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.
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:
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.
In my last post, I described the eight stages of building commitment. Applied properly, I have found them to be helpful in generating the momentum and critical mass needed during various engagements. At each stage, there are potential barriers to success, and for each barrier, there are actions that can be taken to move people to the next stage as well as indicators that can be used to mark progress. The table below summarizes some of the tactics for the first two stages. You can download a table with tactics for building all eight stages of commitment here.
Of course, all I can provide are general guidelines. The practical reality of planning and executing against any set of generic tactics is that local circumstances take precedence and dictate what actually will work.
Even when planned activities such as these are performed flawlessly, it is impossible to anticipate all the ways in which human dynamics will unfold to challenge progress toward realization. Here are some examples:
As change practitioners, we must be on constant alert for when our best-laid plans fall prey to unexpected roadblock. When (not if) this happens, we should be prepared to assess the situation and determine the appropriate actions to recommend to sponsors in order to keep the initiative on track toward realization (see my post on the Intervention Sequence).
In the early ’80s, while involved in research to identify patterns of change-related success and failure, I learned that the winners and losers in this arena demonstrated very different levels of resolve. As a result, I developed the following model, which describes how and when people become committed to major new organizational requirements. (Click here to download a printable worksheet of the Commitment Model to help you identify a person's or group's level of commitment.)
The vertical axis represents the degree of support for the new mindsets and behaviors, and the horizontal axis reflects the passage of time. The model consists of three developmental phases—Preparation, Acceptance, and Commitment—and the stages unique to each phase. Each stage represents a juncture critical to the development of commitment to change. A positive perception of change may stall (depicted by downward arrows) or increase (represented by an advance to the next stage). In addition, as people learn more about the change and what it will require, they may return to earlier stages in the process. The successful transition through a particular stage serves as the basis for experiencing the next stage.
The Preparation Phase forms the foundation for later development of either support of or resistance to the change.
There are two stages in the Preparation Phase:
Stage I: Contact
Stage I is the first encounter individuals have with the fact that a change is taking place in the organization that will require them to shift their behavior and/or thinking. Methods for delivering the first contact message can vary. There is a wide range of options including memos, staff meetings, personal contact, and other mechanisms.
Regardless of the method, this first stage in the commitment process is intended to result in awareness that a change has taken place or may occur in the future. Since momentum and critical mass of commitment is essential to change success, careful attention should be given to how early contact (as well as later stages) will begin to promote the right energy movement toward realization.
Contact efforts, though, do not always produce awareness. It’s important to separate contact efforts from people being aware of change…it’s dangerous to assume contact and awareness are synonymous. Sponsors and change agents are often frustrated when, after many meetings and memos about an initiative, some targets either are not prepared for the change or react with total surprise when it begins to affect them.
There are two possible outcomes for the Contact Stage:
Stage II: Awareness of Change
Awareness is established successfully when individuals realize that modifications affecting them have occurred or are pending. It requires that initial communications about the change reach the desired audiences and convey the message clearly.
This awareness, however, does not mean people have a complete understanding of how the change will affect them. They may not have an accurate picture of the scope, nature, depth, implications, or even the basic intent of the change. For instance, targets may perceive that a change is coming without knowing the specific ways they will need to alter their mindset and behaviors. Before targets can progress toward acceptance, awareness must be developed into a general understanding of the change’s implications.
There are two possible outcomes for the Awareness Stage:
The Acceptance Phase marks passage over the Disposition Threshold. This is an important momentum and critical mass milestone; people shift from seeing the change as something “out there,” to seeing it as having personal relevance. This perspective enables them to make decisions about accepting or not accepting their part in the change.
People often engage in individual activities designed to move themselves across this threshold in order to proceed from awareness to understanding. They ask questions, pose challenges, seek additional information, and make inferences in an effort to clarify their picture of the change. Sometimes leaders wrongly interpret this behavior as resistance to the change initiative. Although it is possible for people to use endless questions and challenges as part of their resistance strategy, true resistance to the specific change at hand (rather than to the notion of change in general) can be manifested only when people understand it well enough to be able to formulate an informed opinion.
There are two stages of the Acceptance Phase:
Stage III: Understand the Change
In Stage III, people show some degree of comprehension of the nature and intent of the change and what it may mean for them. As they learn more about the initiative and the role(s) they are likely to play, people begin to see how it will affect their work and how it will touch them personally. These insights enable them, for the first time, to judge the change.
Each person’s judgment is influenced by his or her own cognitive and emotional filter systems—the unique set of lenses that he or she uses to view the world. In addition, change of any significance usually has multiple aspects to it, and may produce both positive and negative reactions at the same time. For example, a target may have a negative view of a new company policy regarding relocation every four years but sees positive benefit in the level of job security he or she would experience. People combine these positive and negative reactions to form an overall judgment of the change.
There are two possible outcomes for the Understanding Stage:
Stage IV: Positive Perception
In Stage IV, people decide whether to support or oppose the change. The forming of an opinion about change is not done in isolation—people typically weigh the costs and benefits of the change against the costs and benefits of other alternatives, including doing nothing. Ideally, the benefits of a change to an individual so clearly outweigh the benefits of any alternative course of action that it requires little thought to decide to move forward. However, this is not typically the case. In many organizational change situations, the benefits of moving forward are only marginally more positive than the benefits of the best alternative course of action. In some changes, the path forward has such significant costs associated with it that the individual reaches an overall positive perception only because all of the alternatives are worse.
For instance, a leader may face a decision to lay off a large number of people from the organization. He is likely to see this as a tremendously difficult and costly move. However, if he perceives that the alternative is the sale of the organization to a competitor who would be even more ruthless in the downsizing efforts, he may ultimately reach a positive perception about moving forward.
Positive Perception is an important stage in the process of building commitment, but at this point the change is still rather theoretical. To reach true commitment, people must begin to try out the new way of operating—they must alter their mindset and behavior.
There are two possible outcomes of the Positive Perception Stage:
The Commitment Phase marks passage over the Action Threshold. In this phase, the perceptions that have been created in the Acceptance Phase result in actual commitment. This is a critical step in the building of momentum and critical mass.
There are many situations in which people will say that they view a change as positive. However, they will not actually take the first steps to alter their behavior or mindset. There can be several reasons for this, including:
Commitment occurs when people see a change as more positive than negative and take action accordingly. There are four stages in the Commitment Phase:
Stage V: Experimentation
In Stage V, individuals take action to test a change. This is the first time people actually try out the change and acquire a sense of how it might affect their work routine. This stage is an important signpost that commitment building has begun, although greater support is possible.
The critical importance of this stage is that no matter how positively people view a change prior to engaging with it, their actual experience with it will reveal a number of small or large surprises. Some of these may be positive, but others may involve unanticipated problems that have significant negative consequences. If problems become too costly, pessimism regarding the change will increase and may reach the “checking-out” level. This occurs when early, uninformed optimism for a project transforms into informed pessimism, and the individual’s original positive judgment shifts to negative.
Because of the inevitability of surprises, some degree of pessimism is unavoidable during change. Nevertheless, the confidence of those involved in a change increases as a result of resolving such problems. An environment that encourages the open discussion of concerns tends to solve problems, promote ownership, and build commitment to action. As these problems are resolved, a more realistic level of conviction toward the change builds. This conviction advances commitment to the Adoption level.
There are two possible outcomes for the Experimentation Stage:
Stage VI: Adoption
Stage IV, Adoption, is reached after individuals have successfully navigated the initial trial period. The dynamics here are similar to that of the Experimentation Stage. Both stages serve as tests in which the individual and the organization assess the cost and benefits of the change. Longer-term trials can reveal logistic, political, and economic problems with the new way of operating that can lead sponsors, agents, and/or targets to question the long-term viability of the new approach and potentially make a decision to terminate the change.
The differences between the Experimentation and Adoption stages are important, even though their dynamics are similar. Experimentation focuses on initial, entry problems, and adoption centers on in-depth, longer-term problems. The former is a preliminary test of the change. The latter tests the ongoing implications of the change. Experimentation asks, “Will this change work?” Adoption asks, “Does this change fit with who I am as a person/who we are as an organization?”
Although the level of time and resources necessary to reach Adoption is great, a change project in this stage is still being evaluated and can possibly be stopped. If the change is successful after this lengthy test period, it is in a position to become the standard new way of operating.
There are two possible outcomes for the Adoption Stage:
Stage VII: Institutionalization
Stage VII reflects the point at which people no longer view the change as tentative. They consider it standard operating procedure.
As part of the institutionalization process, the organizational structure may be altered to accommodate new ways of operating, and rewards and punishments implemented to maintain new mindsets and behaviors. What was once a change requiring substantial sponsor legitimization has become part of the organizational routine that is monitored by managers.
The move from Adoption to Institutionalization is a significant one, and a double-edged sword. The threshold that is crossed here is that of “reversibility.” Once a change is institutionalized, it becomes the new status quo. Ending an institutionalized pattern that is ingrained into the fiber of an organization is extremely difficult.
This stage reflects the highest level of commitment that can be achieved by an organization—the level above it, internalization, can only be achieved by individuals who make a personal choice to go there.
Although institutionalization is sometimes all that is required to achieve the organization’s goals, it has some potential problems. If a change has been institutionalized but not internalized, those affected may be motivated to adhere to new procedures primarily to comply with organizational directives. Their compliance is achieved by using organizational rewards and punishments to motivate them to conform despite their own private beliefs about the change. If their perception of the change is generally negative, but they have chosen to go forward because the costs of not doing so are prohibitively high, they will likely only mimic acceptable behavior. They learn to say and do the “right” things, but their actions will not reflect their true perspective. Because their mindset (priorities and frames of reference) does not align with their behavior, a great deal of managerial pressure will be required to ensure the ongoing presence of the desired behavior.
The success of change does not always depend on the target’s personal investment. Some projects require only that targets “do as they are told.” However, as the pace and complexity of change escalates, producing more turbulence in the workplace, many organizations have modified their views about workers needing to understand or support organizational changes.
Forcing change implementation often results in a halfhearted effort without a full return on investment. Institutionalized change, as powerful as it is, only delivers the target’s behavior, not his or her mind and heart. This doesn’t mean that institutionalization isn’t the way to go sometimes because there are situations where leaders have to engage unpopular change. The point is to be aware of the benefits and limitations of institutionalized change.
Stage VIII: Internalization
Stage VIII represents the highest level of commitment an individual can demonstrate toward an organizational change. It reflects an internal motivation in which individual beliefs and desires are aligned with those of the organization, and there is a high level of consistency between an individual’s mindset and behavior.
While an organization can legislate the institutionalization of a change, internalization requires the active cooperation of each individual. At this last stage, people “own” the change; they demonstrate a high level of personal responsibility for its success. They serve as advocates for the new way of operating, protect it from those who would undermine it, and expend energy to ensure its success. These actions are often well beyond what could be created by any organizational mandate.
Enthusiasm, high-energy investment, and persistence characterize internalized commitment, and it tends to become infectious. Targets who have internalized a change often cannot be distinguished from sponsors and advocates in their devotion to the task and their ability to engage others in the change effort.
The time needed to move through the Experimentation, Adoption, Institutionalization, and Internalization phases will vary according to the individual, the organization, and the nature of the change project. The lines can be relatively clear or somewhat blurry depending on the situation. If a change is mandated, it can become institutionalized very quickly (but, as mentioned earlier, at a high cost of monitoring compliance). In other cases, institutionalization unfolds more gradually.
As people gain experience with the new way of operating, find ways to refine and improve it, and adjust to its long-range impact and requirements, the change gradually becomes a natural part of the organization’s culture or expected pattern of behavior. Internalization can begin very early in a change if the new way of operating is strongly aligned with individual beliefs and assumptions; it can also emerge along the way as individuals begin to see the advantages of the new approach. In some cases, it can fail to surface at all.
Understanding the steps and sequence for building commitment is a powerful advantage for change practitioners when building momentum and critical mass for major organizational change.
Next: Tactics for building commitment (free download)
 A positive perception does not necessarily mean that people like the change, but rather that they see it as the best available course of action. I’ll describe this more in the next section.
“There's a difference between interest and commitment. When you're interested in doing something, you do it only when circumstances permit. When you're committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results.” ~Author Unknown
There are so many aspects to being a professional change practitioner that it’s easy to lose sight of the fundamentals that comprise our role. It’s OK to add all the bells and whistles we want, but at the same time, we must deliver on the basics. One way to think about the bottom line of our function is that, as change facilitators, we exist to foster commitment-building among those who are crucial to the success of key initiatives—sponsors, agents, and targets.
In the last series of postings, we explored how momentum and critical mass of energy directed toward realization helps to create the sought-after commitment all change projects need. In this series, we’ll dive deeper into the dynamics under commitment and look at what’s involved in furthering its development.
The Practitioner’s Role
The true test of success for major change initiatives is full realization of the business outcomes intended by the organization’s leaders. Realization, in turn, requires that new solutions (systems, processes, technology, etc.) be put in place, supported by new mindsets and behaviors. These new mindsets and behaviors enable the targets—the people who will apply the solutions to achieve results, and who need to function effectively in the changed environment—to do their part in achieving realization.
To support the shifts that the targets must make, two other groups—sponsors and agents—must also perform effectively. The demands on sponsors and agents represent major alterations in thinking and behavior:
As change facilitators, our fundamental goal is to help orchestrate these critical shifts in mindsets and behaviors among sponsors, agents, and targets, building their individual and collective commitment toward the new way of operating so that each group can contribute to achieving full realization. The problem is that many practitioners lack a sufficient grasp of what commitment is and/or how it can be encouraged.
Across the life span of a change initiative, a series of predictable modifications needs to take place among various groups of sponsors, agents, and targets. Understanding the sequence and timing of these alterations can help orchestrate movement toward the desired outcomes. Yet, unless we understand and appreciate commitment dynamics, we won’t be able to exercise the influence our role calls for.
As is true for all the issues discussed in this blog, there isn’t a singular view on commitment building that takes precedence over others. In fact, it is only through sharing the array of approaches used by our practitioner community that we have any hope of advancing our comprehension of this all-important component of our craft. In this series of postings, I’ll relate some of my observations and lessons learned about building commitment. I encourage you to share your experience as well so we all benefit.
Based on my experience, people essentially display commitment in five ways:
Given this, it’s easy to see why commitment is so important to the success of organizational change. It’s the cement that provides the critical bond between people and the change process.
That said, commitment shouldn’t be confused with “eagerness” for the intended outcomes of a project. Commitment to major change in the organization may or may not include intellectual agreement with or emotional support for the actions being taken and/or the intended outcome of the effort. A sponsor may have the necessary awareness to recognize that some significant downsizing needs to occur. He or she may be fully committed to seeing that it is carried out flawlessly, while at the same time hating the fact that such actions are necessary.
As vital as commitment-building is to our craft, far too many change facilitators appear not to understand its underlying dynamics, what it requires, how it is built, and how it can be lost. In my next post, I’ll outline a model for building and sustaining commitment that has been helpful in my practice.