The Change Refusal

How to deal with your sponsor’s change of heart?

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October 7, 2021
New York

In horse riding, a refusal is the failure of the horse to jump a fence to which he or she submitted. It may happen, out of unexpected fear, to the most talented, best trained jumping horse. We humans experience refusal too.

Those of us involved in change, either as in-house practitioners or as consultants, may have faced the weird situation where we submitted an idea, it was accepted, and then… we were not given the permission, the support, or the means to carry it forward. What can we do?

A recent experience prompted me to ask the question on Twitter, despite being a bit lazy on this channel lately. The generous amount of responses, and their quality, makes me write this post so that they benefit more people.

8 themes appear to cover the various suggestions. They can be useful together or separately. My organizing bias made me chart them on a cycle of the consultant-client relationship, from the time a problem arises. Apologies to my graphic designer friends, who probably would have done a much better job!

The actual question was: “When a client shows no appetite for what they contracted you to do, what do you do? Stay and try harder? Leave?”. One could replace “client” by “employer / manager” (I’ll use “sponsor” to cover them all when relevant) and still find useful advice in what follows. None of that is easy, and success depends very much on context, but at least this offers possibilities to act upon an issue instead of merely suffering from it.

Ask, To Understand

Cat Barnard, Working the Future (UK) co-founder & partner, suggests a wise first step, which is to “get guidance from client as to what they like / don't like”. Andi Roberts recommends to “stay humble and inquisitive – what is going on and what is causing the resistance? Is it vulnerability, lack of commitment, too much risk (personal or professional)? Be there to uncover and help the client work through what is going on for them or their organization”. Andi’s comment reminds me it is time to re-read Edgar Schein’s excellent Humble Consulting. Rachel Happe, co-founder & principal of The Community Roundtable, advises “a direct heart to heart with the client. Having a client with whom you made no impact (regardless of whose responsibility that is) does you no good in the end. It's opportunity cost.” So true. Jillian Reilly suggests to “have a courageous conversation – honest, empathetic. Basically, trying to answer the question: ‘what are you afraid of?’”. Jillian is an outstanding coach in this field – check out her Antacara and spread the word if anyone may need help with taking "small steps" or "big bounds". Also, this reminds me to re-read Difficult Conversations.

Cecil Dijoux adds it is “important to drive the client with questions* so that they see the gap by themselves rather than telling them”. I know Cecil is 100% right, I was trained to ask good questions (see Action Learning) and yet… when it comes to a professional practice you hold dear, that is also a life purpose, it’s hard to resist sharing what you know works, and even being a little assertive.

Side note: I find assertiveness a real challenge for female professionals. Too much of it creates resistance; too little impairs credibility. I am about 2/3 into my professional life already and I still haven’t found the perfect balance.

*About questions: A little addition to the original post, due to Frank Heublein's really thoughtful comment: "Clever questions are needed to enter into constructive dialogue, because questions can have a dominant effect and can be oppressive. One should be aware of this in these kind of delicate situations". Yes! I hate being asked questions that convey a sense of superiority by my interlocutor. I hope I never do that to others.

Denis Florent brings an interesting one: “Find out what situation brought them to hire you in the first place. It’s possible that this situation changed in the meantime. If possible, pinpoint NEW issues and share what solutions you could bring”. If there is novelty, it must be considered. If false novelty is only invented by your sponsor to justify their change of heart / weakness / fear, you must enable them to save face and discuss the “changes” as if they were real. Denis and I were colleagues in China; a good place to learn about face saving

Evolution Coaching and OD Katherine Long suggests to do “systemic constellations with an experienced supervisor, [which] can reveal hidden patterns of time, place and exchange in the system. Given chaotic times perhaps they may also be sensing need for caution, or a change of course - good to name what you are picking up”. Since I know very little about constellations, I found some introduction here and there. Yes to chaotic times… Yes to need for caution. Sometimes we, passionate people, get a little caught up in our own thing. More on this in the next point.

But just one last, important thing about this sponsor conversation: be open to what comes out of it… “Sometimes this is the moment when everything opens up. Sometimes when it closes down”, says John Atkinson. Indeed, confirms Scott Gould: “I often find such moments and conversations can be transformational”.


Now, a big part of the work when it comes to resistance is to examine your own beliefs and your own role in the process.

Coach Jayne Harrison asks:What are you assuming about their resistance? What might be different if you were to notice it out loud? What do you want to have happen? Is this creating any interference for you/them? How do you know there's ‘no appetite’… could it be something else?”. These questions are meant to guide self-supervision. Jayne also suggests to “use different lenses to examine the situation: self, client, your relationship, the team/organisation/system to see if it brings up any new insights”. Great advice.

Kenneth Mikkelsen, whose wisdom I have admired for a long time, says it’s always a delicate matter. “Deep down you might have to ask yourself what they want as opposed to what you believe they need. They likely brought you in for that, but some people got scared/overwhelmed along the way or don’t have power/mandate to influence key decisions. And then it always boils down to your own values. Will you do it given the constraints, altered scope/resources and potential extra work? Can you live with not making the impact you wish to make? Is it just a corporate Robin Hood project? What else could you be doing?”

To these amazing, inspiring questions, Dr. Josie McLean adds one, her favorite to herself (and likely to become my favorite too):In what way am I fueling the mess?

John Atkinson, whose post “Killing the Change Agent” I cannot recommend enough, closes this section with this remark: “all the best work I feel I’ve done has caused me to re-examine what I think, as the consultant you go through the change too”.

Reframe Together

After you’ve asked questions to understand better, after you’ve honestly challenged yourself, it is probably a good idea to reframe the project together with your sponsor, in partnership. Or, as Stowe Boyd says: “Create a new first step. Doesn't have to be a denial of what occurred, but stepping back to reframe the situation”.

It may not be easy, Jon Leighton acknowledges. “Often short-term imperative of consulting is to keep the program going, a lost day is a day’s revenue lost forever. The right thing to do is 'pull the kanban cord'. Pause, seek clear understanding of original intent, what's changed, potential paths to joint value”.

Dr Jen Frahm suggests a “recontracting conversation: client, you initially bought me in to do x. Based on evidence of y, it appears there’s been a shift in your requirements. Is this true? For me to meet your stated needs I need z. How do you wish to continue?” It is the old "maybe we should reassess objectives now that we have learned some things" tactic, Bruce McTague writes. “You have the hard discussion on objective setting midstream (again) & offer them an offramp if they do not want to pursue”.

Also, “what does the contract say?” Leighton asks [– or the job description, for an in-house change maker]. “Not a great starting point, having to refer to the contract can be a signal of relationship breakdown, but assuming there's an SOW, reviewing that with Customer to look for where the miss occurred is important”.

Before it comes to that, and in the spirit of establishing a partnership, it might be helpful to share your own needs – after all, you’re the change maker whose help was sought in the first place. Says Andi Roberts: “The consultant’s wants & offers are not being met. Does the client know this or care? If not, re-contracting is needed. The consultant is being asked to be a ‘pair of hands’ or ‘do as I say’ and their ‘expertise’ and ‘collaborator’ roles are being dismissed”.

Reframing might be “breaking the project down in smaller packages and quicker turnarounds,” Dennis Boecker writes. “For smaller packages it is easier to agree on commitment of resources and measurable success”.

Conversely, reframing might lead to upscaling. “I usually raise the stakes and push the project to a higher, far more ambitious level, guiding on how to also accomplish stretch goals. I find that many clients find that inspiring and come at least part of the way. And those that don't are not right for me”, Andrew Walker writes. Paul Gray confirms it does happen: “A few projects I have been on (as both consultant and client) come to the crunch question of 'do we *have* to do this?' Often good reasons no appear. However, if pushed through, it ends at 'why didn't we do this earlier?'” Fingers crossed you and I can be as successful.

For this, it might help to release our sponsor’s fear, Claudia Vaccarone suggests, for example by showcasing successful cases. This is indeed helpful, but in a limited amount only, I have found. The “But-we’re-different-here” reflex is never long to set in, and there is often a tipping point when the sponsor stops listening to others’ stories.

Isn’t it time then to let go a bit?

Let Go

“I’ve been into a few of these convinced the job is over and it’s been the turning point. In a way, I’d let go, stopped trying to own someone else’s problem and by giving it back to them, the door opened,” John Atkinson writes.

What if we resisted the urge to control our end product? Since we’re often the ones inviting others to let go… we might as well apply this to ourselves.

Dan Sodergren suggests along this line: “Depends on the money and the outcomes. If they will give you lots of money and a glowing reference at the end... Then it's kinda out your hands what they do with the work you produce”. Let’s be pragmatic.

Step Back

What if we’re more radical and, instead of letting go and remaining involved, we step back? It might actually be a good tactic.

“Previously, despite presenting outcomes in their language (an approach I always try to adopt) I told a client something they did not want to hear. I realised the right tactic was to take a step back and give recommendations time to land. Sure enough 6 months later I was back.” That was gutsy, Paul J. Corney!

“If they need you and have respect for you, they will be back, and then you are in the driving seat. If they don't then you have lost nothing – they would have been a nightmare client,” Martin White adds.

Fire The Client!

Some of us may not have the patience. There are other projects to support, other people in need of impact. Life is short.

“Apart from all the practical considerations (terms of the agreement and things like that), my answer is simply ‘leave’”, Mark Storm writes. Jon Husband puts it even more provocatively: “Fire the client.  If you've never done that before, the first time is an interesting experience.”

For someone who has long felt oppressed by managerial mediocrity in large companies, and who has dreamed of kicking some butt, it is very tempting I must say. Maybe not the best idea when work is scarce, or when you’re the family breadwinner. But if the enquiry has uncovered a “values mismatch”, as Cat Barnard puts it, firing the client might actually be the only wise solution. Your sanity is worth it. In any case, “leave a trace in their mind as ‘positive solution finder/implementer’, which will always keep the door open,” Denis Florent advises.

And more wisdom from Jon:

“The corporate-organizational world offers us such a difficult paradox. People work in them, and often what motivates us is what we have experienced and believing it could be (and perhaps will be) better for the people that work there. But the corporate organization does not feel, and perhaps does not care. Many "change" programs are carried out because it has been decided on high that this needs to be done, but it is basically (for those up there) another program to have implemented. And many "implementations" are relatively soul-less and more difficult because it's just a program. The clients a change consultant works with are quite often those who have been tasked with the implementation. Often enough it's uncomfortable for them, unless it is a passionate issue for them?”

Avoid The Client

“The trick is to ‘fire them’ before they become a ‘client’,” says Valdis Krebs (or to NOT join that team, that company…). “That ‘sixth sense’ comes with experience... but alas, is never perfect”.

This reassures me, and worries me at the same time. Sometimes, when you pitch an idea, you get carried away by your own enthusiasm (at least that happens to me); you fail to notice weak signals of misalignment, or you don't want to believe them. Confirmation bias, associated with the opportunity of a great job or a great contract, can easily cloud our judgment. So, I'm pretty sure I'll make (or re-make) mistakes in choosing my clients in the future. C’est la vie ! Everything is a learning opportunity. At least, when a new project comes in, we’re better prepared.

Create Conditions For Success

This online discussion uncovered a few tips that might be useful at the onset of a fresh relationship with a new sponsor.

Be super clear about contracting, roles, responsibilities, expectations etc., Jayne Harrison suggests. The sponsor needs to understand it takes time for change to happen. They can't just mandate for it. They also need to change.

Be vigilant not to get caught up in “shelfware” (if possible): a study, verbal report, presentation, piece of consulting work… that the sponsor just park on the shelf. “Many management consulting topics fall into this possibility when clients virtue signal but don’t really want to change,” David Crouch writes; “anything where no further action is taken and was probably predictable from the outset”.

Test the water (David Crouch’ 1-2-3 approach): “I used to spend considerable upfront free time working with clients on difficult consulting areas before committing to doing the work. I now encourage a 1-2-3 approach. 1. Do some free work to assess fit. 2. Do a very small billable piece to see what will happen as the client sees the outcomes and deliverables. 3. Commit to the larger scope and scale if 1 and 2 are successful. Expect to drop clients after 1 & 2”

Let the sponsor experience and practice some of your suggested ideas, rather than just showing cases, says Kenneth Mikkelsen.

To end up this amazing convoy of wise minds, a few more nuggets:

  • We’re often more ambitious for our sponsors than they are about themselves: “I often find my expectations for my clients are higher than theirs” (@josiemclean)
  • Change is tough work: “People see the change; they want the change; but they aren’t able to see the consequences of the hard work in between” (@marksstorm)
  • Don’t assume your sponsor and you understand the project identically: “’People engagement’, even explained, doesn't mean the same thing for everyone. We see things through our experiences and values” (yours truly)
  • Consulting is hard: “It’s so tough. To try to engage with integrity and satisfy the client at the same time. This is the inherent consulting conundrum” (@changingview)

Many, many thanks to all for your most valuable input. I hope this synthesis is useful to you as it is to me! Best of luck in your change endeavors

Tributes to:

@Andi_Roberts, @bluegoldwalker, @boecker_dennis, @BruceMctague, @cat_pearce71, @cecildjx, @changingview, @claudia_v_, @dansodergren, @dcrouchca, @denisflorent, @evolutionorgdev, @fheublein, @IntranetFocus, @JayneHarrison3, @jenfrahm, @john_atki, @jonhusband, @jonleighton88, @josiemclean, @KenHMikkelsen, @marksstorm, @paulgray_DS, @PaulJCorney, @rhappe, @scottgould, @stoweboyd, @ValdisKrebs

This piece was first posted on Céline Schillinger’s blog.

Celine Schillinger
Celine Schillinger
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October 7, 2021
New York