By Fred Nickols

The diagram below suggests there are five keys to successful change management. No one of them will unlock a successful change management effort; all five are needed. In this column, I will briefly review each of them.


Sponsor. The sponsor is the person who owns the change. This is the person who wants the change made, who is willing to fund and support it, and who has the authority to do so. The sponsor is often a C-level executive who, in all cases, exercises significant authority over the system to be changed.

Without an appropriately powerful, well-placed sponsor, any change effort is likely doomed.

Strategy. There are at least four possible change strategies. One relies on persuasion and incentives; it is a rational-empirical view of things. Another focuses on changing culture and beliefs; it is a normative-reeducative approach. A third resorts to the raw exercise of power, authority, and sanctions–a power-coercive strategy. A fourth capitalizes on the built-in ability of people to adapt to new circumstances. It is an environmental-adaptive strategy.

A successful change management effort will likely use a mix of these four strategies. Whatever strategies are being used, all need to be clear about what the strategies are and why they are being used.

Straw Boss. No one is more essential to a successful change management effort than the “straw boss.” This is the person who leads the change effort “down in the trenches,” so to speak. This is the person who, more than any other, will make it happen. A good straw boss will not set out to offend anyone, but winning a popularity contest is not a high-priority item. A good straw boss will not run roughshod over people but will not let them stand in the way either. This person requires little in the way of formal authority but does need the unequivocal trust, backing, and support of the sponsor.

Without an experienced, savvy straw boss, your change effort will likely bog down in minutiae, politics, and infighting and not get very far.

System Map. Here, bear with me as I explain what a system map is and why it is needed.

Change is indirect. Whatever your ultimate change target might be, the chances are you did not (or cannot) change it directly; instead, you change something else and it changes as a result. You cannot, for example, directly manipulate profit or return on investment or error rates or retention rates. The same is true of human behavior and performance. You do not (or cannot) change it directly. You have to change something “over here” to realize a result “over there.” Over here and over there can be close by or far removed in space and time. In either case, over here and over there are parts of or places in the same structure, the structure of the system in which you are intervening.

To intervene is to change things with one or more outcomes in mind. The places in a system where you can change things directly–where the effects of your actions are direct and immediate–are usefully thought of as “points of intervention.” Those places in the system where you will assess the achievement of the outcomes you seek are usefully thought of as “points of evaluation.”

To manage change responsibly requires us to say that this action will produce that result or, conversely, this result requires that action. In both cases we must be able to show how the points of intervention and the points of evaluation are connected. To do this, we must already know or be able to map the structure of the system in which we are intervening and show where in that system the points of intervention and the points of evaluation are located and how they are connected. Only then can we trace the paths connecting the two and show how changes made at the points of intervention will “ripple through” the structure of the system, leading to the desired effects at the points of evaluation.

Without a system map–formal and explicit or informal and intuitive–your change effort is not likely to succeed.

Stakeholders. Figuring out what to change and how to change it is only half the puzzle. The other half is concerned with actually making and managing the change. Far from being a keenly analytical activity, change management is often a hotly political one. The stakes can be high; and among the stakeholders there can be winners and losers, many of whom will support the change and many of whom will oppose it. Winners and losers, gains and losses, supporters and naysayers–all must be identified and dealt with. Gains must clearly outweigh losses and outweigh them by enough to make the costs of the change worthwhile. (By the way, the costs are not all financial.) Supporters must be leveraged, and the opposition must be brought on-board, neutralized, or removed.

Failure to identify, involve, and deal with key stakeholders has caused more than one change management effort to derail.

There you have it, five keys to successful change management. As I said at the outset, you need all five.

For more about change management in general, see my paper titled “Change Management 101: A Primer” available on the web at

For more about the four change management strategies discussed in this article, see my paper titled “Four Change Management Strategies” available at

FredNickolsAbout the Author
Fred Nickols, CPT, is a performance improvement professional and the managing partner of Distance Consulting LLC. He is a former Navy technician who was also trained as an internal OD consultant, an instructor, and a programmed instruction writer. Fred took up a second career in the private sector as a consultant and executive. He is a longtime member of ISPI and a frequent contributor to its various publications. He can be contacted via email at or on his website at