How do you tell the sponsor of a change they are the one blocking the change?

Apr 04, 2017

I posted this question on several change related LinkedIn groups.

The response was overwhelming.

Fight or flight?

Should you tell the sponsor? Should you find a different sponsor? Should you yourself find another project?
Only 2% of the respondents chooses to run for it and find another project. An overwhelming 98% chooses to take up the challenge and make it work.

Tell the sponsor directly or indirectly?

About 65% advocates some form of ‘brutal honesty’, as one change consultant put it. The other 35% uses more indirect ways to tell or to make the sponsor discover their behavior.

Brutal honesty in many forms

Here are some strategies to tell a sponsor they are blocking the very change they are sponsoring.

One thing most contributors agreed upon: never, ever make it personal.

There seem to be two general direct approaches: the analytical one and the relational one. Below are some of the suggestions:


- Make a two page summary with 1. the original requirements, 2. actions taken and (not) contributing, 3. recommendations and risks if not followed.

- Perform a root cause analysis on all sides of the change, likely to be a broader issue

- Challenge the outcomes the sponsor defined for the change, maybe the outcomes were not defined smart enough

- Collect data to represent the impact of the sponsor on the benefits and deliverables of the change

- Frame the discussion around speed of delivery of business results.



- Use benchmarks and visits to successful implementations to fire up the sponsor’s competitive spirit

- Use a system loop (Peter Senge, Fifth Discipline) to visually demonstrate what is happening

- Explore how the sponsor’s ‘truth for change’ and the change program are not completely aligned

- Canvass insights from informal, quick ‘poll’ type conversations across all levels and layers in the organization. Be sure to always ask the same question, e.g." what do you feel is the biggest obstacle to the change right now?"

- Work on the sponsor’s belief systems with coaching tools.


The indirect way

Promotors of the indirect way usually seem to feel that your opinion on why the sponsor is blocking the change, is just that - your opinion: a judgment of the sponsor’s behavior. Here is what they suggest:


- Organize a stage review of the change where the sponsor expresses the outcomes they are looking for in front of the team

- Ask an external coach or consultant to deliver the message

- Work with the team on their fears and anxieties; chances are that they are similar to the ones the sponsor demonstrates

- Have customers explain why they need the change

- Use surveys in which at least one question is treating the sponsor’s role

- Develop a very complete sponsor roadmap; the sponsor might fight the roadmap, and no longer the change itself

The cultural aspect

Experience teaches us that different cultures, whether they are countries or organizations, have different ways to convey a message. Make sure you understand whether you are working in a more explicit and direct culture like the American one, or a more implicit and indirect one like the Japanese.

The quality of a message is determined by the recipient. If you bring it with the wrong level of ‘explicitness’, you just might miss your target.

Whatever you do: bring the message

All agree that the message should be brought as early as possible, supported by as much data you can collect and always in a respectful manner. Even the 2% that wants to flee would have first told the sponsor what was wrong.

A sponsor is part of a system, a team, an organization

Combining a personal conversation in your role of change manager with having the team and organization express their opinions always seems to work.

Help the sponsor to become the best sponsor he can be, and you might get the sponsor this contributor once had: “He took every opportunity he could to explain - personally - to staff at all locations and at all levels that they and the company had done a great job in the past. He cited examples of exemplary work, commitment and of challenges that staff had overcome together. He said that he was proud of what they'd accomplished together. But he also explained why and how times were changing and why what worked so well in the past wouldn't work so well in the future. He talked about the change process and his personal support for all staff during this challenging time. And most of all: he walked his talk.


More strategies are mentioned in the LinkedIn group where most of the comments were made: Organizational Change Practitioners.
Other groups were: Prosci Change Management Users, ERP Change Management, Human Resources Belgium, Business Process Improvement and Change Management, Coaching, Change Management Forum, Change Management Practitioners, Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP)


Author: Hein Poblome. You can connect with Hein on Twitter or follow him on LinkedIn

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