Four Risk Areas That are Holding Your Change Hostage

Jeff Cole

Managing any project involves risk, but projects requiring human behavioral change involve large amounts of risk. This month, columnist Jeff Cole focuses on four key risk areas and how to better your odds for success.

Pretend you just made a process improvement. It’s taken you five months of hard effort, but you have devised a very clever way of making the process perform much faster. The only drawback? The two hundred people using the old process will have to make a lot of changes to how they do things. This will be disruptive and not everyone will be happy about it!

Just when you thought the hard part was over, you now find that it’s your job to escort the organization from Point A (the old process or status quo) to Point B (the desired state or the new process). And did I mention that these 200 people don’t report to you? Many don’t even know who you are let alone that their much-beloved old process is about to change. Good luck, pal! You are about to enter a world where being able to understand and manage risk means the difference between success and failure.

It might interest you to know that there are several risk areas standing squarely between you and success. In their 1999 book Project Change Management, authors H. James Harrington and Daryl Conner, outline four tactical risk areas we all need to know about if we are trying to manage change. Being able to identify, understand, measure, and manage the risks in these four areas will significantly improve your odds of success for any process improvement.

Risk Area 1: Sponsor Commitment

The sponsor is the person who determines if the change will exist or not – they legitimize the change. If a sponsor is not on board or they are not willing and able to fulfill their sponsorship tasks, you have just charted a course straight into the rocky shores of Failure Bay. Bottom line: You need to assess how willing and able your sponsor is to fulfill their duties. Early on in the project you need to have a dialogue with them regarding any red flags you find in your evaluation. Try searching the web for phrases like "Sponsor Change Evaluation" to find various sponsor risk assessment instruments. Also, refer to my earlier column on Sponsorship.

Risk Area 2: Resistance

Every major change will experience some resistance. You may never eliminate it but you can manage it if you know about it. The key is to not let resistance go "covert" or "underground". Look at the various target groups impacted by the change. Determine what they stand to gain or lose, the extent to which they will be impacted, anticipate what their needs are, and in general look for "hot spots" of potential resistance. Open, honest, two-way communication channels always help identify this risk. Bottom line: Scan your target audience by role, function, or person to determine where resistance will come from, why, and how strong it will be. Take proactive measures to mitigate and mange your hot spots. Also, refer to my earlier columns on a resistance-mitigation tool called the Ladder of Inference.

Risk Area 3: Cultural Alignment

Culture eats process change for lunch! Conner defines culture as the shared beliefs, behaviors, and assumptions of an organization. Launch a process change in the same direction as the culture and it propels it forward. Launch a change counter to the culture and it will blow back in your face at 100 mph. (and it is not pretty). Bottom line: You need to assess the attributes of your current culture and determine the cultural attributes needed for the change to work. Look at the overlap between the two and take appropriate actions. Look on then internet for phrases like "Culture Assessment Tool" to find various instruments you might use. Also be sure to check out my previous column on Culture for a few tips on managing this risk area.

Risk Area 4: Change-Agent Skills

Lastly if you aren’t well versed in managing change, things may not go as well as they should. Harrington and Conner’s book lays out several key skills people who are implementing a change need to have to succeed. Bottom line: Assess yourself against one of the many lists of required change agent skills. Work on any skill gaps or add onto your team people with those skills. All the past columns at this website are available as additional resources to help boost your knowledge in this area.

Keep these four tactical risk areas in mind for your next change and you’ll greatly improve your odds for success!