring out how to do this well.

In this series, Insights in Change Management, we will hear the voices of these professionals.

Kimberlee Williams is the voice of global business professionals driving performance through transformation and change. She’s worked with companies in 18 industries, often during ambiguous, distressed, and difficult periods in their histories.

As Head of Global Change Execution in Merck’s Strategy Office, she pioneered strategy execution and change leadership by accelerating critical initiatives, building sustainable skills in the $46B/50,000-employee base, and guiding an informal community of thousands of change agents who enabled $3.5B in savings.

She served as Executive Director, Strategy and Program Management Office Global Services, a $4B/5,000-employee business unit and was previously VP, Organizational Effectiveness/HR at a privately held 30,000 employee-outsourced services company. Kimberlee is a certified Master Change Agent, Lean/Sigma Black Belt, award-winning executive facilitator, and advisor.

Today, her company, ignitem, specializes in transformation and change, guiding leaders around the world to achieve extraordinary results through her online training resources, coaching program, and live events.  You can download her free article, “Closing the Confidence Gap in Change Leadership” here and check out her website at

This interview comprises a series of questions and answers that will be published in three parts:

  1. Part 1—What brought you here? Includes: How did you get started? What’s your definition of change management? Where do you start when determining your approach to change initiatives?
  2. Part 2—Where is here for you? Includes: What do you bake into every engagement? What have you learned from failure? In SWOT analysis, what are the top three touchstones you refer to?
  3. Part 3—Who inspires you? Includes: What gets you up in the morning or keeps you going? What does the future of change management need? As a bonus, Kimberlee answers the question, “What would you like to ask other practitioners?”

This is Part 1.  Parts 2 and 3 will be published shortly. You can subscribe to ensure that you don’t miss them.

Here we go…

1.       Your story—How did you arrive at change management? How did you choose this discipline and why?

My career started in a small town gas station. I started working in my family’s business when I was nine years old and was doing automotive repairs and supervising adult employees by the time I was a teenager. I was absolutely fascinated by our employees’ behavior and performance, and the mechanisms needed to shape their behavior (especially when they were asked to do something different or that they did not want to do).  Learning the finer points of a combustion engine and how the elements of an automobile are designed to work together to achieve a certain level of performance shaped my interest in whole-systems design. In addition, abstract concepts such as horsepower and torque helped me to visualize invisible drivers of performance inside systems, like beliefs and assumptions, and to learn how to measure those drivers.

I carried those people and systems interests into college and grad school, studying Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Statistics/Research Methods. After entering the professional world, I worked in HR/Talent/OD. Although I rose quickly to become a senior HR/OD executive, I discovered there were other line functions (business development, operations, strategy, etc.) that might more fully utilize my skills, so I began to cross-train in those areas.

I worked in outsourced services for about 10 years, leading transitions of large numbers of employees in very turbulent environments. A pivotal moment for me occurred when an employee in one of our client facilities was killed performing maintenance on a piece of manufacturing equipment, despite the fact that my company had been actively promoting a safety program there for several years. It underscored for me how hard it is to change human behavior—even when people know it means life or death. After that, I totally shifted my focus from HR/OD to Organization Effectiveness, Strategy/PMO, and leadership roles on huge projects that gave me the opportunity to address systemic elements of business and people change using a variety of methodologies such as scorecard, Lean Sigma, and others alongside change management.

2.       Perspective—What is your definition of change management? Is there an aspect that has captured your attention that you continue to study and investigate?

Change management means assisting people to 1) move from the current state to a defined future state as quickly as possible while 2) maintaining or improving their desired level of performance. Methods and techniques to do so are primarily rooted in behavioral science and often involve up-skilling and working through others (e.g., people managers) rather than directly.

It is both a discipline (i.e., formal organization role with title) and skill set (i.e., the competencies can be defined and embedded in a vast number of roles across the company).

Although it is often discussed in isolation, in my opinion, change management is part of a larger constellation of organization capabilities (e.g., identifying, deciding on and prioritizing strategic opportunities; aligning leaders; designing solutions; implementing solutions; measuring to assure desired results are achieved; and sustaining those results over time). I see change management mostly supporting “implementation,” as there are other approaches better suited to address the other areas. For instance, Sigma is much better suited to designing solutions. Developing all of those capabilities in an organization requires a multi-disciplinary approach.

In addition, change management techniques have evolved from, and contributed to, other disciplines, including Organizational Development, Lean Sigma, Balanced Scorecard, and even Talent Management. This can create organizational friction and needs to be managed thoughtfully.

My passion, and the reason I founded my business, is to enable professionals who are implementing change—no matter what their job title or discipline—to graduate from change management to change leadership. Change management has been commoditized to a large degree (and the focus is frequently mis-directed to tools and tactical techniques) and it has not always delivered on improving implementation results, leading to an overall devaluation of the discipline.  Change leadership is much broader. It is about persuasion, influence, politics, high-impact conversations that redirect behavior and get to the root of a wide spectrum of issues, at the time of implementation and beyond. So this is what I do in my business—I work with companies to define the roadmap to identify and develop these organization capabilities, and I work with professionals leading change to improve their own impact, influence, and income.

3.       Starting Point—What do you see as the most significant attributes that differentiate change initiatives and how do you approach them differently? Examples might include transitional vs. transformational, culture, impact dimensions (number of people, change history, locales, positive vs. negative impact, etc.).

All of those you have listed here are critical and I agree need to be considered when evaluating any organizational change. In the impact analysis I use in my own business, I have added a few dimensions. Two that I recommend people consider are:

 1)      Apparent Inconsistencies—the degree to which change actions, on the surface, seem contradictory to one another. These create credibility problems for change leaders because they are incorrectly interpreted as a coordination problem (i.e., the left and right hand don’t know what they are doing) or worse, a leadership trust issue (e.g., belief they are deliberately being “sold” a benefit that they will not experience). Some examples of apparent inconsistencies include hiring in one part of the organization while reducing force in another or optimizing globally while sub-optimizing locally (as often occurs with ERP implementations). I find that these conflicts are sometimes not uncovered until quite late in the implementation and, with focused attention, could have been anticipated and addressed.

2)      Shifts in Management Power Bases—an attribute evident in reorganization and restructuring efforts for a long time that becomes even more acute as companies undertake business model redesign. Business model redesign fundamentally disrupts structures, processes, products/services, resource allocation—often in highly unpredictable ways—making some leaders’ roles or entire functions obsolete (so there is a heightened sense for leaders that they could end up with no role at all or a greatly diminished base of power). This can cause excessively protracted decision-making as executives attempt to create a fit for themselves, obfuscate in an attempt to manipulate circumstances, buy time to keep options open, or engage in other behaviors that make moving forward seemingly impossible. Shifting management power bases often requires a parallel work stream (beyond basic change management) of dealing with those especially challenging leader behaviors, and providing extra coaching to sponsors to work through options.

Parts 2 and 3 coming soon. You can subscribe to ensure that you don’t miss them.

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Posted on: March 17, 2014 05:33 PM | Permalink

Comments (3)

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Great insight into the interview process.

Thanks for sharing.

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