NIATx Principle #2: Fix Key Problems (And Help the CEO Sleep at Night)

Mat Roosa, LCSW-R
NIATx Coach



The NIATx model is driven by five principles that research has shown to be the hallmarks of successful improvement projects. These five principles emerged from an analysis of decades’ worth of research that gathered data from 640 organizations in 13 industries, examining 80 factors on why certain projects fail while others succeed.

Principle 1, Understand and Involve the Customer, is the single most important action a change team can take to set up a project for success. In fact, the NIATx research analysis showed that this one principle has a greater impact on success than the other four combined. (See related blog post: Why Understanding and Involving the Customer Matters in Behavioral Health.)

Lose sight of your customer (your client), and you lose sight of success. 

Principle 2: Fix Key Problems (And Help the CEO Sleep at Night) switches the focus to leadership. If a change project is to be successful, it needs the full support of the agency’s leadership. The way to ensure that support is by addressing the problems that truly matter to the CEO.

Kim Linwood of Milwaukee learned the NIATx principles at
NIATx Change Leader Academy in Madison, WI, June 2019.

Change Project Pitfall: Lack of executive sponsorship
Often when change leaders are completing the NIATx project charter, they come to the “executive sponsor” box, and simply fill in the name of their supervisor.

Many are fond of saying that “team” is more of a verb than a noun. It is the act of “teaming” that creates results. The executive sponsor role in relation to the change team reflects this same truth. That is why we need to ask a critical follow-up question: Who is the Executive Sponsor, and what are they doing to ensure the success of the change project?

If everything is a priority…
We all know the second half of this statement: then nothing is a priority.

Executive Sponsors create and maintain priorities. One of the most powerful functions of the Executive Sponsor can be expressed in the following contrasting statements from two Executive Sponsors:

  • ES #1: “This change project is important, but make sure you keep doing everything else that we are already working on.”
  • ES #2: “This change project is important, so I am going to reassign a couple of tasks to make sure that you have the time you need for the change project to succeed.”

Strong Executive Sponsors like #2 approve the new project for takeoff, and they clear the runway to make sure that the project can pick up the speed it needs to lift off. It is critical to have the ES at the table during the formative stages of the project development to ensure adequate engagement and support. When an ES is reluctant to come to the table beyond a simple approval of the project, the Change Leader can help by reminding the ES of their critical role:

  • We need you to role model support for the change project.
  • We need you to dedicate resources to this effort.
  • We need you to remove the obstacles to our success.
  • We need you to encourage our team.

Change projects with weak executive sponsorship often fail to get off the ground. Change projects with strong executive sponsorship can soar.

About our Guest Blogger 
Mat Roosa was a founding member of NIATx and has been a NIATx coach for a wide range of projects. He works as a consultant in the areas of quality improvement, organizational development and planning, evidence-based practice implementation, and also serves as a local government planner in behavioral health in New York State. His experience includes direct clinical practice in mental health and substance use services, teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and human service agency administration. 
You can reach Mat at: matroosa@gmail.com

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