Change Thinking

Despite all the business change knowledge uncovered during the last 50 years, many seasoned change management professionals still aren’t adequately prepared to serve those trying to navigate their way through today’s turbulence. Change Thinking is an effort to have an exchange with, and be part of, a community of practitioners committed to raising the level of their game and that of the field of change execution.

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Momentum and Critical Mass

In my last post, I talked about redirecting energy during a transformational change from protecting “the way things are” toward addressing the ambiguities and confusion that occur in the shift. In this context, momentum refers to the forward motion of energy through the role sequence (advocate to initiating sponsor to primary sustaining sponsors to local sustaining sponsors to targets) toward realization of the change. Regardless of which roles are involved in the energy transfer at any given time, the presence of strong momentum dramatically increases the chances for realization results. Alternatively, transfers that produce no more than moderate momentum can stall initiatives or compromise installation outcomes.

Energy transfers can result in a strong, moderate, or weak momentum exchange, which means that merely passing energy through the role sequence is not enough. Momentum must reach a certain magnitude within each person in the chain to provide the level of energy needed to ultimately achieve true realization results. When we achieve this degree of energy strength, it means the person on the receiving end of the transfer has become fully committed to the endeavor’s success.

As each role engages the next, we can test for momentum transfer by noting whether the change is being driven by the next person or group in the sequence, or if it is still relying on scrutinizing and prodding from the previous level above. For example, if sufficient realization momentum has been transferred from an initiating sponsor to a primary sustaining sponsor, the primary sustaining sponsor moves the endeavor forward based on his or her own impetus for action rather than by relying on the initiating sponsor to vitalize the effort.

The critical question here is, “Off whose energy does the initiative live?” If one level in the role sequence becomes focused on another issue or problem and temporarily lessens his or her attention toward a change, does the next level continue the pursuit, or does the project falter or disappear altogether? Sustaining the required momentum for realization of change means that each level in the network of players drives the initiative from its own energy base and transfers that commitment to the levels below.

Critical mass comes at that point in the process of mobilizing commitment down the organization where forward progress is so strong that failure or withdrawal from the effort is highly unlikely. At the point of critical mass, it’s possible but extremely improbable that the initiative won’t reach its full realization potential. Critical mass thresholds depend more on political power and personalities than anything else, so they can occur anywhere along the role sequence. In most cases, however, critical mass is secured at the energy transfer juncture where local sustaining sponsors start to reinforce the realization of a project’s true intent based on their own drive for its success. Once the target’s local sponsor displays resolve and tenacity toward the change based on his or her own commitment, realization of the intended outcomes is extremely probable. Faltering at this point is very rare.

Throughout the process of unfolding an organizational change, various risk factors may or may not serve as counterweights to push back against reaching critical mass. Here are five risks that can keep an initiative from reaching critical mass.

  • Sponsorship: To what extent are the appropriate leaders, managers, and supervisors unwilling or unable to provide the level of commitment needed to sustain the project?
  • Capacity: To what extent do users lack the intellectual, emotional, and physical resources needed to adjust to the changes required by the initiative?
  • Culture: To what extent do the behaviors and mindsets that are necessary to achieve the goals of the change differ from those currently shared throughout the organization?
  • Resistance: To what extent do various stakeholders exert overt and/or covert reluctance to support the effort?
  • Intent: To what extent is there understanding, commitment, and alignment around the desired outcomes from change demonstrated throughout the organization?

When one or more of these factors impedes realization results, we have a classic conflict of two opposing forces, where the outcome is dictated by the prevailing strength of one side over the other. The force that drives change is the energy transferred from advocates through sponsors to the targets. Whatever positive momentum this generates may then face a counterforce produced by one or more risk factors pushing the organization in the opposite direction. If the counter-change forces triumph, it’s unlikely that the critical mass threshold will be crossed at the local-sustaining-sponsor level, and the initiative is either installed, but not realized, or terminated altogether. The graphic below shows these forces at work.



  • The horizontal axis indicates the length of time a change effort has been engaged.
  • The vertical axis depicts the path of momentum transfer as it moves from advocates through the layers of sponsors all the way to targets. This axis also incorporates the influence of forces moving against change in the form of poor sponsorship, inadequate capacity, an unaligned culture, strong resistance, and/or weak synergy.
  • The solid line shows a change in which momentum meets little pushback from the risk factors and moves quickly to realization.
  • The broken line shows an initiative that faced some significant risk factor counterforce and slowly but steadily overcame the organization’s tendency to maintain the status quo.
  • The dotted line shows a project in which momentum made some headway at the beginning of its implementation but then became overwhelmed by the counterforces before critical mass was reached with the local sustaining sponsors.


You can assess whether sufficient progress is being made toward realization of important change goals by understanding and applying the two perspectives: momentum and critical mass. Specifically, change facilitators can use these two dynamics to track the status of important initiatives, determine the likelihood of achieving desired results, pinpoint problematic “transfer points” in the role sequence, and formulate corrective strategies to facilitate the proper energy flow. Because of this, I believe momentum development and achievement of critical mass have two important roles:

-        They should be thought of as fundamental competencies for practitioners—basic elements to realizing the ultimate desired results from investments in strategic change endeavors.

-        Momentum and critical mass should be formally incorporated into implementation plans—monitored and reported on like other key indicators of success.

For me, momentum and critical mass are key to understanding and orchestrating the dynamics of organizational change. What is your view?

Posted on: February 02, 2011 03:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Are We There Yet?

“When you’re that successful, things have a momentum, and at a certain point you can’t really tell whether you have created the momentum or it’s creating you.” ~ Annie Lennox

Some of the questions we are asked by clients are so straightforward (Is resistance a bad thing? Can we realize our objectives despite lousy sponsorship?) that there isn’t much room for insightful responses. But some questions provide opportunities to take clients into more sophisticated space. Of course, we have to be prepared for these deeper dives. Based on the questions being posed, some of us are primed and ready to go, some not. Those caught off guard can offer only vague or inadequate responses. They aren’t more specific with their clients because they don’t know the answers themselves.

For example—here are questions every change practitioner hears at one time or another: Do we have to finish the entire implementation before we’ll know whether we’re succeeding? When will we know that things have turned in our favor? Does everyone have to be on board at the same time for our initiative to succeed? These are legitimate inquiries from clients, yet too many of us have to improvise because we really don’t know what constitutes sufficient progress for a desired change to be realized.

Let’s probe deeper.

The reason questions about the timing of success can be challenging is that some organizational initiatives are so big, it isn’t easy to judge when there is sufficient forward movement. Activity and enthusiasm are great, but they don’t always translate into genuine, sustainable advancement. Even measurable headway toward the intended outcomes can be suspect if we can’t tell that enough movement has occurred to ensure backsliding and regression won’t take over at some later point.

Practitioners can use many approaches in this kind of situation. I’ll share with you how I deal with these kinds of questions. If your experience has shown other methods to be helpful, please share them.

When clients ask how they can be sure there is adequate progress toward their change goals, I usually suggest they use momentum and critical mass as lenses to bring the answer into focus. For these two concepts to gain any traction, however, I first have to help clients see organizational change as an energy shift.

Energy, Redirected

Let’s think about major organizational change as movement of energy from one state to another—from the current state of the way things are to a new state with dramatically different characteristics.

When a status quo is firmly in place, energy (in the form of commitment) is used to continue and reinforce “what is,” which forms a strong “gravitational force” that holds people and organizational structures in line with existing expectations. To maintain the integrity of present boundaries, current-state conditions inherently defend themselves against any significant deviation (resistance), and a powerful counterforce is needed to break the “what-is” grip. (This counterforce can consist of: 1) a high cost for sustaining the existing situation, and/or 2) a strong attraction to something different.)

If this grasp on existing conditions is weakened or severed altogether, a transition begins to take place. Energy starts to shift away from protecting the existing circumstances; it moves instead toward addressing whatever ambiguities and confusion emerge as a new goal is clarified and a new path is forged. If the transition is successful and the new state takes shape, energy is reallocated once again—this time toward forming a new status quo with its own “gravitational force” that can protect the integrity of the new boundaries.

The energy needed to drive change is neither created nor destroyed; it can only be reallocated. Public pronouncements and statements of desired outcomes are easy to come by—rhetoric is cheap. Steadfast commitment to fully realize ambitious goals involving change are manifested only when energy is successfully diverted from the former current state, reapplied to the transition process, and then embedded as desired behaviors that support the new day-to-day reality of the organization.

When people talk about enrolling others or cascading an initiative throughout an organization, they are really referring to this conversion of energy from one direction to another. For change to be realized, not only must energy be redirected from supporting the current state to the transition process and ultimately to the desired state, but this rechanneling must also be accomplished through a series of commitment handoffs. When organizational change is successful, people playing particular roles engage each other in a very specific order referred to as the “role sequence.”

The first role to engage in the sequence is the advocate—the individual (or group) who wants a change but who lacks the power to make it happen. Sometimes sponsors are their own advocates in that they are the ones who both come up with an idea and have the power to sanction it. When this is not the case, however, someone else must serve as the advocate with enough enthusiasm (energy) for an endeavor to seek out and convince the proper person or group to be the initiating sponsor(s). Initiating sponsors, in turn, must demonstrate the energy needed to effectively cascade accountability and responsibility for the change’s success to primary sustaining sponsors further down in the organization. This level of sponsorship must then have the energy to transfer change commitment to the appropriate local sustaining sponsors, who, in turn, must have the required energy to orchestrate communications and consequences within their tactical areas. Only when change-related energy is channeled through the entire sequence will targets fully accommodate the desired behaviors demonstrated in a quality manner, sustained over the appropriate amount of time.

During the energy transfer from advocates through sponsors and, ultimately, to targets, momentum and critical mass are key to success. More about that in my next post.

Posted on: February 02, 2011 03:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The scientific theory I like best is that the rings of Saturn are composed entirely of lost airline luggage."

- Mark Russell



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