"Top management support!" Everybody who's selling a new method or system says that this is the key to success. As your monthly curmudgeon, I say that if you have to ask for it, you don't deserve it.
"How's the mileage on that yacht?"
"If you have to ask, you can't afford it!"
The same applies to top management support. If you feel you need it, something deeper is fundamentally wrong. And unless you address the root causes, even having top management behind you won't save your project. Of course, if top management is against you, that's a whole different story. In that case, you either sell top management or pack up and go home.
But I contend that a good idea combined with a good change process shouldn't have to depend on top management support. This month's column reflects on the fundamentals of change management, and the roles that top management should and should not play in bringing about meaningful change.
Why People Request Top Management Support
Generally, the cry for top management support means that someone is trying to implement some change — to be specific, trying to get others to change — and is running into resistance. It may be that IT is "sponsoring" an IT project — ERP, for example -and clients are resisting. Or it may be that well-meaning change agents or "process owners" are trying to force change on IT staff.
When faced with resistance to "The Right Thing To Do" from the very people they're trying to help, some change agents ask top management to command people to accept the change; ergo: the plea for top management support.
Why It's Dangerous to Depend on Top Management Support
Note that, in the last paragraph, I said "accept" the change, not "support" the change. There's no chance of support. Once people are set against a change, top management cannot command them to modify what's in their hearts. All that change agents can reasonably ask of top management is to compel unwilling compliance.
Consider this: I want you to help me put a hurdle (or so you see it) right in the middle of the door to your office. You'll have to climb over it every time you come and go. Sure, you hear me saying that this will be good for the shareholders. But be honest with yourself; how do you feel about this project?
Wait, before you get uppity, let me explain that your boss's boss supports the Hurdles project, and even commands you to cooperate.
So, tell me, now do you feel enthused about the change? Will you try to block the change? No, at least not overtly. That could be career suicide. Will you smile while the change agent does his job? Of course. You're a professional. Will you do as you're told and climb over the hurdle every day? I guess you'll have to. Will you help the change agent succeed at this project? XX no (where "XX" is the expletive of your choice)!
With top management support, maybe you'll go along with this lunacy. But do you like the idea now that you know the big guy wants you to do it? Of course not. But how can you fight city hall?
Confuse meetings with plausible, but pointed, questions. Be too busy to do what's expected of you, for example, fail to supply data or other resources. Or send a subordinate in your stead — the guy who can barely find his way to work each day. Shut down the business for a day while you work on the change. Do exactly as you're told and show everybody how idiotic that turns out to be. You don't need me to tell you how to torpedo a project that you don't like.
When people resist change, bringing top management support down on them only solidifies the antagonism and drives resistance underground. And of course the change agent ultimately gets blamed when somehow the change doesn't come off as well as you promised.
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