Trailblazer Programs: A Path for Successful Change

© 2000 Marie Benesh and Shiela Smith,

Trailblazer projects provide the critical engine for change in an organization. Through trailblazers, an organization can achieve the structural and behavioral changes that it desires in its IT organizational model. It is an essential, realistic and practical way to create real culture change in an organization.

Trailblazer projects provide the critical engine for change in an organization. Through trailblazers, an organization can achieve the structural and behavioral changes that it desires in its IT organizational model. The goal of trailblazers is to maximize business value during a transition, while providing a vehicle to build new skills and behaviors in a controlled fashion. It is an essential, realistic and practical way to create real culture change in an organization.

Leveraging the pull of business programs

Changes in the IT organization, culture and ways of operating must be accomplished while working on real business projects. The business world doesn’t stop — it continues to demand that IT programs be conducted to meet business needs, even as the technology, skills, and processes needed to deliver IT products and services are themselves undergoing significant change.

Trailblazer programs transfer new skills and introduce new processes and behaviors to the organization while delivering business value. They do so by using the real business programs and the people who must change as the catalyst that “pulls” the changes into the organization. The natural energy that surrounds an important business program is used to effect positive change, by identifying change opportunities that already exist and will be seen as providing value.

A key premise behind trailblazers is that it is possible to organize and manage change so that each effort builds on past initiatives and contributes to the future. Trailblazers are structured as a series of overlapping programs, so that lessons of each program can be cascaded, as participants gain experience and confidence. Trailblazers do not rely on the trail-blazing initiative of a single, bold leader, but on the cooperative progress of a well-orchestrated team. The team spends its time working to implement change in real situations.

Key goals

Key goals of using trailblazers include:

  • Delivering business benefit while building new skills, new approaches, and culture changes
  • Building commitment to and knowledge in the new ways of working
  • Testing, confirming and improving processes and infrastructure as it is used on real programs
  • Providing a network for those involved in early change Demonstrating early success
  • Providing a means to collect and retain knowledge and experience about the changes being implemented

Removing the pilot mentality

Historically, organizations have chosen ‘pilot’ projects to test new technology in low risk situations. The concept was that pilots can fail without doing serious damage to the business and are usually an inexpensive way to test a new approach. When a pilot proves that a new approach is workable, it typically does so within an ideal setting — using the best talent, a simple project, and an environment structured to be risk-free.

Pilots are especially valuable in the ‘proof of concept’ stage. Though proving that a new approach will work is necessary, it isn’t sufficient for sustained change. Pilots are often precursors to trailblazers, but rarely do pilots alone create a transferable experience that propagates change beyond one project.

Trailblazers recognize that your goal is not to test, but to implement new approaches so that value is derived as quickly as possible. The pilot mentality is one of testing, while the trailblazer is one of commitment. Each trailblazer takes a few aspects of the change you are trying to implement, and does just that — implements it on a real program with real deliverables and involving real risk. The supportive environment you create for the trailblazers allows them to meet both the business and change objectives.

Trailblazers find the best path forward in creating the new environment. The stigma of a pilot program is removed, real deliverables are on the line, real risk is involved, and the programs must be made to deliver!

Selecting trailblazers

The selection of trailblazers is not an academic exercise — it is driven by the energy that exists in the organization around specific business initiatives. You should select a trailblazer based on two primary criteria:

It provides an opportunity for change in an area you’d like to change, and
it provides value in terms of a real business problem to be solved.

If you can clearly see where new skills, behaviors, or processes can be of immediate value to an upcoming or an existing business program, that program is a good trailblazer candidate. Multiple objectives exist for trailblazers:

  • Business objectives- objectives required to meet the business need
  • Change objectives- those objectives that focus on behavioral, structural, process, knowledge and skill changes

Multiple trailblazers running concurrently form a set of programs that, collectively, cover all of the changes you desire.

The dynamics of trailblazers

Trailblazers have a special relationship to processes and other improvements being conducted. As the processes and skills are being built, the trailblazers provide an environment where those processes and skills can be implemented and refined. This requires that there be sufficient process defined such that the trailblazer is not put in the position of creating it, but rather just providing feedback for refinement. It’s a tricky balancing act!

Trailblazers cannot and should not be approached in isolation. They must be tied to the overall vision and change goals and must work collectively to achieve these goals. This means that there must be mechanisms in place to share the knowledge gained among trailblazers and between trailblazers and other efforts that are defining processes, structures, and culture changes.

Change leadership and trailblazers

Trailblazers require strong change leadership in an organization. Although change leaders will naturally gravitate toward trailblazers because of their business value, trailblazers are not simple to manage — they aren’t a ‘neat and tidy’ approach to change. Change leaders must be educated about the trailblazer approach and what to expect in terms of the human dynamics of change as trailblazers unfold.

Getting started: where to begin

In selecting trailblazer candidates, begin by understanding the primary stakeholders and targets of the proposed change(s). Then examine your current and planned IT program/project portfolio to see which business programs may present opportunities to introduce new knowledge, skills, processes, behaviors and attitudes. Trailblazers can be either existing or new programs. If a trailblazer is an existing program, special care should be given to the timing of the introduction of the changes.

Asking the right questions

As you examine programs that may be good trailblazer candidates, consider the following:

  • Will the trailblazer candidate program engage critical change leaders?
  • Will it engage individuals who will need to serve as advocates for the change?
  • Are there specific opportunities for change presented by the candidate trailblazer — in terms of new skills, behaviors, knowledge, infrastructure, or attitudes?
  • What are those opportunities? Will these changes add significant value to the program (e.g., in terms of speed of delivery, quality, etc.)?
  • Are these changes manageable, given the program timing and context?
  • Will the program be able to deliver business value in a reasonable time frame (even if in phases), so that early success will be visible?
  • Is the sponsor of the business program an informed change leader regarding the IT process and behavior changes you plan to implement in the context of the business program?
  • Would the sponsor be amenable to using the program as a trailblazer?
  • Is the program team a representative sample of the type of individuals who will be asked to change throughout the organization?

Key considerations

Orienting trailblazer teams to their role in the transition

Be sure to help the trailblazer team understand the overall vision, the reasons for the transition, the trailblazer’s change objectives, their role in making change happen, and the resources and support available to them.

Gaining sponsorship of the Program Manager and the Client

The Program Manager and the Client are critical to the success of the trailblazer’s change objectives. Ensure there has been sufficient time spent with each and that they both believe in the value they will receive by being an active part of the trailblazer.

Linking the value of the trailblazer to the overall change initiative

Since the trailblazer is contributing to the overall change in the IT organization, linkage to that change is essential. Make the linkage visible up front and throughout the program.

Tendency to want to take on too much change too fast

Be careful in choosing change objectives. All changes do not need to be trail blazed in each and every trailblazer program. Select those changes that are clear opportunities in the candidate program. Better to choose a manageable number of changes to implement in each than to chance overwhelming the trailblazer team with too many changes too fast.

Measuring the success of trailblazers

How do you measure the success of trailblazers? As you monitor the trailblazer programs, consider the following:

  • Is the program meeting its change objectives?
  • Are knowledge transfer, skill development, and behavior change happening?
  • Is the customer seeing value in the improved ways of working?
  • Is the team feeling positive about the experience and the results?
  • Is the program building additional sponsorship for broader deployment of the changes?
  • What is the organization learning in the process of completing this trailblazer?
This entry was posted in Articles. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *