Project Management

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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.

About this Blog


Recent Posts

Enterprise change vs Project change

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

What is leadership’s responsibility for driving and sustaining a nimble organization? Interview with Daryl Conner, Chairman, Conner Partners. Post 2 of 3

The strategic imperative of the "nimble organization" and the mirage. Interview with Daryl Conner

What is the Board’s Role in Strategy and Strategy Execution? Post 3 of 3

The strategic imperative of the "nimble organization" and the mirage. Interview with Daryl Conner

“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” ? Ralph Waldo Emerson

Daryl photo


In this post, I interview Daryl about what “nimble” means, why it is a strategic imperative, and why it seems to be so difficult for organizations to get traction with it.

For full disclosure, I work with Conner Partners, so I do have a bias. However, Daryl’s work of 40+ years speaks for itself—and you can make up your own mind. Please do share your comments below.


There are many definitions of “agile” and “nimble” in the business world. I know that you have a very precise meaning in mind. Would you share it?

Sure. The definition I use is “the organization’s sustained ability to quickly and effectively respond to the demands of change while delivering high performance.”

Some would say, “As long as you win the race you are first,” but I view nimbleness as a sustained, competitive, strategic advantage. It’s not enough just to ask, “Did we accomplish more change than our competitors this year?” Becoming truly nimble requires looking at the amount of energy that goes into accomplishing those changes and saying, “Was it optimized?”

In his own blog series, Nimble Organization, Daryl explores this further. In post 4 of that series, “Characteristics of Nimble Execution”, Daryl outlines the characteristics of organizations that are nimble at strategy execution:

Characteristics of Nimble Organization Daryl Conner

As he notes, two components work together—environment and application:

  • “Creation of the environment where nimbleness can flourish (reflected in the organization’s leadership, culture, and approach to change roles)
  • Creation of the application structures and processes that drive successful execution (reflected in the organization’s portfolio of initiatives and implementation architecture)”

How important is nimble for leaders today?

I published “Leading at the Edge of Chaos: How to Create the Nimble Organization” in 1998 and I thought then that I was late to the nimble game. But that was wrong. My first book, “Managing at the Speed of Change” (published in 1992), was about understanding how to implement the changes you have in front of you; “Leading at the Edge of Chaos” was about how to prepare for changes you can’t even envision.

The responses to the books, and many of the subsequent conversations I’ve had since their publication have been pretty consistent. There is an overwhelmingly positive affirmation of the idea of nimbleness. Leaders often say to me, “That’s exactly right. That’s what we have to do.”

I then make the point with them that, if you want your organization to be nimble, you have to treat executing change as a strategic capability. For example, it needs to be something you and your board talk about and take action on. This is when their interest in the idea of nimbleness starts to taper off. When it comes down to actually creating nimble DNA, I’ve found that very few leaders will invest the energy and mindshare that is required. They are so focused on the current change-related challenges that they can’t pick their heads up long enough to attend to a longer view.

Even though I‘ve had many such conversations with a wide range of executives, at this point in the discussion, I hear similar views: “Look, we are so overwhelmed with our existing portfolio of changes that you are going to have your hands full just teaching us how to deal with that. Isn’t it possible, Daryl, that if we manage this portfolio better with your help, we’ll automatically be more nimble? Can’t we leave it at that?”

My response is always, “Yes, you probably will be more nimble to an extent, but don’t confuse that with deeply embedding nimble DNA—at the level of personal mindsets and organizational structure—enough for people to be able to handle ongoing transformation as the norm. Will you be better prepared for new transitions after executing the changes you have before you? Of course you will, but that’s different than putting a stake in the ground and declaring that “It is imperative to become more intentional about being nimble…On my watch, this is going to happen.”

I have unsuccessfully made the case for years that being nimble is a crucial strategic advantage, not a luxury. Not that leaders aren’t responsive to the general notion, but actually following through with all the hard work involved in getting there is often not as well received. Getting a leader’s attention, interest, and enthusiasm isn’t that hard, but not many follow through with what it takes to actually build an enduring legacy of nimble operations. They almost always get diverted by the next crisis.

So, why don’t more organizations focus on becoming nimble?

There are many reasons, but one is that they fear they will have to stop what they are doing and pick up a separate task called nimble development.

That’s not really how it works, however. Shaping a nimble culture requires that leaders still do everything normally required of them, but they do it with the clear intention of fostering a nimble enterprise. For example, if an organization is seeking new talent anyway, why not hire people who have a predisposition for operating in a nimble fashion? Leaders know (or can learn) what those capabilities are and can incorporate a filter for nimble predisposition into their hiring criteria. Instead, I typically meet with leaders one week when they declare they are ready to move ahead with fostering a nimble culture (“We’re doing this!”), but by the next week, they meet with the board and there is a new customer service crisis or some other issue and all of their attention goes to that.

I’ve been fortunate over the years to work with several senior executives who were serious about architecting a nimble culture, so I’m not saying it never happens—I’m saying it is rare.

Does that mean organizations are not good at juggling multiple strategic priorities?

I think it’s more the reverse of that. They think they are so good at pursuing a huge number of priorities that they believe they can just add nimbleness to the ever-growing list of initiatives their organization must then endure.

More to come

Daryl shared more insights in the interview than can be covered in a single post, including thoughts on how leaders can manage their multiple strategic imperatives andstay focused on building organizational bandwidth and capability for “quickly and effectively responding to the demands of change while delivering high performance,” (i.e., a nimble culture).

Want to get started? Do contact Conner Partners directly or give me an email at [email protected] and we’ll find time to chat.

Thoughts? Reactions? Please share in the Comments section.

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Posted on: February 07, 2014 04:13 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Top 10 Competencies for Change Leaders

What competencies do leaders and agents need to excel at in order to be successful? Are you building a Community of Practice or Centre of Excellence? What’s on your list?

Below is my top-ten list for change leaders. In two weeks, the post will list my top-ten competencies for change agents—and a bonus list for change targets.


  • The lists are only loosely prioritized because, given that every application (organization/initiative) is different, competencies may be more or less relevant in that context.
  • Some of these items might not fit the full technical definition of a “competency”. Some are mindsets. All can be developed.
  • Behind each of these items is a mountain of research and more resources. Reference material is provided at the end and subsequent posts will provide some training sources.

Change Leaders

  1. Determination and discipline— The leader …“Has a profound resolve toward the specific shifts the organization has identified as essential for its future success, and not just a generic interest in change.” (Assessing Leaders for Change Roles, Change Thinking Blog, Daryl Conner). And, has the personal discipline to adhere to the path and take difficult and challenging actions.
  2. Self-Knowledge and mindfulness—The ability to be calm in the midst of high-stress, dynamic change comes from being centered as a person. Knowing and accepting oneself, even while continuously striving to be better, is part of it. The ability to concentrate and be attentive to other people and concepts, to think deeply and calmly, is another part. These are intricately connected.
  3. Realistic optimism—“Type-O people view life as a set of constantly shifting, interacting parts that can produce a rising number of combinations. Each day, Type-O people assume that a new set of opportunities will emerge that will produce even more demanding challenges.” (Human Resilience During Change, Conner Partners White Paper).
  4. Strategic thinking—Create a vision and the path to navigate to it. While this might sound like classic white-collar, MBA-stuff, I mean it in the grisly, School of Hard Knocks sense—complete with battle scars.
  5. Stewardship—There are as many ways to lead an organization, and change, as there are leaders. I admit to a strong bias, that I hazard a guess that many share, to follow leaders who see their role as “the willingness to be accountable for the well-being of the larger organization by operating in service, rather than in control of those around us.” (1).
  6. Integrative thinking—Once we accept that transformational change presents enormous ambiguity it becomes obvious that the ability “to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive tension”. “The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking” (2) is an essential competency.
  7. Culture awareness—An understanding of organizational culture generally, this organization’s current and desired cultures specifically, as well as plans for making the shift.
  8. Influences others—Once a leader is personally committed to the change, the next challenge is to garner the same deep level of commitment from others. This begins with the leader’s ability to influence others. In “Change The Way You Lead Change”, (3) authors Herold and Fedor have a fantastic section on “Drawing On Our Buckets of Influence”.
  9. Good judgment—The ability to make great decisions is actually rare, and extraordinarily valuable. “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” (Bob Packwood).
  10. Make meaning—Making the change relevant to every resource who has to make the transition is key. It is an unusual capability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to understand how the change affects them and then to help them understand it and navigate their way through it. Making sense of the change for individuals is the first step and a continuous process.

School of Hard Knocks and Sherpas

There is no greater teacher than experience. Whether you are a leader or an agent, every experience will teach you more than any training, and arm you more than any tool or methodology. Find ways to work with more experienced practitioners and, if possible, find a mentor. Mentors can be like sherpas—they have travelled the journey many times before and can act as interpreters and guides.

Reference Material

  1. “Assessing Leaders for Change Roles” (, Change Thinking Blog, Daryl Conner
  2. “Becoming a ‘Mindful’ Practitioner”(, Change Thinking Blog, Daryl Conner


1. "Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest", Peter Block, Berret-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 1996

2. “The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking”, Roger Martin, 2009.

3. “Change The Way You Lead Change”, David Herold and Donald Fedor, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California 2008.

Posted on: August 29, 2012 09:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

What’s missing from Strategy Execution? (Strategy Execution Methodologies series, Post 5)

It’s a seductive reality: strategic change may be the most exciting endeavour of an executive’s career.It compares with climbing Mount Everest?not everybody makes it on the first attempt, some don’t survive, but those who succeed are considered heroes.

The difference is that for most organizations committed to a strategic change, it is a business imperative. There is no backing down - re-tries have additional risks.   

We are not talking here about linear, progressive change, but rather 90- degree turns or even 180s?we are talking about the kinds of strategy that makes or breaks the organization’s future. This is the kind of change that is rocket fuel to start-ups like Facebook and LinkedIn; the elusive Fountain of Youth for dinosaurs like Kodak, Nokia, Canadian Pacific and JC Penney; and Buckley's Cough Syrup for every organization in between.  

Because strategic change is so complex and dynamic it takes years to develop successful, comprehensive approaches. Early attempts, such as Project Management, were linear. Change Management added another dimension. Anecdotal information suggests that these have improved effectiveness and yet still there are gaps.

The legendary “70% failure rate” and the real rate

Since 1993, when Hammer and Champy famously quoted the following 70% failure rate, it has been burned into our collective conscious: “Sadly, we must report that despite the success stories described in previous chapters, many companies that begin reengineering don’t succeed at it…Our unscientific estimate is that as many as 50 percent to 70 percent of the organizations that undertake a reengineering effort do not achieve the dramatic results they intended.” [1] 

This has been reiterated in subsequent studies (for example “Success Rates for Different Types of Organizational Change” [2] and repeated ad nauseum by every consultant selling a solution (a challenge from our chairman here

Notwithstanding all the sales pressure, it has resonated with leaders and managers alike precisely because it reflects our common frustrations. 

The real rate is unknown. However, the only real rate that matters is the organization’s rate of success/failure. This can be examined and improved.

Breaking it down—and building it back up

As with most complex problems, it has taken time to break down change management into discrete and treatable elements. Project Management has been elevated to address delivering on-time, on-budget and on-scope at the Program and Portfolio levels as well. Change Management emerged to increase commitment and adoption. 

Yet, even after closing these gaps, there were still shortfalls. Even in projects where strong project management and change management are effective there are still places where teams have to “muscle through”. 

End-to-end, top-to-bottom

“We moved past change management 10 years ago,” our chairman, Daryl Conner, said. We were talking about Strategy Execution with a client and there was an obvious moment of reflection in the group. “Yeah,” I thought. 

Conner Partners (formerly ODR) is most well-known for advancing theory and practice of change management. And yes, while our methodology includes change management, this is only one part of our Strategy Execution approach. 

Daryl went on to explain, “As we studied the patterns of winners and losers in transformational change, it became clear that there were gaps beyond change management. Our current approach addresses these.”  

Differentiating between symptoms and root causes is not easy. 

An example:It is widely accepted that the most significant critical success factor in executing change is the performance of leadership, specifically the sponsors’. Even after breaking down more specific role definitions and competencies and getting leaders to fully lean into these important activities we still found gaps – between sponsors. 

It became clear that we had assumed full commitment from all sponsors and that they would cooperate together. However, systemically, organizations are not set up this way. Most hierarchical organization charts require tasks to be parsed apart and delegated discretely. Getting tight alignment at the leadership level for cross-functional, transformational change requires specific activities and explicit contracting. Building a successful consulting offer to tackle this obstreperous challenge has not happened overnight—we do this today through a comprehensive offer we call “Managing Intent”.

The fact is that on the market today, there is no public end-to-end, top-to-bottom approach. Some come close, but ultimately those organizations (or even teams) who are determined to compete will develop their own.

What else?

What are the frontiers of strategy execution and change management?

  • Formal integration of Project Management and Change Management: Rumour has it that The Project Management Institute (PMI) is releasing the next (fifth) edition of the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) and will introduce a new practice area. Word is that it will be change management. This is likely to be a very tactical approach addressing low-level communications and training requirements. Users will have to be vigilant to ensure that they include adequate treatment for the nature of change.
  • Change Management and Change Leadership: The debate as to whether these are the same or different, separate or connected continues—mostly fueled by those with self-interest in the answer they are promoting.
  • Comprehensive: Imagine if the organization had a repeatable and reliable process to take strategy from cradle to rising star. Today, in most organizations, this process is patchy and clumsy, and, at times, dysfunctional and counterproductive.
  • Project Change Management and manager/leader competencies: I don’t hear many conversations about this and yet I see opportunity here. “Change Management” shows up as a competency on most position descriptions today, but ask an HR manager to tell you more about what that looks like and the well runs dry quickly. They would benefit from integration.
  • Organizational agility (the nimble organization): Now here is a competitive advantage. This is the richest opportunity for organizations in a position (or a corner) to invest in expediting results.

In 2010 I wrote the first version of a white paper to try to create a framework to describe the various interconnected elements as applied to innovation capability, “Call to Action: Power innovation bandwidth with the 9 pistons of the Change Management engine” ( This was an unconventional and fledgling approach (business, not organizational design perspective) and it still needs work.  

However, the underlying business challenge remains unsolved (i.e., how to think efficiently about and comprehensively improve an organization’s needs for change capability).


[1] “Reengineering the corporation: a manifesto for business revolution”, Michael Hammer and James A Champy, Harpercollins, 1993.

[2] “Success Rates for Different Types of Organizational Change”, Martin E. Smith, PhD, Performance Improvement, Volume 41, Number 1, January 2002.   

Posted on: August 26, 2012 09:39 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Change leadership” is not THE silver bullet. The Silver Bullet series.

Seems like many organizations are looking for the secret to effective strategic execution?the one thing that will fix the so-called 70% failure rate. The problem is (and we all know it deep down), there are no simple solutions for complex problems. In this series, I will look at the conventional “silver bullets” and explore why none work alone and each is only moderately effective in its common form.

“Change leadership” is a favorite clarion call among change practitioners. And, don’t get me wrong, I too believe that “it” (once we can agree on what “it” is) is important. However, I believe that by promoting change leadership as a panacea we are setting ourselves up for failure. I realize that this is a bit of a controversial position to take?  I may be asking you to think differently about what you know. I will look at three points:

1. “Change leadership” is not “leadership”
2. Why is sponsorship regularly rated as the most important element for successful change if it’s not a silver bullet?
3. The punch line

Note: the context for this discussion is “strategic” change or “transformational” change. Our firm’s definition: “Transformational change is highly disruptive to the way people do their work. It generally affects a large portion of an organization, shifts the power dynamic, and requires changes in mindset and behaviors to be realized.” (1) This is very different than the more common incremental change.

1. “Change leadership” sounds like “leadership”

Yes, strategy is set by the leaders of the organization and, yes, they are accountable for its successful execution. And in that broad sense they inherit accountability for change leadership.

Most strategy requires leadership, not change leadership

The term “change leadership”, in most publicly available literature, tends to leverage great leadership practices and high-level processes - as if leading change is about leadership on steroids. And, despite the fact that many add “change management” to position descriptions as if it were only a competency, this does not automatically mean that leading this level of change is an extension of what the incumbent regularly does.

In mature industries, the largest organizations are like supertankers - many executives onboard during “business as usual” and are involved with incremental change only (e.g., implementing a product extension, a new technology within a single department, negotiating a big sale or outsourcing contract). They may be great “leaders” (great at motivating their teams, optimizing resources, running their part of the world, etc.), but many have never been a part of a complex, high-risk, company-wide strategic change.

Furthermore, the emphasis suggests that success is all about the leader. For me, the emphasis is backwards - great leaders recognize that the real power lies in their people. Here’s an interesting ratio: if leaders need a year to analyse strategic options, why do they assume that their people need only a couple of town halls, webcasts, or emails?

Transformational change, requiring real change leadership, is rare

Transformational change happens maybe once or twice in a senior executive’s career. Many great leaders have never implemented, or even been a part of, transformational change. Please re-read this statement?I am not kidding.

Transformational change is disruptive?it requires leaders to change how they think about the market, changing customer needs and demographics, competitive disruptions, the organization’s competitive strengths, product offering and development strategies, and distribution channels. Sometimes they have to consider these concurrently. Then they must help others change their own mindsets and move out of their comfort zones to work differently.

Sounds easy? It’s deceptively difficult?just ask a battle-worn turn-around specialist. Consider the increasing complexity of strategies that:

• Turn order-takers into passionate sales professionals or de-sensitized call center operators into empowered problem solvers

• Drive Lean Six Sigma capability and benefits

• Move hundreds of middle managers and clerks from an entrenched spaghetti mess of 20-yr-old systems over to ERP

• Bring competitors together in a merger or acquisition

• Transition from an “operational excellence” mindset to a “fail fast” innovation culture

It is true that the number of transformational strategies is increasing in response to seismic market shifts; however, they are still relatively rare. Examples of trends and companies affected would be:

• Wholesale business model shifts in response to US Health Care Reform
• Accelerated product cycles in technology and communications, (e.g ., FACEBOOK, RIM, Nokia and Kodak)
• Aggressive consolidations (e.g., in consumer products?Kraft’s acquisition of Cadbury)

Change leadership has to go beyond great leadership

The competencies and processes for leading transformational change are far from business as usual. Some will argue that the competencies are the same, just advanced. I am not convinced. Rather, I believe they are so advanced as to be different. Furthermore, there is advantage in separating change leadership out as a role (sponsorship) where the competencies and responsibilities can be clearly defined, discussed and contracted for.

So what’s so different about “sponsorship”?

Many methodologies support a similar definition of Sponsorship as noted here. I will not go so far as to call it an industry standard although it might be emerging as such. Sponsorship recognizes the unique requirements of the leader(s) of the change. The following just scratches the surface as examples:

• Sponsorship cannot be delegated?it is organic. A sponsor is accountable for transitioning the targets (the people whose job is changing, without whom the results cannot be generated of through the change efficiently and effectively. Role maps are often used to track who the change targets are, who their managers are, and on up to the single manager who has oversight over all of the change targets. We define this person the Initiating Sponsor. Without going into too much detail, there are also roles for Primary Sustaining Sponsors and Local Sustaining Sponsors. This map lets us see who has actual leverage in the organization?who controls consequences over the change targets.

• Sponsors are targets first. Until a sponsor is committed to the change, he/she cannot authentically engage others. By defining sponsorship as a role, separate from leadership, we can treat it differently.

• Our research indicates that there are specific mindsets of successful sponsors. Here are three examples (paraphrased) (2):

- Start with yourself?Incumbent sponsors can’t transform their organizations unless they are willing to be transformed themselves.
- Discomfort?The job of sponsors isn’t to keep people happy during change, it’s to help them succeed despite their discomfort.
- Change is messy?It requires a high tolerance for ambiguity, managing paradox instead of contradictions, making tough decisions with insufficient data, and learning from failure.

There are deep bodies of work on this subject. This is just a sampling of the richness of thinking that can happen when “sponsorship” is recognized as a unique role.

And, still, sponsorship alone is not enough.

2. So why does research identify sponsorship (or leadership, if you must), as the #1 requirement?

The question usually goes along the lines of, “What is the most important element of implementing change?” Respondents say, almost in unison, “sponsorship”. The problem I have here is that both the question and the answer are naively interpreted:

1. The question leans in the direction of implying that if you do this one thing right everything else will flow. We all want to believe this and fall into this trap.
2. We have all been conditioned to believe that the most important thing is sponsorship. It is conventional wisdom?everybody says it.

Why is it so easy to fall into this assumption? Well, it’s because both the question and the answer are partly right. However, the real power is in the white space, in what is omitted:

• There is an optimal sequence but no single element is more important than the others. Sponsorship is one of several critical elements.

• The elements are symbiotic (3).

It is true that contracting early for full sponsorship is one of the patterns of successful transformation, but there are implicit assumptions in this statement that need to be understood to be leveraged:

• The usual assumption is this: If we get sponsorship right then he/she can make all the other elements happen, can “roll out the red carpet”, as it were. If this were true then transformational change should be easy. In reality, sponsors (even the “leader”) face constraints in their organizations and in their markets. Experienced sponsors and agents anticipate, analyse and navigate these compromises deliberately.

• “Full sponsorship” alludes to the full array of the role. Sponsors really need to understand what is required of them before they can fully commit to that role.

• There are gems in the phrase “contracting”. The optimal relationship between sponsor and change agent is a true partnership, with the change agent supporting the sponsor from the shadows. Such a relationship is based on mutual trust and respect, where the sponsor relies on the agent to be an expert in strategy execution, to inform and then to support.

So, yes, you can see that I agree sponsorship is important and it must happen early. However, there are many other foundational elements. Our research has identified 15 risk factors?Sponsorship is #6. Others include: deep understanding and alignment around the real intent and impact of this particular strategic change, understanding and willingness to address the culture of the organization, and integrated management of the delivery of the whole portfolio of change.

3. The punch line

Executing strategy is highly complex and requires integrated thinking. The temptation to rely on the “top of the house” or to simplify as “most important” is a misguided, sometimes self-serving, deception.

It is not that the leader’s role is so important or difficult (although it is both). It is that this role comes first and is foundational. It is a part of a larger approach, like the chassis of a car or the hull of a boat. If all you had was great sponsorship, would your strategy be executed quickly, deeply, and sustainably? Of course not. Like most choices in life, it is not “either/or”.


(1) Daryl Conner, Change Thinking Glossary (

(2) “Realization Mindsets for Sponsors: Separating Success from Failure during Transformational Change”, Conner Partners White Paper, 2010-2012.

(3) Symbiotic here refers to “the association of two different organisms living attached to each other or one within the other”, The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1983, 1982

Posted on: February 16, 2012 03:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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