“It’ll never fly, Wilbur!”

That’s standard response to questions about harebrained ideas that clearly won’t work.

Why? To put my pessimism in context, that’s why. Punditry doesn’t have much of a track record. Since humankind’s pundits resisted not only the airplane but also the automobile, the steel plow, and every other useful innovation in history, it’s safe to speculate that when Glock first fished out a chunk of meat that had accidentally fallen into his fire and ate it anyway, his troglodyte neighbors warned him that “Ock narb blishk kank gack nork!” ( “You’re going to die! Fire poisons meat!”).

For the most part, people resist change. Our entire evolutionary history tells us change is bad. Although we got lucky last time the comet hit, clearing out the dinosaurs so we mammals could take over the planet, this time, unless Bruce Willis comes through, we’re the goners.

Which is why major changes need sponsors to succeed: People resist change.

There is no way to emphasize the need for a sponsor strongly enough. If you’re involved in a major change initiative right now, take a second to reconnoiter. Do you see a high-level corporate executive sponsoring it?

If not, recruit one immediately. If you can’t, run away. Hide under a rock until the dust settles. Politely decline. Get transferred to another department. Whatever you do, disassociate yourself from the impending disaster, because major change requires consistent, active leadership … in other words, a sponsor.

Not just anyone can be a sponsor. Here’s what it takes:

  • Authority: Sponsors must be in a position to make decisions. What is a decision? It’s the commitment of time, money, and resources. (This is a useful definition in other contexts, too. Whenever someone delegates a decision to you, confirm your delegated authority by asking if you can commit time, money, and resources to the result. If not, you’ve only been asked to make a recommendation.)
  • Personal benefit: Sponsors must benefit from the proposed change personally. Business schools talk about business benefit, return on investment analysis, and lots of other side-issues, but what drives change in real corporations is personal benefit, which is as it should be in a capitalist, market economy. What, you expect altruism? Sorry — capitalism is based the expectation that individuals maximize their “utility” — they do what’s best for themselves. So your sponsor must personally benefit from the proposed change or one of two things is true: Either your sponsor is two beers shy of a six-pack, or your “sponsor” is merely a figurehead who will cut and run at the first sign of trouble.
  • Emotional commitment: Lots of things are good for you. Most, like tofu, are things you’d rather avoid. (Honk if you love tofu, but not near me, OK?) Change involves risk, so sponsorship requires emotional commitment to the result. If your sponsor doesn’t want the change passionately, your sponsor won’t put his or her neck on the chopping block when the time comes to take the risks and make the commitments major change needs from time to time.

    In return for all this, you have one responsibility to the sponsor of any change you’re involved in: Communicate. In particular, don’t withhold bad news. Sponsors take significant personal risks on behalf of the change they’re sponsoring; don’t let them get blindsided. If the schedule is going to slip, tell your sponsor. If you need more staff, tell your sponsor. If you’re out of your depth and need help, tell your sponsor. If you just keep saying, “We’re doing fine, chief!” until the ship sinks, all you’ve done is drag someone underwater with you who could have saved your neck.

One more thing: Sometimes, sponsors leave in the middle of the change. It happens. What should you do? Keep working on the change, but don’t take any risks. Keep your head down. Assign your sponsor’s successor to the sponsorship role by setting up regular status meetings. You need to find out if you have a new sponsor because if you don’t … go looking for that rock to hide under — you’re exposed.