Top-Down Change; Singing from the Same Hymn Sheet

Successful digital transformation is not easy, especially for large organizations. It requires many things including an awareness that change is necessary, an understanding of what the organization is trying to achieve, and some recognition of how it can be achieved, noting that not everything may be known up-front. Of course, it also requires human and capital resources. Above all, it requires collaboration and collective determination – everyone needs to be singing from the same hymn sheet.

So often change initiatives (programmes and projects – I’ll refer to projects from here on) are the idea of the people who hold the purse strings; the budget holders who are able to pay for them. This is sometimes referred to as the Gold Rule, that is, the person who holds the gold, rules! There are exceptions though, sometimes projects result from those who shout loudest or longest, or those who are in positions of authority. These projects can exist in isolation, intending to bring benefit for a specific function or department, sometimes at the expense of the organization as a whole – local solutions to local problems. But how do the outcomes of these projects contribute to the goals of the organization? In the eyes of the sponsors (or gold holders) they do it easily; give them a list of common corporate goals (cost reduction, revenue generation, statutory/regulatory compliance, customer satisfaction, etc.) and they will make the link. That’s like firing bullets against a wall and then going up to the wall and drawing the target; surprise, surprise, you’ve hit the bull’s eye every time!

Most successful organizations are those who drive change from the top-down rather than bottom-up. That is, change which is driven from the macro level (its vision, target markets, revenue streams and so on), realised through the execution of its strategy by an on-going portfolio of change projects. So, the resultant changes can be directly traced back to the aims of the organization. It doesn’t mean that ‘run-the-business’ change such as local process improvements should not take place, just that it takes place in the context of what the organization is trying to achieve.

But top-down change requires a discipline; it needs the goals of the organization to be set at the highest level, and for those to be translated into targeted investments in change projects, whilst all the time maintaining a view of the big picture. It also needs them to be reflected in the objectives of individuals (and traceable to the organization’s goals) so that they are incentivized to work for the benefit of the organization. A robust and transparent investment governance process is pivotal.

However, many projects are established without being directly aligned to the strategic goals of the organization. They state what they are intending to do and then indicate that that they are contributing to specific goals of the organization. That’s bottom-up change. Bottom-up change can put a lot of pressure on project managers – the sponsor says one thing and the organization says another, often manifested through the scrutiny of Architecture Review Boards or Design Authorities or other internal (and sometimes external) bodies that exist to govern change.

But success needs to be measurable, and therein lies a problem. Projects are transient; when they have delivered/completed they are shut down but benefits that were intended to result from them may not be realised until sometime after. So how is the success of the project measured? Too often it is the efficiency of the project that is measured – the fact that it delivered to time, cost and (usually to a lesser degree) quality. Measuring the effectiveness requires tracing back to the goals of the organization. And that is all the more reason to govern the investment in change, to ensure that the investment is making a direct and conscious contribution to the organization’s goals.

Architects can contribute to the optimization of the change portfolio by developing a strategic-level architecture and maintaining capability models and inter-dependencies matrices between projects and capabilities. Change proposals can be evaluated on a like-for-like basis enabled by classification systems (e.g., capabilities, sales areas, markets, geographies, product lines, service categories, organization units, channels, etc.). Maintaining views of evolving business capability, and how project outputs affect changes in that capability, create cohesion in the change portfolio that would not otherwise exist. The gradual evolution of the organization can be illustrated in roadmaps that show how individually and, more importantly, collectively, the business capabilities that are planned to change over time. Classifying change proposals consistently enables the change management to undertake objective and transparent comparative analysis. This in turn allows the organization to cut through the natural but local bias, prejudices and politics to prioritise with impartiality and deliver the best results for the organization rather than any one sponsor.

Of course, the theory is relatively straightforward. However, organizational structures, complex business landscapes, ever-increasing regulations and personal agendas will always make the practicalities that much harder. But there is more of a chance of a successful outcome if sponsors are singing from the same hymn sheet rather than singing their own hymns.


Author profile 

Jonathan Whelan 2 1e238cd5f10811aead187b7db4033b74
Jonathan Whelan

Jonathan is an established business transformation specialist who has over 34 years’ experience in change-related roles. His commonsense approach to addressing complex business problems and shaping practical, sustainable solutions has been fundamental to the success of many transformation programs.

In his spare time, Jonathan writes about business transformation, especially in relation to the issues and opportunities associated with information technology. His latest book, co-authored with Stephen Whitla and published by Routledge, is titled Visualising Business Transformation – Pictures, Diagrams and the Pursuit of Shared Meaning.



VisiualizingVisualising Business Transformation – Pictures, Diagrams and the Pursuit of Shared Meaning 

Jonathan Whelan and Stephen Whitla

Pub: Routledge; 1 edition (6 Feb. 2020)

Hardback and eBook (Kindle & VitalSource)

ISBN-10: 1138308242

ISBN-13: 978-1138308244