Leading from Below

  • May 30, 2011
  • Scott

In every review of BPM best practices you’ll ever read, you’ll see listed with extra emphasis: executive sponsorship. Actually, this criterion is listed for ERP projects, CRM projects, Security projects… It is listed for pretty much every type of IT engagement.

There is so much emphasis on this in presentations on the subject that typically speakers on the subject will take extra time to clarify that they don’t just mean an executive sponsor that signs checks, but an executive that is intimately involved with the effort and promotes the effort or mentors it.

But I believe most projects start without this higher level of true executive sponsorship.  In a sense, the team below has to earn that sponsorship.  In many cases, the executive has sprinkled a few preliminary investments along with a few well-understood big bets.  Those preliminary investments are feelers-  to see what might shake out.  They don’t have the executive’s full attention, but they have a little runway and latitude to make progress before they are accountable.  Or they’re given a specific project to tackle, a proof point to the executive that both the team and the technical stack are up to the challenge.

So, if executive sponsorship is critical… and most BPM programs don’t start out with it… are all of these projects doomed?

Dave Brakoniecki writes on his blog:

Over time, there seemed to be a bit of a pattern in the conversation. Successful initiatives were about changing or transforming the organization and tended to be driven from the top. In these cases, senior management decided the direction and the businesses had developed over time very successful human processes and technology platforms for supporting and implementing change.

And further:

There were no stories that I can recall of bottom-up change being harnessed successfully. Innovation at front line of the organization and filtered back up the hierarchy to senior management seems like a harder nut to crack. Even organizations that devolved a significant amount of decision making in their change management process struggled to let the front-line drive the strategy behind the overall program.

I believe there’s a bit of selection bias here.  Successful projects that lead to successful strategy and programs, will have executive sponsorship.  Regardless of whether they start without that executive sponsorship.  Why is that?  Because the successful teams will lobby effectively for executive support, with real data and real successes to back them up.  Executives will choose to put more money on the winning horse.  The best executives will co-opt the best ideas from the effort, find synergies with corporate objectives and strategy, and then change the emphasis of the go-forward program accordingly.

Most really interesting innovations and opportunities will bubble up from the organization – the trick for the executive team is to spot those emergent opportunities and capitalize on them.

If you don’t have your executive sponsorship lined up, think about which executive(s) are likely to sponsor your go-forward efforts.  Think about what matters to them, what their objectives are, what the company objectives are over which they have influence.  And make sure you have good arguments to support your BPM initiative along those lines. If you do it right, it will almost feel like the realization of that executive’s ideas, rather than some “not-invented-here” idea that has to be thrust upon upper management.



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  • Scott,
      Liked your post – maybe you should have called it “More on Business Politics Management” 🙂

    • Jacob, good point- the other “BPM” is quite important for any project 😉

  • Dear Scott,
    I think the issue is a general one: for any kind of decision, you need to discuss the options with the people that are in charge of the decision and have the power of enacting it.
    This is true for the purchase processes (ie., if we want to sell our product we need to go to the appropriate decision maker; sometimes he is in the IT but most of the times he is at the executive level), for BP reengineering, and for any other significant choice.
    On the other side, I think that *the need* for the decision and the possible options can definitely come from the bottom (not meaning the single employee but for instance the IT dept. vs. the management).
    In our experience, this is what happened in several cases.

    • When discussing a decision with superiors or decision makers, the question is whether you are hoping they will help, or whether you are going to lead.  Too many people sit back, wishing an executive would come ride in with sponsorship…. 🙂

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