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Tenet # 4 - Ten Tenets of Change Management

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by Larry Pendergrass, Principal

Tenet #4: Break it down into phases.

Your plans are grand. You can see the future and it’s bright for your organization. But it’s very different from what you see today. You know it will take a lot of work and dedication, but you are confident you can get there, and you are anxious to achieve these goals. You may even have significant pressure from your sponsors to reach new heights, and to reach them fast. You are charged up and motivated, and if you have done your job right, you also have a highly motivated and cognizant guiding coalition, as discussed in Tenet #3. Your people are behind you 100%. 

So why do they seem so worried? Why are they groaning at the thought of all of the hard work?

Change is needed, of course, but day jobs still have to be done. Seldom is it the case that you can afford people dedicated fully to a project to usher in change. Rather, you usually hope for 10-50% of a given contributor’s attention to this new task. Often these new tasks mean extra work for the individual. In a world where employees are already expected to pay for a firm’s increased productivity numbers by putting in extra hours, the news that more work will be piled-on in the name of change is seldom welcome. Even if the future will be brighter, even if it means workloads will eventually drop, getting there is a huge battle for available time in most organizations.

In our exuberance to show significant progress and to achieve our ultimate goals, all too often we reach too far, too soon. The result can be a project that is crushed under its own weight. If the undertaking seems insurmountable, people become demoralized. Furthermore, it may be harder to gain the commitment for change from some of your partners if they seem to be signing up for an unending project. To better gain support and the mindshare of the organization, split your ultimate goal into smaller phases with a clear and useful outcome at the end of each one. Almost any long and difficult task becomes practical when broken down into reasonable sections.

Besides gaining buy-in, two other benefits of the phased approach are risk management and recognition. The future is not very predictable. Sudden changes in the firm’s ownership or leadership, significant industry or market issues, or major customer problems are just a few ways your resource plans may need to suddenly change. The result may be the cancellation of your project and the loss of significant but unfinished work that would have importance to the ongoing enterprise.

Breaking the change project into phases allows for a useful output to be generated faster in the face of an uncertain future, and before the change project can be threatened by cancellation. The results of the first phases can also illuminate the work to follow. The first phase can be thought of as “buying an option” to execute following phases. Finally, the phased approach allows the closure necessary to give more frequent recognition to people for their hard work.

I was part of a division that decided it needed a new firmware platform for future products. The work would start with a fresh sheet of paper and use the most modern techniques. Before long, word got around in other divisions of this work, and well-meaning managers agreed to incorporate the needs of both divisions. Soon, the project had visibility at the group level (a collection of many divisions) and a new mandate was given to account for the needs of all products in the group. The ballooning of the scope was not the real issue. The main issue was that no usable work product would be seen until the full project was complete. Thus the project did not use a phased approach. As you might guess, after too many years of project work and no output, the project was cancelled and many engineering-years of work were wasted.

Make no mistake about it: proposing, gaining and maintaining sponsorship and executing a large change project will require change management skills. Such an effort may start as a simple recognition of the economies of reuse. But as the project goes on, the goals change, and the project grows. The attempts to satisfy everyone cause the project to become either a horse designed by a committee (a camel[1]) or so gigantic that it may never be complete. I have seen many projects like this cancelled when new leadership comes in, budget cuts are necessary or because of other disruptions, with no useful gain. While waiting for the gargantuan, colossal and final output, business conditions force the project to be reluctantly put on a shelf yielding no practical results.

For greater success, break your plans for change down into phases. Remember the old joke: “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer? “One bite at a time!”

Next time I will discuss the value of consistent and constant communication in the change process.


[1] “A camel is a horse designed by committee” is an aphorism that has been attributed to Vogue magazine, July 1958, to Sir Alec Issigonis and also to University of Wisconsin philosophy professor Lester Hunt.

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