Sponsor, Agent, Target (SAT) – A Systems Approach to Everyday Work Life

This post, co-authored by Gil and Chris Crosby, is based on founder and father Robert P. Crosby’s adaptation of Daryl R. Conner’s change model.

In today’s organization, most people work with and depend on individuals outside of their immediate work group. Although commonplace, such “cross-functional” work is often poorly understood, resulting in conflict, wasted time, and failed effort. Sponsor, Agent, Target theory, originally conceived as a navigation system for guiding change, provides a roadmap for improving cross-functional effectiveness.

Picture a diagram of a simple org chart, in which Bob and Jill report to John, the Manager of Department A, and Cindy and Jeff report to Mary, the Manager of Department B. Imagine that John asks Bob (the “Agent”) to complete a task that requires working with Mary’s employees, Cindy and Jeff (the “Targets”). If everyone involved does their piece of the task, then there is no problem, and barring complications beyond their immediate influence (budget cuts, etc.), the task will go smoothly.

However, if Bob is not able to get the effort he needs from Mary’s employees (getting “resistance”), then thinking in terms of Sponsor/Agent/Target can be very useful. SAT helps sort out the “systemic” aspects of the problem (how the organization is working or not working) as opposed to focusing primarily on individual behavior (whether Bob, Cindy, or Jeff lack “people skills”). Bob, for example, will have a hard time being successful if Mary has not been told by her boss (or in this case, at least told by John) about the task and Bob’s role in it. If her superiors aren’t in the loop, or don’t really care about the task, then even if she is “informed” she is likely to be (and probably should be) focusing her group on other priorities.

These are the circumstances that “agents” often face. Bob may be great at interacting with Mary’s employees, and he may even go to great lengths to “make it happen” by taking on some of their responsibility, and still accomplish nothing besides getting tired, frustrated, or possibly sick. If Mary doesn’t want her employees to work on the task that Bob has been asked to work on, there is a lack of alignment in the system, and Bob, as well as the task, have not been set up for success.

That is what we mean here by a “systemic” issue. If the front end of your car is misaligned, does it make sense to blame your tire when it begins to wear? Yet that is often what happens in the work place: the “parts” (in this case Bob, Cindy, Jeff and their bosses) eventually are blamed and start blaming each other. Once things have dragged on long enough to attract attention, many organizations will try swapping out the parts without aligning the front end, and the process of “wear” begins again.

In contrast, if the system was working, Mary would already understand that the task is a priority (or would have pushed back at the right level) before Bob has even approached her group. Mary and her employees would then be likely to view Bob as a welcomed resource instead of a nuisance.

If this is not the case, and it often is not, Bob faces a fundamental choice. The first option, often perceived as the easiest, is the uphill, annoying, and frustrating battle of trying to persuade Mary’s employees to accomplish the task. Employees in Bob’s role often continue on this path for weeks, months, and sometimes even years. The second, perhaps initially seen as the tougher or less comfortable option, is that Bob could work to create the conditions that will help him be successful. He can encourage “sponsorship” by asking his boss to build an alliance with Mary about this work, or by going directly to Mary to ask her support of what he is doing. If he goes directly to Mary and she is not supportive of the work, then he needs to go back to his boss with the clarifying message: “there must be some mistake, Mary doesn’t want me to do that work.” If, on the other hand, Mary is supportive, then she can sponsor the work with her employees in a way that nobody else possibly can.

Sponsor, champion, change leader, or whatever you wish to call it, are terms loosely used and frequently misunderstood. John may have great ideas, or more likely be given responsibility to implement somebody else’s idea, and send his employee, Bob, over to Mary’s crew to turn those ideas into action, but he is not a true “sponsor” of Mary’s crew. You can only effectively sponsor people who report directly to you.

That may seem like a surprising statement. After all, organizations often implement large scale changes led by the highest person at a site, or a corporate officer, or the CEO. The trouble is, the farther removed from the targets, the less influence the person initiating the change really has. This is especially true if they are attempting to lead across work boundaries outside their chain of command (such as in the oft repeated mistake of an IT or HR manager trying to “sponsor” work in production). When a leader, no matter how high in the organization, attempts to lead initiatives across boundaries, they’re really no better off than any other agent, prone to all the barriers faced by Bob. When this happens the leader must do the up front work of seeking a sponsor at the top of the target organization, or pay later.

In other words, projects sponsored by a single individual, directly in the chain above all the effected groups, have a huge advantage. Even then, the leader faces the challenge of working through their direct reports to sustain that sponsorship down through the line so that the John and Mary’s of the world are well aligned and able to guide and support their employees.

So SAT is simple. Bob, after taking a reasonable stab at it, insists (politely) that sponsorship and alignment happens at the level where it needs to happen before proceeding with the work. A skilled agent advocates that the system do what it’s supposed to do to set the work up for success. Mary and John, for example, in order to gain alignment, could have a talk and agree on what needs to be done, or seek clarity from higher up if they can’t come to agreement. Mary could then talk with her crew, and Bob, about what she expects of them so that successful work can get done.

Unfortunately it is that simple, yet it isn’t. In the real world, employees may see talking to a boss about getting workers aligned to do work as “ratting” on each other, or may fear that raising the issue up the chain may send the message that they can’t get things done. It may run against values of duking it out with your siblings instead of running to mom or dad. Many employees, at all levels, will default to “proving” themselves by “handling things” themselves (that is, not “bothering” the boss) and will write resistance off as caused by “unchangeable personality conflicts.”

In short, it takes guts and skill to work out these situations. Employees need to recognize and flag alignment issues. When issues do get flagged, managers must focus their effort on building alignment at their level and above, and even let go of proposed work if alignment is not achieved, rather than blaming and “fixing” the people down below. This isn’t to say that there are never individual performance issues: focusing on the individual should be the exception, or at least a parallel path, rather than the standard knee-jerk response.

Simple and complex, Sponsor/Agent/Target is a way of helping sort out problems of alignment when work that crosses boundaries and layers isn’t going well. SAT can be used from any spot in an organizational chart as a way of creating progress when work and initiatives seem stuck.

About crosbyod

Crosby & Associates OD is a catalyst for high performance & morale. Our methods are a unique blend grounded in research and decades of experience. In the spirit of Kurt Lewin, the founder of OD, as we partner with you in the present we transfer our methods to you so you are independent in the future. Learn more at www.crosbyod.com
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