Sustaining Change: Think Dolphins, Not Whales

In my last post, I discussed the use of agile development techniques to implement new sales tools, training strategies, methodologies or processes for the sales organization.  But a successful deployment only makes the tool or process available. The real effort is in ensuring long-term adoption and lasting behavioral change that achieve the desired return on investment.

A great deal of research and more than a few models, books and blogs addressing organizational change are available. One of my favorite analogies comes from David Feeny – a prominent British academic and authority on business transformation – who compares dolphins to whales to demonstrate the right way to sustain change.

As Feeny explains, dolphins surface frequently to take short breaths, communicate and ensure contact with the rest of the pod.  The level of effort required for each breath is small.  Whales, on the other hand, tend to take long breaths, dive deep and stay submerged for long periods of time.  The level of effort to surface for another breath is significant.

When applied to organizational change, the “whales vs. dolphins” concept involves dividing large projects into a series of short steps or phases – similar to how dolphins breathe.  Each step delivers quantifiable benefits, recognizes success, encourages members of the organization who are leading the change effort, and moves the organization closer to embedding the new behavior as standard practice.

SiriusDecisions has identified three common guidelines for maximizing post-deployment effectiveness of any project:

  1. Communicate, and keep communicating. Change is difficult, and the reasons for the change need to be clear.  A communication plan addresses key stakeholders, participants, executive sponsors and members of the project team.  It keeps them informed of progress, reinforces the project benefits, answers the “what’s in it for me?” question and sets expectations.
  2. Lead by example.  Executives and managers cannot take a “do as I say, not as I do” approach.  They must visibly and actively incorporate the new process, terminology or tool into their daily routine. For example, if the organization is implementing a new sales force automation (SFA) platform, leadership must use the SFA for forecasting, pipeline management, opportunity management and account planning.
  3. Set consistent expectations. Make behavioral expectations clear and hold sales reps accountable across all regions, geographies and units.  Establishing expectations at the organizational level takes the issue out of individual managers’ hands and empowers them to enforce a set of requirements.  For example, set the expectation that forecast calls will be conducted using the SFA platform – not spreadsheets or external documents.  Managers must be held responsible for ensuring data in the SFA platform is accurate and current.

Business change initiatives should always be driven by benefits that support strategy.  Taking the dolphin vs. whale approach – also often described as executing in small, manageable chunks (SMACs) – decreases the risk associated with large, complex projects, allows project managers to make mid-course corrections and delivers quick wins that provide momentum for the ultimate success of the project.

About the Author

Steve Silver is Research Director of Sales Operations Strategies at SiriusDecisions. Steve brings with him more than 20 years of executive-level experience spanning sales operations, sales and product marketing.


  • Kevin Avery, 28th February 2014 at 2:35 pm



    In my comment to the Agile post, I mentioned parallel to strategy. I hope it’s not unwelcome to do a little interdisciplinary dot-connecting.

    Richard Rumelt talks about the importance of “proximate goals”, things that the organization can be expected to meet or exceed. Dolphins in your conception. Setting up quick wins, a series of small victories instead of enduring angst –or risking organizational quit–waiting for one giant dice roll to prove successful. He also cites challenges of “chain-link” systems, where focus on one link typically has little or no, or even adverse, effect. IMO, Sales (plus all who support/feed/inform it like Marketing) poses a classic chain-link system challenge. That’s what makes it inherently challenging to improve, even without all the behavioral/emotional human nature impediments. Of course the upside of successfully dealing with chain-link systems is that advantage is surprisingly sustainable because of the difficulty in copy-catting and the unlikeliness that copying one element will help.

    Most sales organizations doubly fail, not setting sufficiently proximate goals while refusing to reckon with the chain-link nature of sales resourcing and execution. Sales Ops propagates tools and training as individual silver bullets, which at worst is waste and at best leaves huge unrealized potential. Pressure to “at least do SOMETHING” perpetuates this vicious cycle, activity-MBOs condone it, and nature makes us as poor at perceiving missed opportunity as we are highly attuned to noticing what threatens to be taken away.

    This leaves enormous opportunity for a firm like Sirius Decisions to turn a subtle shift in perspective into helping clients break away.

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