Change Management Omakase Style


If you order sushi omakase style, what do you get? Well, you don’t know exactly, do you? It’s unpredictable. That’s the point. But you do know that the itamae (master sushi chef) will present the best quality sushi and sashimi available; it will be especially artistic and include creative surprises; and you’ll likely experience something you haven’t experienced before. You’ll learn something. And even though the preparation process may be more complex, the end product will appear simple, pure, and beautiful. Granted, you pay more for this experience, but you also get more.

On the other hand, sometimes your palette calls for something familiar and straight-forward. You know you want the spicy tuna roll and you order it. It’s reliable. You get what you ordered and it tastes great as expected. On occasion you may even grab a box from a grocery store to fix a craving. Mission accomplished. 

Corporate change initiatives are as varied as sushi—and so are change management practitioners. As the value of change management has gained widespread acceptance, the number of practitioners has increased, and skill levels and bill rates vary drastically—I’ve seen ranges stretch from $60/hour to $275/hour. How do you distinguish the type of practitioner you need for a given change initiative? How do you know when it’s worth paying more? How do you know when, as in the case of omakase, you should “respectfully leave another to decide what is best.”

Here are five project characteristics that warrant spending extra to get a master change practitioner—one who can handle complexity and serve up creative change solutions, omakase-style.

1. Surprises Are Likely

When you think about your forthcoming change initiative, do words like ambiguous, uncertain, or unclear come to mind? If the end state isn’t totally clear; if the change will affect how employees identify with the company; if behavior and mindset change are core elements, then you’re dealing with transformational change. Advanced change practitioners can assess the situation, sift through the ambiguity and build clarity. They use innovative approaches to customize a change strategy for the given situation. Then they build a plan to deal with it and can adjust the plan with confidence on the fly when dynamics inevitably change.

A lack of clarity often results in unpredictable change impacts. Master practitioners facilitate the space for such impacts to emerge and be discovered. They see a project risk before it becomes an issue, bring it to the team’s attention, and can distinguish the delicate balance of when to push for something and when to let it go. For example, on a workplace redesign project, the employee engagement team alerted us that they required multiple CPUs at their desks to do their work, which may not fit in their new workspace footprint. Because we engaged employees and discovered this early, the project team was able to address it well before employees moved. As a result, employees were able to be productive on day 1 in their new workspace.

2. It’s Totally New and Different

If it is the first time you’ve attempted such a change initiative, then that’s a sign you may need to invest in an advanced change practitioner to help you see around the curves and navigate appropriately. Initial implementations set the stage for repeatability if there are phases or multiple rollouts. You can leverage an advanced practitioner to establish the upfront strategy, create the work plan, and guide the first implementation. Then you may opt to retain them on a limited basis to advise or coach less experienced (i.e., less expensive) contractors or internal staff during the follow-on phases.

Consider too the experience and bandwidth of the program director or sponsor. New territory requires more mindshare, as well as more time to guide the project team. A senior change strategy consultant knows what to do and takes the initiative to make it happen, freeing up the program leader to focus on critical project delivery activities. A consultant of this caliber will also ease the executive sponsor’s involvement by honing in on strategic talking points and coaching for change leadership. 

As an added bonus, and in keeping with the definition of “omakase,” because these master change practitioners are setting the strategy and creating the plan, they are directing their own work. That means the company mitigates its co-employment risk because they aren’t telling the consultant what to do, as might be the case with more junior support.

3. It’s Complex with Strategic Importance

With sushi, size doesn’t necessarily matter, and the same is true for change initiatives. Obviously, projects of a global scale warrant an advanced practitioner to direct the sheer volume of work; however, smaller projects that are complex and critical to the company strategy require a higher skill level as well.

For example, I recently consulted for a strategic workplace redesign project that involved only 600 employees; however, there was a laundry list of change going on in the company. Consider the elements at hand:

  • It was the flagship rollout of the new workplace strategy for a more open and collaborative workspace set center stage of their global HQ.
  • It would affect a critical talent pool of employees who were accustomed to private offices and high wall cubes.
  • Employees were dealing with an extraordinarily high change load in that time period including layoffs, their third CEO in three years, and a new executive team.

…And to top it off, they were in the midst of a divestiture, which would split the company in half. That required an intricate and sensitive communication strategy—many employees didn’t yet know into which company they’d be placed.

With ingredients like that in the mix, even if the employee scope of your change effort is relatively small, having a savvy change practitioner is an advantage. In spite of all the complexity, a strategic change consultant, like an itamae, can craft and present beautiful, clear, and simple solutions. 

4. It Requires Artistry and Finesse

When you have a lot of complexity, the art of change management comes into play. A highly skilled practitioner can see the broader picture and connect dots that may not be immediately obvious to others. They can design a program that clarifies the bigger picture and deals with sensitive situations. They handle multifaceted angles with ease. In the above example, this wasn’t just another office move, and it wasn’t just a cool, new workspace. It was a catalyst for innovation and a corporate rebirth. 

By nature, a complex environment means an absence of information: that means employees will create their own stories about what’s happening. Advanced practitioners tease out misperceptions and find themes to build strategic messages that warrant repetition. For example, while working on a business process redesign effort I learned that most employees thought the project would result in layoffs and downsizing, when in fact it was really about enabling growth. So we put the word, “Grow” into all communications and emphasized it in meetings. To employees this meant jobs—maybe different jobs, but there would certainly be no downsizing. Once that message was established, it seemed so simple and obvious, yet it wasn’t obvious to leaders or the project team in the beginning. They needed an advanced change strategist to facilitate the conversation that led to that insight. 

Given the nature of our world today, complexity is inevitable. Jenny McLean is a partner with Clarkston Consulting, a firm that specializes in Life Sciences and Consumer Products change initiatives. She shares that too often she sees lower-cost providers do what she likes to call “checkbox change management” where practitioners follow a checklist of activities without applying critical thinking or creative solutions. They don’t recognize when something isn’t relevant in a particular situation, and they dive into details without forming a strategy. She says the hard part is handling what’s not taught in change management certification classes...

...We’ve increased the science of change management in the last 20 years to the point there is an overabundance of methodologies, tools, and templates, but we haven’t advanced the art. For complex change initiatives, the tools are a given—the challenge is finding an artist to help you use the tools in a creative way that fits your unique situation.
— Jenny McLean, Partner, Clarkston Consulting

In other words, having a sharp knife doesn’t necessarily make a superior sushi chef.

5. You Want to Learn and Develop Change Skills

Highly skilled change practitioners are teachers by nature. When you work with one you’ll notice that they explain why something should be done, not just how or when, so you learn to think like an effective change leader. Forward-thinking consultants will teach you and your team how to fish, as the proverb says, and build capability within the company.

When I look across these five characteristics, I think of how Liz Steblay, a 20-year change veteran and founder of PrōKo Consulting, describes these as “big, hairy projects.” Her network of independent consultants specializes in scary, monster-like projects that necessitate an advanced practitioner to navigate the complexity, bring clarity to ambiguous situations, and build a strategy and plan that bring order to the chaos—and after doing all of that, they have the ability to adjust the plan on the fly when something unpredictable happens, and it nearly always does.

In other words, it’s like ordering sushi omakase style—just as you get a totally unique dining experience, a master change consultant can give you a totally unique project experience using sheer artistry.

What if your budget can’t afford a Master?

Then consider this: top tier consultants can get more done in a lot less time, and many actually prefer working part-time. What may take a less experienced contractor 40 hours to complete may take an advanced practitioner 20. If paying by the hour, you may spend the same amount of money for the same task. The difference is you can get expert advice in addition to the high-quality deliverables.

If your change initiative is relatively straightforward—the end-state is clear, there is a defined timeline, it doesn’t require much behavior or mindset change in employees, and it has been done in your company at least once before—then you can probably employ a practitioner who is more solid with tactics than strategic acumen. In this case, checkbox change management may be fine. It is efficient and ensures a degree of thoroughness. Paying top dollar in this situation would not make sense.

But, if your change effort is strategic, yet daunting, ambiguous, and affects a critical talent base, then it may be time to sit back, relax, and order up some strategic change management omakase style. Let the master chef take care of you.