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Bettina Pickering

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Make change sustainable with ‘change champions’


Often projects are started enthusiastically but fail at implementation or post-implementation stage. The role of the change champion can be invaluable in involving the right people, getting commitment to the change and embedding it, says Bettina Pickering.

Change is ever-present in organisations but often important projects which start with enthusiasm, fail to implement sustainable change. The cost savings or increased revenue expected from change projects could mean the difference between survival and bankruptcy or between compliant processes and fines for regulatory/statutory breaches. Organisations cannot afford these types of failures in the current economic climate.

Change programmes fail because people do not change their behaviour

We have all seen both large- and small-scale change programmes fail – some of these have been widely publicised. A significant number are caused by people not changing their behaviours or, after a short period of time, reverting back to old behaviours. The myriad of studies on why change programmes or projects fail cite lack of commitment or engagement.
Most projects tend to work in a relatively isolated environment (the project room), which means they place more emphasis on project deliverables than sustainable behaviour change. So, how can a major change programme practically achieve commitment, engagement and a change in behaviours in today’s complex business environment?

Change champions can make change a success

Identifying a change champion in each business unit, team or process area affected by the change, is an approach that is highly successful. Similar concepts to that of change champion have been successfully used for decades to embed specific behaviours within organisations, for example: health and safety, environment (HSE) or compliance officers.
Change champions act as the eyes and ears of the change programme keeping their finger on the pulse and helping the programme to:
  • Get commitment to the change
  • Engage and involve the right people on the ground
  • Bring the change vision to life
  • Encourage (and sometimes enforce) new and desired behaviours
  • Embed the change so that it is enduring rather than a passing fad

Identifying the right change champions is one of the secrets of success

Some organisations expect line managers or team leaders to fulfil the role of change champion, often through message cascading. This approach yields very patchy results as not all team leaders and line managers are committed to the change. Some leaders may work against change, or lack the right skills to be ambassadors or advocates. Many leaders do not have the trust of their staff or fail to ensure all relevant messages are consistently relayed to their teams.
Although some of the key change champion skills can be developed through training and coaching, there are a number of key characteristics a change champion must have to be able to successfully fulfil the role. Change champions should:
  • Be well networked within the organisation and respected by peers
  • Want to make a difference in a organisation they are fully committed to
  • Have the courage to speak up for what they believe in
  • Be seen as ‘go to’ people and opinion makers
  • Have a broad understanding of the organisation and how it works
  • Be able to translate the overall change vision into local ‘what’s in it for me’ scenarios
  • Feel passionate about the change while being empathetic to the mindset and behaviour shift their colleagues will need to go through
  • ‘Tuned in’ to the mood of the area they are in and able to pick up on resistance to the change, lack of understanding of the change journey and communication gaps between the business and the programme
A well-supported network of change champions can make the difference between delivering a project and achieving sustainable outcomes for the business. For example, a manufacturing company which implemented a change champion network had to close down the programme early due to the recession. In spite of this, the champions agreed to continue on working towards the benefits, with the support of the business. This meant that in time the organisation will reap the desired benefits.

Don’t leave change to chance

Simply nominating and installing change champions in every organisation unit is clearly not enough to guarantee sustainable change outcomes. Successful change champion networks are proactively managed and actively developed through training and personal coaching. In addition, they need to be given semi-structured opportunities to share experiences and to work together to resolve any problems arising.
There is a clear role for HR business partners or organisation development professionals to help change champions to develop the necessary skills and facilitate the champion network. Although this type of support may sound like a significant investment, it is not – change champions mean faster project delivery and sustainable benefit achievement, which far outweighs any investment.
Key change champion skills:

  • Communication (incl. presentation) and engagement skills
  • Faciliation skills
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Influencing skills
  • Problem solving skills
  • Project management skills
Note: The required skills can vary depending on programme requirements. This list is not exhaustive.


Bettina Pickering is a managing consultant at PA Consulting Group

3 Responses

  1. Co-Creation
    To follow on from this intersting piece and comments, I would just add that an organisation which recognises the need for change, and wants ot get it right, will engage with staff and customers to co-create the change, not impose or enforce it. Rarely practised (to earlier points maybe the organisation is just paying lip service etc), and rarely equalled in its success. For the life of me I don’t know why we don’t se much, much more of this – it’s hugely powerful.

  2. Changing change
    Very often employees are perfectly equipped and placed to know what needs to change, what approach will work and what won’t work. My own experience suggests that possibly many more change programmes fail, not because employees aren’t wiling or able to change their behaviour, but because the organisation isn’t.

  3. Managing Change (or it will manage you)
    Steve Kerr lays out an excellent change approach. His “definition-measurement-reward” process is based on the principle that “effective reward systems induce organization members to pursue organizational goals for that most reliable of reasons: each person’s conviction that he or she will benefit by doing so.”

    The process is simple – define your goal, find a way to measure it, then reward successful performance against that metric. Measurement is essential because: “If something isn’t measured, you can’t give people feedback about it, so they can’t improve. You can’t reward the people who are doing it well, and you can’t improve or admonish people who do it poorly. Measurement also signals that something is important; if no one is tracking it, it will take a backseat to things that are being scrutinized. … Things that aren’t measured can’t be rewarded and they very likely won’t get done.”

    I’ve written on multiple perspectives of change on my HRZone blog at these links: