Hacking Change Management: Part 1

Article Summary:
  • We define “hacking” as solving complex, yet very common problems by leveraging non-traditional methods
  • In leading transformation, nontraditional techniques enable rapid pivoting in response to volatile challenges
  • In a real-world example, the client’s attention had been stolen by competing priorities and an overemphasis on desired outcomes – instead of defined objectives – and needed to be reclaimed
A 7-Minute Read

What is your reaction when you hear about a hack? Maybe “hacker” elicits thoughts of a sinister group of computer experts in a fortified basement committing acts of espionage and cyberwarfare. Hacking is frequently associated with illegally gaining access to critical personal, organizational, or government information. Oh yes, and of course, dark hoodies. It’s obviously very cold in the basement.

It is not surprising that the term “hacker” often creates a feeling of apprehension. After all, we’ve recently seen some nefarious hacking hit quite close to home. Personal information of nearly 44% of the U.S. population was illegally obtained in May to July of 2017 when criminal hackers infiltrated the servers of Equifax, a consumer credit reporting agency1. The hackers gained access to data that enabled them to conduct identify theft on 145.5 million Americans.

Not all hackers, however, aim to steal data or create chaos. Many hackers leverage a hacking methodology to solve healthcare problems or cure diseases (biohacking), and improve environmental quality or rapidly innovate, test, and deploy new technology. These helpful hackers have also been called “hactivists.”

We are not here to argue the merit of hacking necessarily, but rather to consider that there are many times in life and business, especially when undergoing big change, when traditional methods no longer cut the mustard. All hackers, whether sinister or benevolent, are after rapid and disruptive results. In organizational change management, rapid and disruptive are the names of the game.

For the sake of this paper, we define hacking as solving complex, yet very common problems by leveraging nontraditional methods.

This is the first of a short series of articles in which we look at some examples of when my teams embedded “hacking” techniques into a transformation or project as part of our Organizational Change Management (OCM) processes. We see that, when the transformation, or OCM, leader becomes the lead hacker and champions the use of nontraditional techniques to lead change, we were able to rapidly pivot, overcome volatile challenges, and reach the desired state of operations more quickly.

Common Problem # 1: Sustaining Executive Sponsorship

Problem Overview

Executive Sponsorship is a key contribution to success in implementing change. Leveraging robust Sponsor Plans and Roadmaps, my teams have not typically had issues in gaining executive sponsorship with an initial representation of strong, visible and vocal leadership. A Sponsor problem that I have encountered, especially in larger (Fortune 500) or quickly growing companies is sustaining visible and vocal sponsorship after initial kick-off.

Executives (or senior leaders) that are assigned to sponsor change initiatives are commonly in a position where they have broad organizational responsibility. Often, their time is overtaxed leading to a restricted ability to demonstrate sustained visible and vocal sponsorship on each of their assigned initiatives.

Real-world Example

In 2016, I led an initiative for a Fortune 500 financial services company that involved implementation of a well known cloud-based contact management tool. Implementing the solution required broad stakeholder engagement and strong Executive Sponsorship.

The Executive Sponsor kicked off the project by participating in some initial key meetings and sending out broad communications discussing the benefits of the solution being implemented. Our OCM team and Change Champion Network met biweekly to implement the activities listed on the Engagement and Communication Plans.

Within weeks of our kick-off, our Executive Sponsor was pulled in multiple directions. He had to allocate his time and resources to various strategic initiatives that had competing priorities. We continued to write key messages for the sponsor which he disseminated among his direct reports. Our messages focused on the benefits that would be attained with the new solution.

Our OCM Strategy, although thorough, did not enable us to maintain the enthusiasm from the Executive Sponsor demonstrated in the planning and kick-off of the project. This lack of enthusiasm cascaded to senior leaders and some of our Change Champions.

Key leaders and influencers failed to timely cascade messages. Additionally, although we managed a microsite with key information of the system and provided updates to the key talking points, we did not get the end user engagement and active adoption we had hoped for the first release.

Applying Hacks to our Real-world Example

We took a step back to observe our Executive Sponsor. We had to focus on the behavioral economics at play – we looked for patterns and methods of his prioritization, and allocation of resources. We were looking for opportunities to reengage and exploit these opportunities to prioritize our project back to the top and sustain top prioritization.

We made sure to schedule the retrospective for the first release with the project team when the Executive Sponsor was available. With the Sponsor in the room, we brought up the fact we did not hit our target for user adoption. Users were still reverting to some of the old ways of doing things. The same pains that led to the decision to implement the new solution were continuing despite the positive momentum created at during the project kick-off.

We looked back at the original problem statement. It contained several pain points inherent with manual, offline management of contacts. Eliminating the pain points drove initial excitement in the Executive Sponsor and Senior Leaders.

We took immediate action to mitigate our missed widespread user adoption and usage metrics on the first release. We called a meeting for all the leaders and Change Champions representing the impacted stakeholders for the first release. We discussed the original pain points and conducted a survey to quantify the amount that each pain was resolved. By putting the focus back on the pain points that existed before the solution, we maintained focus on the objectives related to eliminating those pain points, thus regaining the attention that had been diverted to competing priorities.

Leveraging what our team observed about our Sponsor’s prioritization (financial and reputational incentive for timely completion of strategic initiatives), we frequently called out risks in timely completion of the initiative with projected user adoption without Sponsor action.

Specifically, our risk mitigations for timely completion and user adoption called for the Sponsor to sustain visible, vocal advocacy of the solution. We created a dashboard that contained 4 “gauges” for the Sponsor which were linked to the metrics created on our user adoption/readiness scorecard. By incorporating this dashboard into the weekly status report, we were able to directly tie the Sponsor’s Performance to timely completion and user adoption. It was also vital to set accurate expectations: we agreed that if the mitigations were not ambitiously executed, the results identified in the business case would not have been achieved; thus, the Executive Sponsor would not be rewarded for completing the initiative.

For the second and third releases, using our aggregated analysis of the behavioral economic assessment, we directed focus to reiteration of the pain points as part our key “what’s in it for me” messages. Combining this redirected focus with tracking weekly Sponsor Performance metrics, we improved visible and vocal Sponsor support which cascaded to senior leadership and change champions. This resulted in the project hitting our user adoption metrics for both subsequent releases.

Summary of Lessons Learned

Admittedly, the steps taken in our “hacks” are not transformative in nature to the OCM world. These steps did, however, fundamentally shift the way this company implemented change, setting them well within our “hacking” definition boundaries described in the introduction.

Why does this matter?

This is something we’ve found to be true as we’ve “hacked” our way through many OCM engagements: success often hinges on how one approaches problem-solving, not necessarily the elegance or brilliance of the solutions applied. The hacker ethos does not have to include wacky, left-field solutions. In fact, the hacker ethos may often leverage best practices. As we continue through this series, remember to constantly examine your approach and to maintain a relentless focus on defined objectives over desired outcomes. How one swings the hammer matters more than the hammer itself.

Hacking Executive Sponsorship Summary:
  • Observation of patterns, reverse engineering networks, and exploiting vulnerabilities
  • Keep the Sponsor & Leadership focused on the objectives, not just the desired outcome – understand the situation’s behavioral economics and shift mindsets


Stay tuned for Part 2 in our 3-Part “Hacking Change Management” series!
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About the Author

Kevin Smith is a Lead Consultant with Impact Makers. He has a proven track record of successfully creating and implementing governance structures related to Transformation, Project/Program Management and Organizational Change Management. Kevin has robust experience in managing multimillion dollar transformational and core programs while managing resources across multiple disciplines and geographic proximities.

Kevin has an insatiable desire to learn and continuously improve.

Knowing that the world is not static, and that every barrier can be penetrated, Kevin embraces opportunities to bring together a confluence of forces to seek out better ways of doing things. Kevin strives to create meritocratic cultures where competence is key, and the risk of failure does not impede innovation.


Weise, E. 2017, September 26. A Timeline of Events Surrounding the Equifax Data Breach. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2017/09/26/timeline-events-surrounding-equifax-data-breach/703691001/