Putting the Management back in Change Part 2: The value of coalitions

In my earlier article,”Putting the Management Back in Change”, I began looking at what it really takes for companies to successfully institutionalize sustainability and truly be “green firms”. The common misconception – that having LEED projects in your portfolio makes you green – doesn’t tell the full story and misrepresents what it really takes to align a company’s processes, systems, operations and project delivery with sustainability.  Change is hard, and that’s why so many firms get stuck at the “random acts of sustainability” stage. Too frequently, I encounter firms who have not realized that becoming a truly green firm requires intentional change efforts that tie to culture, management and methodology.

Last month, I began breaking down Harvard business guru John Kotter’s 8 step model for implementing changes like these across an organization. My focus was on step one, the critical aspect of creating a sense of urgency  so that decision-makers are motivated to commit to sustainability goals.

Creating a sense of urgency goes hand in hand with Kotter’s second step, “Create powerful guiding coalitions.” The key word here is “powerful”. A group of people needs to be assembled who have enough power to lead the change effort. We all know the dusty model of the firm “green team” – a group of passionate volunteers united by a shared commitment to sustainability, but lacking in time, resources and authority. While having a green team is important, it should not be confused with a powerful guiding coalition – they may be one in the same, or may not. The qualitative difference lies in who these people are, what they represent, how much influence they have and what resources they bring (intellectual or otherwise). The coalition will be the guiding force for strategy and informed decision-making. There are so many different stakeholders to motivate, so many obstacles to be overcome, and so much entrenched complacency resisting the change effort, that only a powerful coalition of allies will be effective to make things happen.

So, who are the right people? To answer that, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are the most critical aspects of the business to engage? This could include the executive suite as well as HR, division leaders, IT, sales, communication, marketing, etc.
  • Who has the most influence on key decision makers? On staff? This means looking up and down the food chain as well as across it.
  • Who manages critical information that can help further the objectives? Depending on your business, this could be trends in client requests, staff capabilities and utilization rates, IT resource allocations.
  • Who has critical skills or expertise that will be valuable? These could include expertise in finance, communication or facilitation, among others.

Another aspect of “who” is to ensure effective linkages up, down and across the company.  Be sure to look across different offices, regions and divisions and to include people with a range of years spent in the company.

The objective/purpose of a strong and powerful guiding coalition is five-fold:

1. To begin the process of buy-in and create a group that can support it

Implementing any initiative within a company is a continual process of increasing buy-in. A classic mistake is a small group of passionate champions thinking that the inherent importance of sustainability is enough to convince people to get on board. In light of the earlier “who” question, you know that the coalition you build should be made up of a diverse cross-section of people within the company.  This means that from the first moment you need to be engaging folks and getting them to buy in to issues that may not have been their top priority. Once this coalition is built, and it includes a variety of perspectives, the members can be helpful in supporting ongoing, continued efforts to increase buy-in across the organization.

2. To be able to draw on critical knowledge and information

In order to develop (and later implement) strategies to achieve sustainability goals, you’ll need to draw on critical information that is not easy to get. This may include information from HR about staff capability, training and education resources; financial information related to profit margins in different divisions or offices; or data from marketing about client RFPs or other trends. If the coalition has been thoughtfully considered, people who represent these different conduits can be tapped to draw on their fields of expertise and information, as they are already committed to supporting the effort.

3. To create linkages up, down and across the organization

A coalition is an opportunity for creating linkages: conduits for communication and authority connecting levels of seniority and responsibility as well as spanning different divisions or geographic locations. It is critical that there be representatives from major levels of authority – from the most senior leadership circle to middle management and client services. These linkages serve to validate assumptions or answer questions, represent interests of different parties and provide shorter feedback-loops related to developing strategies or testing pilot activities.

4. To firmly establish credibility to all stakeholders

Once your coalition includes key people representing core business functions and also includes linkages through the company’s food chain, the effort already has garnered increased credibility. The participation of people representing accounting, business, marketing – or whatever functions are important to your organization – demonstrates to all that the initiative is serious, grounded and fundamentally tied to core business objectives,.

5. To develop influence

Ultimately, critical decisions will have to be made regarding investment and/or allocation of human and financial resources. Perhaps even rethinking or prioritizing business focus or service areas. As in any political drama on TV, the key to lobbying for the desired outcome is having the right influence in the right places. A powerful guiding coalition, made up of the right people, is important because they can either help inform and identify the right people who wield influence in different parts of the company; they may actually be the people who already have the necessary influence – or at the very least, they may be trusted or relied upon by those who do have the influence needed. Stakeholder mapping sessions, where a group is trying to work out implementation plans for specific goals, are very valuable when the coalition of people in the room has the breadth and diversity to map influence.

This powerful coalition will be laying the foundation by creating a clear and compelling vision to direct the change efforts. Therefore, who they are and what they represent has incredible power to influence the strength of that vision. Kotter’s next step in change efforts focuses on vision, and what makes a vision powerful and compelling. That will be the subject in the next article in our series.