by Patricia M. Wallington

Making Changes Through Political Opportunities

Apr 01, 20047 mins

Politics isn't just something you use to defend yourself--it can be the key to leading organizational change.

Have you ever seen anyone try to make an omelet without cracking an egg? Sure you have! It happens every time a company decides it wants to be different without actually doing anything differently. Everyone agrees with the change at its conceptual stage, with an unstated assumption that it will affect only other people.

Yet it often falls to the CIO to make the change happen regardless. So how can you be an effective leader of change, maximizing the opportunities and minimizing the pain?

Last month’s column discussed the inevitability of change and the steps necessary to establish a strong political foundation–the defensive use of politics. But politics can be positive! Now let’s talk about politics’ “offensive” uses–how to make it work for us, how to use the best techniques of politics to bring about organizational change.

Start by pretending you are a political candidate (in this season of presidential politics, that should be easy!), and imagine the elements you’d need to succeed in your campaign for change….

The Platform

This is the broad, bold vision and strategy you could not risk undertaking without the political foundation already established. Consider it your platform, and craft it carefully. At Xerox, when we decided to completely change our infrastructure, we related the drawbacks of the current state to the specific business direction the company wanted to pursue. We then described the new environment and how it would enable the company to make the changes it needed to be competitive. In developing your platform, be sure to incorporate the needs of the multiple constituencies and the inevitable question of “what’s in it for me?”

The Campaign

This is your plan for inspiring and motivating others to join your pursuit of change. A good idea unimplemented is of no more value than a bad idea. So lighting the spark that excites others to take on the vision as their own is what differentiates the winners from the losers. Communicate often to your constituencies: executives, the field, corporate staff, the project team, the steering committee, the whole company. Use multiple media approaches: slides, videos, personal speeches and newsletters. This is really public relations! I actually have one vision that was put to music by a creative team who took my enthusiasm literally.

Keep your theme consistent. Did you know that during times of stress people need to hear things six times before the unfiltered message gets through?

Meanwhile, make sure you carefully recruit your campaign workers, who will be your project team and project sponsors as well as the steering committee. This can involve getting informal champions throughout the organization who can help keep the spark alive.

Early Endorsements

Reaching critical mass, or a state in which enough change has already occurred so that falling back to the prior state is not an option, is sometimes difficult in a major change project. The tendency to cling to the old is strong, and the unproven nature of the new creates a paralyzing inertia. Pilots are a great way to get some momentum and break through the inertia.

At Xerox, we replaced a robust, but not mobile, infrastructure with industry-standard technology. It was a wrenching change–at one point we were actually accused of “balkanizing the company”–but it was critical to the future of the business. One thing that helped our effort was that early on, one division president literally pulled the plug on the old system and mandated the use of the new system.

Seek out your own early adopters. If you’ve formed the critical relationships necessary to pull off a big change, you should already know who they are. Form partnerships and give them as much support as you possibly can–and then give more. They help you build momentum, credibility and experience.


What’s the general perception of the project’s progress? Take time to count the votes continuously. What are the sponsors and others thinking? Do not assume that the enthusiasm of the early days will be sustained without constant reinforcement. Know who your allies are and communicate with them frequently. Don’t let them hear important news through the “hallway talk.”

Election Day

Election day, the committed implementation date, comes whether you’re ready or not. Make time your ally. Those last steps in the plan can be invigorating as everyone focuses on the target. Know when to go for speed, when to slow down. Know the consequences of each and be prepared to deal with them promptly. Don’t implement if there are significant known problems, but also don’t let nits hold you back. Contingency plans and risk mitigation are key. Have clear-cut go and no-go decision points.

The Candidate

As the candidate in this campaign for change, you may thrive on the intensity and pace of these initiatives. Nevertheless, it is critical that you make the effort to keep yourself strong physically and emotionally. The amount of negative energy generated in major change projects can be debilitating. Develop some external influences; join a professional organization and attend the meetings, speak at conferences, do something you enjoy. These activities can reduce stress, add to your internal influence and help you stay objective.

Be visible to all constituencies. Now is not the time to hunker down in the office. Heads up, eyes open, ears alert will give you a good sense of how things are being received.

Keep your passion for the cause, but don’t lose your flexibility. See your positions as written in the sand. Allow yourself the flexibility to reexamine your beliefs in light of the current knowledge. It will amaze you how often you will want to modify a position.

Express your appreciation of your supporters and your team. Recognize them in tangible and intangible ways. Say thank you often, verbally and in writing. Hold events that celebrate their interim successes, give small tokens of your appreciation.

The Other Candidates

Almost certainly you will have some antagonists. These will behave much the same way as the other candidates in an election campaign. Be prepared to use some of the defensive tactics of politics. No matter how well planned the campaign, you will be a target. Don’t take it personally.

During a major project that was organizationally traumatic, one executive advised me to ask myself three questions:

Am I doing the right thing?

Am I doing it for the right reason?

Am I doing it in the right way?

If you can say yes to all three, walk the path with confidence. Politics can be a lonely life.

The Post-Election Period

The post-election period is striking in its similarity to the implementation phase of a project. Now it’s time to make the campaign promises come true. Expect chaos–that way you can plan for it. The expectations at this stage, pent up through the previous phases, generally exceed your ability to meet them. Some days nothing seems to work as planned. People need to know what’s coming, when and why. Conduct informal communications sessions, assign one of your team members to each major user community to keep them informed. Use newsletters, videos and paycheck stuffers. Be creative.

Reorganizations occur, businesses are acquired, alliances shift, expectations change. That’s why the political process is a continuous one. You can’t just do it once and consider it done.

In politics, the next campaign starts the day after the election. Following your own successful campaign, you will be focused on the minutia of implementation. But you will need to balance those activities with many of the same activities we started with–another campaign plan. Presidential elections occur once every four years. Yours will occur much more frequently.

Get ready–here we go again.

Before retiring in 1999, Patricia M. Wallington was corporate vice president and CIO at Xerox Corp. In 1997 Wallington, now president of CIO Associates in Sarasota, Fla., was inducted into the Women in Science and Technology Hall of Fame and named one of the 12 most influential IT executives of the decade by CIO.