Leon M. Hielkema: An interview by Bob Morris

SONY DSCLeon M. Hielkema has more than 15 years of international experience in developing, executing, and evaluating strategic change projects. He has successfully coached many internal professionals over the years and is a featured speaker and trainer. His book Strategic Management SPOMP was awarded finalist in the “Best New Business Book” category of the 2012 USA Best Book Awards, received an honorable mention in the New England Book Festival 2012, and was named a finalist in the business category of the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. With his book, he gives new, refreshing insights on how to successfully effect change in complex organizations. It approaches change projects in a fundamentally different way. It does not focus on the project management technique, but on the process of influencing and persuading people. In other words, the focus is on actively creating support and buy-in by “seducing” stakeholders into the change that needs to be achieved.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Hielkema: This might surprise you. A very important business principle is expressed in the movie The Karate Kid. Remember that he meets this old Japanese guy whose favorite hobby is growing bonsai trees? He tells Karate Kid to paint his fence and to wax his car. “Wax on Wax off.” Karate Kid started doing these chores without knowing “why” he had to do them. At a certain moment he felt like a handyman for the old man. He questioned the purpose of these chores, so he quit his duties. He first wanted to know what it had to do with his quest to learn karate.

This scene shows that people will work for (or with) you if you explain them “why” something needs to be done. Karate Kid needed to do these chores to train his defensive techniques. He learned that this was the starting point for becoming a karate master. After Karate Kid was told the goal, he started waxing and painting even harder, since he was motivated to perform.

The business lesson here is that you can get things done if you explain to people “why” they have to change their opinion, attitude, working method, or daily routine. The most important mistake leaders make is to leave out the “why” and tell/order people “what to do.” But just like the old Japanese guy, you will be much more effective if you convince people first of the “why of the change” and subsequently “what you need them to do.”

Why I like this particular scene of the movie is that it manages to explain a complex principle in its most basic form, in just a few minutes. Leadership, running for public office, project managers, CEOs, MBA students, change agents…They all thrive on how to explain the “why” and win people over. You need to convince your team “why” their zeal is necessary. And you have to convince your stakeholders “why” they have to change their behavior or attitude. From this point onward you can start telling them “what to do”. Strategic Management SPOMP helps you to strategically design a communications strategy to influence the client, internal users, and other stakeholders and seduce them to follow your lead, or as Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching puts it:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Also quotes from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it,” Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken,” and Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I can very much relate to them.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Hielkema: Delegating work is complex because it only feels good if you have trust that your subordinates will do as well as yourself. C-level execs are having a difficult time delegating work because they are difficult to support. The C-suite should train their staff to not only come up with a solution, but also with a plan or strategy on how to implement this solution in daily practice. Explain the ‘why” behind it (like a storyteller as you eloquently put it) in order to energize them to change the way they are used doing things. Reach out to your staff members and guide them through this change process. Tell them to SPOMP their projects!

Morris: So I’m right to believe that most of the material could also be of substantial value to residents of the C-Suite?

Hielkema: Can’t agree more. Besides comments on the scope of my book I also received many comments on its applicability to higher management levels in an organization. Furthermore, I received several enthusiastic comments from less experienced project and change managers, saying the five SPOMP strategies should become part of their basic training. In practice the book seems to work for different disciplines, on all levels within an organization.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Hielkema: Resistance is indeed cultural in nature. People simply do not like to change their behavior, attitude, or working method. This is because most people do not like to exchange a safe and familiar way of working for an unknown one. Even if you show them the imperfections of the current situation and the benefits of the new situation, the majority of people will still be reluctant to change.

In order to avoid resistance and built support and buy-in, project managers and change managers ought to communicate with stakeholders as soon as the project commences. Communicate about the project’s ultimate goal and via which process the team is planning to reach that goal. This gives stakeholders the opportunity to first get accustomed to the “why” of the change. As soon as they are convinced of the “why,” then you can seduce them to think constructively on “how” to implement this change. Consciously making this U-turn from “why change” to “how to change” with stakeholders will create much more support and buy-in for the change you want to achieve.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the great need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Hielkema: MBA programs should not only focus on developing the theoretical best solution, but should take it to the next level, that is, strategies and plans to implement this solution in daily practice.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Strategic Project Management SPOMP. When and why did you decide to write it? Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Hielkema: The idea to write this book was originally born out of wonder and astonishment at the same time. Various studies show that only 20-50 percent of projects are successful. While more and more project managers are being trained in formal project management techniques such as PMBOK, PRINCE2, MSP, and Agile, the percentage of successful project has not much improved in the last decade. “Why are these well educated project managers not capable of completing their project on time, within budget, and of the agreed quality?”

Research shows that a project’s success is mainly influenced by two factors: creating executive support (the client) and involving users (the internal user) in the project. But how to create support and buy-in from these stakeholders? How to built engagement, ownership, and commitment for strategic initiatives? How to deal with resistance to change current behavior or working method?

In my workshops and coaching sessions these fundamental questions frequently emerged. In 2009 the idea was born to write a book about the human side of project and change management. This soft side is largely neglected by authors in the field. They keep on focusing on the technical side of managing change projects, even though research shows that only 6% of a project’s success can be attributed to the project management technique.

Eventually it lead to five new strategies that professionals can use to seduce (as in allure or entice) the client, internal users and other stakeholders into change. In order to achieve this, concepts from the fields of psychology, project management, change management, and marketing are being utilized.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Hielkema: Actually I was not planning to write a book. It all started with recollecting my notes on previous assignments and individual coaching cases. I was very successful in coaching an individual professional in a specific situation but always had the feeling that my recommendations had a deeper message, a more fundamental layer. I took some time off to discover patterns in individual cases. As a test I emailed some of my apprentices a summary of my findings. The response was overwhelming. Some even noticed some coherence between the recommendations. They all wanted to learn more and I slowly got accustomed to the idea of writing Strategic Project Management SPOMP.

Morris: There are many books on project management and change management. Why buy this book?

Hielkema: Project management books tend to focus primarily on developing a plan that keep projects on schedule and within budget. This basis is necessary to efficiently run a project but is not enough. The human side (creating support/buy-in and preventing resistance) is an absolute necessity to achieve a successful organizational and behavioral change.

Books on change management pay better attention to the human side of implementing change. However, they lack a structured plan to keep the project on schedule and within budget.

Strategic Project Management SPOMP integrates the best of both worlds. It uses a project plan to gradually [begin italics] seduce [end italics] stakeholders into change. This integrated approach is unique and cannot be found in other books.

Morris: Please explain “SPOMP.”

Hielkema: SPOMP is an acronym of the five strategies presented in my book. These strategies help to seduce the client, internal users, and other stakeholders to change their attitude, working method, or behavior. Each strategy is a building block to become even more successful in implementing the organizational or behavioral change that you want to achieve.


Select Your Stakeholders (S): Office politics always plays a major role when you want to realize change in your organization. Politics is often viewed as a negative force on the project, but you can turn it into a positive. To use politics as a positive force, you need to carefully select the stakeholders who can influence others to favor your project. Strategic Project Management SPOMP describes how to determine which stakeholders you need to select in order to use office politics to your advantage.

Plan to Communicate (P): In order to [begin italics] seduce [end italics] stakeholders into change, you need to communicate on a frequent basis with them. This is essential in order to create multiple opportunities for yourself to positively influence stakeholders in adopting and embracing your change initiative. Frequent communication from the start of the project ensures that stakeholders are not confronted with a change, but that they are “taken along” in the change project. In this way, stakeholders will get accustomed to the idea of change, and this will significantly reduce potential resistance. Strategic Project Management SPOMP describes in two clear steps how to efficiently plan frequent communication moments with stakeholders.

Organize Influence (O): A steering committee, project board, or another governance body can help you to create support and buy-in for the change that you want to realize in your organization. Strategic Project Management SPOMP describes how you can utilize such a body to successfully create this support. You will learn how to strategically organize your influence in such a way that the governance body will start working for you.

Market Your Change Initiative (M): Just as a manufacturer uses marketing to seduce customers into purchasing a product, you can use marketing to seduce stakeholders into change. Therefore, you need to view your change initiative as a product that you want to sell to stakeholders. Strategic Project Management SPOMP describes how to sell your initiative by marketing your project, the capabilities of your team, and yourself as the orchestrator of the change.

Prove Potential Success (P): The challenge of the fifth and last SPOMP strategy is to prove during the project that your project will be successful in the end. The goal is to create a positive attitude from stakeholders regarding the organizational change that you want to realize. If you can convince stakeholders of this potential success, then it becomes much easier to seduce them into change.

Strategic Project Management SPOMP describes how to seduce stakeholders by proving the potential success of your project.[end italics] stakeholders into change because it shows you who (S), when (P), and how (O, M, and P) to seduce. By SPOMPing your project, you will make the stakeholder’s mind receptive to your ideas, even before implementing them in your organization. This greatly enhances your chances of achieving a successful change.

Morris: Here’s one of several dozen passages that caught my eye: Strategic Project Management SPOMP approaches change projects in a different way. It does not focus on the project management technique, but on the process of influencing and persuading people. In other words, the focus is on ‘seducing’ stakeholders into the change that you want to achieve.” Please explain. For example, what do you mean by “seducing”?

Hielkema: Traditional project management techniques (for example PMBOK, PRINCE2, or MSP) are very effective in producing an end product or service, such as an advisory report on how to implement organizational change. However, an organizational change cannot be achieved with just a report. Achieving change is a process of communicating and interacting with multiple stakeholders. Therefore, your focus should not be on efficiently developing the report, but on the people who need to adopt (the recommendations in) your report.

Seducing stakeholders” means that you make the stakeholders’ minds susceptible to accept the change you want to achieve with your project. This goes a step further then creating engagement, buy-in, or support. The goal is to create a demand for change (pull-strategy) while executing your project. [begin italics] Seducing [end italics] (as in alluring or enticing) stakeholders means to influence them to become positive about the change. Creating this positive attitude will greatly enhance your chances to implement a successful organizational and behavioral change.

Morris: In my review of the book for various Amazon websites, I praise it for its practical, do-able advice. Your focus is certainly on HOW to organize institutional change successfully. Briefly, please explain HOW to achieve several specific objectives. First, HOW to identify Stakeholders

Hielkema: To determine which stakeholders you need in order to let office politics work for you, you first need to brainstorm with your team about who is influencing whom in the political arena. A powerful approach to explore these influential relationships is stretching yourself to identify more stakeholders than you are used to doing.

To identify all potential stakeholders in the political arena, you must distance yourself from the project. Look at how your project could contribute to the organization’s strategic mission and which stakeholders would benefit from this. Identify also which stakeholders would be impacted by your project in the short term. Furthermore, you can examine stakeholder lists of other projects, review the organizational chart, and ask team members, customers, and any other confirmed stakeholders to help you identify additional stakeholders.

Morris: Plan what you characterize as “communication moments”

Hielkema: A communication moment can be defined as every opportunity to positively influence stakeholders and to gradually seduce them to buy into the change you want to realize. It’s a moment in the project that allows you to communicate with your stakeholders and to trigger feedback. This frequent feedback during the project enables you to dynamically align your project to the ever-changing reality. Via communication moments you can manage stakeholders’ expectations. When planning to communicate (second SPOMP strategy) you pro-actively create understanding for each other’s opinion and the differences in interests.

Morris: Form strategic coalitions

Hielkema: Every change project can greatly benefit from a steering committee, PIT team, project review board, project office, budget committee, steering group, project governance team, commission, reference board, or project board. These so-called governance bodies can be used as vehicles to convey your ideas on how to achieve a successful change. The third SPOMP strategy “Organize Influence” shows how you can utilize such a body to [begin italics] seduce [end italics] stakeholders into change. You will learn how you can organize your influence in such a way that the governance body starts working for you.

A powerful approach is to first make sure that the actual interests in the political arena are reflected in the body. If the interests discussed in the body reflect the actual political interests, then it becomes much easier for you to achieve change at the project level.

Subsequently, you need to determine which political powers you would like to include as a body member to voice these different interests. By controlling who will be invited as a member, you will increase your influence because you can form strategic coalitions with these members. For example you can include advocates of the intended change in the body meeting to eliminate potential resistance from other body members. In my book I also recommend to include a “careershaper” in the body. This not only fosters your career, but also secures the availability of resources for your project. With this careershaper, you can form a coalition if, for example, the client and/or internal users start making unrealistic demands regarding your project.

By forming a coalition with these stakeholders, you empower yourself to steer the decision-making process of the body. If you can steer this process, then the governance body is working for you.

Morris: Determine “indicators of success”

Hielkema: Proving potential success (fifth and final SPOMP strategy) means gathering proof that your project will be successful in achieving change, while executing it. Proving “potential” success is extremely powerful because it provides you with arguments that you can use to sell your change initiative. It gives you the proverbial “carrot” to [begin italics] seduce [end italics] stakeholders into change.

In order to prove this potential success, you will need indicators on which you can assess success. The key is to identify indicators that are easy to measure and apply to multiple stakeholders. Strategic Project Management SPOMP reveals five potent approaches to identify potential success indicators: a) blow up the problem; b) around the end goal; c) butter up the intended situation; d) demonstrate popularity; and e) ask your stakeholders.

Morris: Leveraging the benefits of SPOMP

Hielkema: The SPOMP strategies combined significantly reduce resistance because stakeholders are taken along in the change process. It also dramatically increases support and buy-in because marketing and organizational politics are being utilized to positively influence the stakeholders’ perception of the change.

The benefit of SPOMP is that you will become much more successful in seducing stakeholders into the change you want to achieve. Thanks to SPOMP you need less energy to lead your team and monitor and control the project. Ultimately this will boost your career within the organization for which you will be rewarded.

In addition, SPOMPing a project has many other beneficiaries. The client will experience a shorter project duration because there is less resistance at the time the change is going to be implemented. Furthermore, internal users will benefit from SPOMP because they are able to influence the change process. Moreover, team members will experience much more motivation to actively participate in the project because SPOMP delegates responsibility to them.

Morris: What is the “communication leverage effect”?

Hielkema: Communication leverage effect means by involving a person from a certain group, this group will be informed via that person. A classic example is that of a top salesman, who for many years sold three times more life insurances than other salesmen in his company. Most of the other salesmen went door to door to sell life insurances. The top salesman however, went to the chairman or treasurer of a neighborhood association. If he could persuade the chairman or treasurer, then this person became an ambassador for his product. Other members of the neighborhood association now were much easier to [begin italics] seduce [end italics] because someone from their midst had already purchased life insurance policy from this top salesman.

Morris: How best to formulate a “spider chart” and what can it help to achieve?

Hielkema: A “spider chart” is a graphical method of visualizing different values all related to one subject. It can be used to compare a before and after situation and shows changes on values. For example, a “spider chart” can help to visualize how the value of the indicator – awareness of the problem by stakeholders – has changed due to your team’s efforts. By presenting this spider chart to stakeholders, you can positively influence their perception about the project and the change you want to realize.

Morris: For those about to read the book, you suggest the “Wikipedia search methodology.” Please explain.

Hielkema: Professionals are time-pressed and therefore the “Wikipedia search methodology” is applied to my book. The advantage is that the reader can decide the reading route through the content of the book. It does not matter if he/she starts with reading the introduction, the index, or a subject in the table of contents that appeals most. All subjects are cleverly interconnected. Double brackets [] are used in the text to refer to paragraphs in this book, where the concerned subject will be explored in more depth. Professionals will be able to get quicker (wiki is Hawaiian for “quick”), customized insights that fit their own change or project management style.

Morris: Which of the five strategies you recommend seems to be most difficult to execute?

Hielkema: Success is already difficult to prove after a project is finished, let alone to prove success while the project is still being executed. So therefore, proving the potential success (fifth SPOMP strategy) is the most difficult to execute. But if you find a way to prove potential success and present it to stakeholders, the benefits are substantial.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Strategic Project Management SPOMP, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Hielkema: Leaders in small companies have the advantage that they “know” the stakeholders in the political arena due to previous projects or as colleagues within the organization. Therefore, they recognize more or less who will benefit from the change and who will benefit from maintaining the current situation (actual situation). This insight offers a strategic advantage but is often not used to its full potential. Therefore I would suggest to start with appendix B or the first SPOMP strategy and let the respective wiki structure guide them through the book.

* * *

Leon cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His homepage

His Amazon page

His blog

For interesting tweets on strategic project management, change management, office politics, and how to successfully implement organizational and behavioral change, please check here.

He also invites you to become friends on Facebook , Google, and/or LinkedIn.

Leon is looking forward to hearing from you!

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