Editor’s note: This article was originally published January 17, 2002.

Up until the 1990s, when an IT project failed, you could always blame the technology, according to Daryl Conner, chairman and cofounder of Conner Partners. Today, your client’s ability to accept and best utilize the IT projects you bring to the table is the best indicator of success.

For a project to be beneficial, employees must embrace the new systems and actually use them. Realization, then, is the new measure of project success, as even projects that are successfully installed may still fail to produce their intended benefits unless attention is paid to your client’s workplace.

In this article, we’ll give you some tools to assess your client’s ability to cope with the change brought about by a major IT project. The assessment should include three “Rs”: roles, resistance, and resilience.

Roles: Why sponsorship is critical

Sometimes the web of informal relationships in a company is more significant than the official organization chart in determining how a change is adopted. In his book Managing at the Speed of Change: How Resilient Managers Succeed and Prosper Where Others Fail, Conner identifies the following roles that people play during a change project:

  • Targets are those who are being asked to change. People at every level are affected by change — even top management, who may not realize that they, too, will have to change their behavior due to a project they initiated.
  • Sponsors have the power to influence people to change, both by communicating the reasons for the project and by setting consequences for adopting or failing to adopt it. But beware: The sponsor may be someone other than the boss. A union representative or respected coworker may have more influence over people’s actual behavior than management rhetoric.
  • Change agents are charged with actually implementing the change on behalf of the sponsors. This is the most common role for a consultant.
  • Advocates want to see a change occur, but they lack the ability to sponsor it.

These roles may change as the project progresses. A manager who is the target of a change initiated by the CEO may become the sponsor of that change to those who report to him or her. When a consultant initially proposes a change, he or she takes on the advocate role. If the proposal is accepted and the consultant is asked to implement it, the consultant becomes the change agent.

In an interview with TechRepublic, Conner suggested identifying who is playing which roles in the project. Speaking about the advocate role, he advised consultants to beware of advocates with checkbooks. He cautions that although advocates may want a change badly enough to start a project, without real influence over the behavior of those who have to do the changing, their projects will fizzle. “It’s not hard to start a change; it’s just hard to sustain it,” Conner said.

Resistance: It’s inevitable, so make it open

All changes disrupt people’s expectations. Even desirable changes, such as getting a promotion or getting married, bring with them unintended consequences. Conner argues that workplace changes are no different than major changes in one’s personal life: We expect to live in equilibrium, so when change disrupts that equilibrium, we resist the change to minimize the disruption.

With this in mind, you can assume that resistance to implementing a project is inevitable. The key question is whether that resistance will be overt or hidden. Overt resistance, in the form of complaints or criticism, is much easier to work through and provides valuable feedback to the project team. Hidden resistance, such as spreading rumors or outright sabotage, is difficult to detect until it’s already done significant damage.

Ask yourself if your client’s organization encourages dissent or if its culture tends to drive dissent underground. A lack of open resistance is a danger signal. If you don’t see any signs of resistance, work to draw it out into the open. If people have a constructive way to express their concerns, you will more likely be able to respond to such resistance.

Resilience: Gauge the organization’s capacity to change

Resilience is the ability to absorb major change without showing dysfunctional behavior. Just as a sponge can only hold a certain amount of water, people have limits as to the amount of change they can process. ODR, Inc. (which is now Conner Partners) tracks 29 different attributes that resilient people possess, which fall into the following five categories:

  • Positive: They believe they can succeed, even when faced with the ambiguity that accompanies change.
  • Focused: They keep the end goal in mind and let it drive their decisions.
  • Creative: They stay flexible when the landscape shifts under their feet.
  • Organized: They are able to impose structure on the chaos surrounding them.
  • Proactive: They embrace ambiguity as part of the process instead of wasting energy running away from it.

In extreme cases, consider turning down projects for which the capacity for change just isn’t there.

Conner argues that there’s nothing wrong with taking on installation-only projects, for example, as long as that expectation is set up front. The problem comes when a client is ready to write the check, expecting to realize a certain benefit, but the organization can’t support more than installation.

According to Conner, consultants who work on developing their own ability to absorb change will be more valuable to their clients. “Consultants are at a disadvantage if they’re trying to help other people through change if they’re not resilient themselves,” Conner said.

As you work with a client, try to get a feel for the capacity for change of the organization’s people. If they’re facing multiple major changes already, it’s not likely that they will be able to appropriately process the change associated with this additional project.


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