Herding Panthers – Aligning Executives on Your Change Management Strategy
24 Mar

Herding Panthers – Aligning Executives on Your Change Management Strategy

Cementing senior decision makers’ support for your project will save you lots of time and grief. One of the best ways of doing this is through the change management strategy. Here is a real life example of how spending time aligning senior management on this deliverable worked like a charm.

Just before we get into this story, find out what should be in a change management strategy. The link to this blog discusses why defining success criteria is so important. And the link to this second blog lists what the key elements of a good change management strategy are.

Let’s get right into the story. A recent project involved an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, in this case SAP. Supply Chain, Manufacturing, and Finance were the main departments to be impacted. So, it was important to have the full support of these departments’ VPs and directors.

The client organization was growing very rapidly. As a result they wanted to develop internal project and change management competencies to support this ongoing growth. That meant that they wanted to rely less on external consultants and involve more internal people on the project.

The project budget was structured to reflect this objective: training and on the job coaching was to be delivered by client staff who was involved on the project. That meant that the consultants’ role would be limited to training only these client resources.

With that in mind we developed our change management strategy to include a significant Train-the-Trainer and Peer Coaching component. The client, on their end, identified individuals who would be either full time core project team members or part time subject matter experts (SMEs). Everything looked ready…on paper.

Strategy, meet Reality

Next, we scheduled meetings with leaders from Supply Chain, Manufacturing and Finance. The objective was to review the change management strategy and get their buy-in.

We went to out our scheduled 45 minute meeting with the director in Finance. Right away we were asked whether the meeting could be kept to a half hour or less. There was another important meeting right afterwards. This was definitely not ideal, but since we were there already we decided to proceed.

About 15 minutes into a meeting that was going smoothly we came to the subject of user learning. We talked about the Train-the-Trainer and Peer Coaching approach. Here is where the meeting went much less smoothly. It seemed it was news to this leader in Finance that there was no budget for external training. They seemed genuinely surprised, and as we all know, surprises are rarely a good thing on projects.

They were visibly perturbed and there was lots of push back: “We don’t have resources to deliver training”, “I am used to consultants with expertise in the system delivering training”, and “My staff are not trainers, they are finance people”. These were some of the many objections we heard in that meeting.

Of course, it was not up to us to debate with them or to offer concessions. The project budget was an executive decision, and their manager, the CFO, was part of the executive team that sanctioned it. The director would have to take it up with their boss. We were just the messengers. But no one else was delivering these messages.

The Outcome

There were several visible and important changes resulting from this meeting. The first was instant. Our 30 minute meeting? Well, guess what? It lasted a full hour! Suddenly the next urgent meeting was not so urgent. The other changes came shortly after.

For starters, the Finance SMEs began actively reaching out to the project team. Prior to that our team members had been struggling to get people from Finance to participate in the project. Now they were struggling to keep up with their requests. Still a problem, but a much better one to have.

In addition, the Finance Director we met with that day started attending nearly every meeting. Plus, they were actively involved in all key decisions where we needed approval from Finance.

Finally, the project team members who represented Finance on the team breathed a huge sigh of relief. All of this work would not fall just on their shoulders – the Finance cavalry had arrived!

What Might Have Been

You could be asking yourself, “So what? Why does all this matter?” Well, let’s look at what could have happened if we didn’t insist on doing this step in this way. And, frankly, it’s what does happen to every project manager sometime in their careers. If you are an experienced PM this scenario will sound familiar to you.

Let’s assume the director was not alerted in this way. Things then continue with the Finance team members doing all the work on the project on behalf of all of Finance. Their work load, anxiety and frustration grow. Then, it’s time for the User Acceptance Tests and Training.

Suddenly the so-called SMEs realize that they do not know enough to properly do their work using the new system. Many of the new processes don’t make sense to them. And they definitely don’t know enough to teach others anything.

But…there is no one else to train everyone! Panic sets in. People start blaming each other. There is a mad rush to get training completed. People in Finance have to climb a very steep learning curve in record time all the while getting ready to complete year-end activities in the old system.

And, of course, during all this chaos, some errors occur, some customers get really upset, and even more blame get re-distributed. Staff in Finance are both overwhelmed and exhausted. They hate the new system that did this to them and resent the consultants who foisted it upon them. The consultants in turn are tired of being the cause of everyone’s ills and never want to see “these people” again. It sounds a lot like marriage, at least the bad kind.

Steps to doing it right

So, how do you go about stacking the deck in your favour so that you are more likely to enjoy a positive outcome instead of a terrible and painful one? The steps below explain what to do. Just a caveat – they fall into the category of “simple, but not easy”. They look straight forward. But they’re not. It takes a lot of discipline and courage to carry them out properly.

  1. Make sure senior managers are aligned individually. This means setting up one-on-one meetings with every key decision maker. A strong recommendation is to book one hour long meetings with these very busy people. It signals the importance of this activity.

  2. Update the change management strategy as you go. By making even modest changes after a meeting with a leader it makes the point that the change management strategy is partly theirs. They own it, to a degree. And that means they are much more likely to support and defend it in public when you need them to.

  3. Revisit any senior managers where the meeting didn’t end on a super positive note. You want to make sure you have air-tight support before reviewing this in front of executives in public. If you don’t, and there is not full alignment, there could be a major cat fight and you will feel like having been mauled to shreds by angry panthers.

  4. Finally, schedule a group meeting with all key decision makers. This serves to get final approval. And because it is also public, it prevents backsliding on commitments later. If you did the other steps well, this meeting can be as short as 15 minutes, and rarely longer than 30.

Final Words to the Wise

It’s important to remember that getting alignment means a whole lot more than getting an individual’s head to nod. It means mutual commitment to a goal in a very public way. That cements executive support on your way forward.

It is for this reason that doing a change management strategy, and doing it in this particular way, can be a life saver for a project manager.

Let us know what you think! Contact us at – letstalk@hadaspartnersinc.com

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