Avoid the corporate black hole

Jeff Cole

Analogous to a black hole in astronomy, a black hole in change-lingo is where management communications and rhetoric go in and nothing is ever seen again, writes columnist Jeff Cole.

Success in leading organizational change means that you have achieved your objective on time, on budget, and when the dust settles there’re not a lot of dead bodies laying about. By that I mean you didn’t steam-roll over the organization, using brute force implementation to achieve your results. The goal is to get the change effort up and running and then guide it, ensuring you don’t drive the change off the edge of a cliff. Rest assured that along the way there will be plenty of leadership potholes to avoid in the road to your success.

Ineffective sponsorship is one such pothole that can kill a change effort swiftly and with vengeance. The sponsor is the person who determines if the change will exist or not and legitimizes the change in the organization. They have many duties throughout the effort and if the sponsor is either unable or unwilling to fulfill those duties it spells failure. One of those key duties is called "cascading sponsorship". Failure to do this properly leads to a break in the chain of sponsorship and creates what H. James Harrington and Daryl Conner call a corporate "black hole" in their 2000 book Project Change Management.

Black Holes 101: How to be a Poor Sponsor

Analogous to a black hole in astronomy, a black hole in change-lingo is where management communications and rhetoric go in and nothing is ever seen again. Looking to fail quickly? Here is a very fast and efficient way to create a black hole: The senior person in an organization with several levels of management initiates a change and blasts a communication out to his or her entire workforce at the same time.

You may say "What’s wrong with that? It’s their prerogative to do this!" To that we might counter by paraphrasing quality guru W. Edwards Deming who said "It’s not necessary for you to understand change management because your survival is not mandatory."

Bottom line: what may seem fast and efficient is not always effective. Changes come and go in companies constantly – some are serious and others self-destruct. People tend to do what their immediate boss asks them to do. When a line-level individual contributor sees this change communication, one of their first questions to their boss will be "Do we really have to do this?" How does their boss know? They just saw it as well. For all that supervisor knows this is just another in a long line of changes that will go away on its own if we stay out of the spotlight and ignore it. They may need to check with their boss and so on back up the managerial food chain. This creates confusion, varying stories, and a drop in productivity – the very recipe for a black hole.

Super Leadership Using the Sponsorship Cascade

As with many things in life, the proper way of announcing a change takes longer but ensures effectiveness. The solution is called cascading sponsorship and it is an iterative approach. The number of iterations varies depending on how many levels of management you have in place.

  • In the first step, the senior person who is initiating this change calls their direct reports together, explains the change and gains their support for that change. Once the initiating sponsor has their support, he/she equips their direct reports with everything they need to become initiating sponsors and communicate a consistent message in their own part of the organization and repeat this session with their direct reports. Having initiated the change, the original sponsor then focuses on sustaining the change and monitoring the cascade of sponsorship.
  • Each direct report leaves that original meeting and sets up similar sessions for their own direct reports. They have become the initiating sponsor for their piece of the business. By having a consistent message, they can be certain that this change is being cascaded the same way in all organizations. Like the original meeting, they will gain their direct report’s commitment and equip them to take the sponsorship cascade down to the next level.
  • This sequence repeats until the audience is the individual contributors.

Having initiated and monitored this cascade, the original sponsor can rest assured that no black holes were formed. People heard about the change from the person that mattered most to them – their direct boss, and the message and materials were consistent throughout. If a random worker bumps into any other manager or fellow employee from another organization, they should hear the same messages about the change. A break anywhere in the cascade chain = black hole = potential failure.

If you are willing to apply these simple principles today, it can save a lot of heartache down the road!