To make any change project successful, a good sponsor is essential. Paul Allen explains what the role demands

In any given year, NHS organisations will undertake one or more major change projects. Everyone starts off with positive intent and a genuine desire to deliver benefits for patients and/or staff, and yet research tells us that up to 75 per cent of major change projects fail to deliver the expected benefits.

One of the reasons cited for this is a lack of clear and visible sponsorship from leaders in seeing the change through from beginning to end. Not surprisingly, this often results in a lack of focus, a loss of momentum and a failure to secure the active involvement of staff in making the change happen.

An instinctive reaction might be to assume leaders lack the capability or experience required to be effective leaders of change. While in some cases this may well be true, it would be wrong to suggest that this applies to the majority of our leadership population.

Research across different sectors suggests the problem is more fundamental than this. Quite simply, many leaders are quick to step forward as enthusiastic sponsors of change without really understanding what the role demands.

Essentially, a sponsor has the ultimate responsibility to legitimise the change, the authority to ensure it is implemented and the power to start or stop the change. So what are the key characteristics of good sponsorship? The following (though not exhaustive) list seems to me to embody some of the key requirements of the role:

  • having a good understanding of the issues that need to be addressed, the benefits of the proposed change, and its fit with broader business strategy;
  • being visible and accessible to people - modelling desired behaviours, not just talking about them;
  • an ability to reframe existing thinking and look for transformational and incremental opportunities;
  • investing sufficient time up front understanding key stakeholder requirements and building a robust business case for change before moving into implementation;
  • assembling the change team, leaving them to operationally manage the project, and agreeing how best to support them throughout the lifecycle of the change;
  • having the position and authority to release resources to the project when required;
  • ensuring there is a robust change plan in place, to move from idea to execution;
  • relentlessly communicating and actively engaging staff as active participants, not as passive recipients of change;
  • performance managing the existing agenda and people, while at the same time implementing change;
  • providing air cover for the change team when needed, and removing obstacles along the way;
  • agreeing the exit criteria for the project, and when it becomes business as usual;
  • ensuring that learning is captured, shared and available in the system.

The personal leadership of the sponsor is critical to the effective delivery of the change, and the role of sponsor is too important to be left to chance or to be taken lightly. Careful consideration must be given to the requirements of the role and the person(s) with the most appropriate position, skills and experience to do it effectively. Change is inevitable; success is not.