Clarifying roles is critical when cascading change

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Much of the existing advice on change assumes that the people who are leading a change are the same people who conceived it. Unless you work in a very small organization, that is usually not the case. Think about your own experience with leading change projects. How often were you the originator of the idea?

In the real world, change is often initiated at one level and then passed on to another person or group. This person or group then needs to influence another person or group to take ownership, and so on. This approach is often called cascading. According to experts at ChangeFirst, a UK-based firm specializing in change implementation, the cascade is the most prevalent approach to rolling out change in organizations.

Unfortunately, as a change is cascaded through an organization, the people who are being counted on to communicate to the next layer or level may themselves lack understanding, acceptance, and buy-in. As a result, change efforts fall apart over time rather than gain steam.

In my work, I find it useful to think about various roles that people play in rolling out a change. I find that the majority of change initiatives involve four key roles:

Strategists: Usually people in senior leadership who recognize a need to make a fundamental shift in one or more ways in which the company does business. The primary responsibility of the strategist is to envision the change.

Implementers: People who lead a change from the planning through the implementation stages. Often held accountable by others (strategists) for the success of the change effort. The primary responsibility of the implementer is to enable the change.

Translators: People who explain the change to those who are affected — especially those whose behavior ultimately needs to change in order for the initiative to succeed. The primary responsibility of the translator is to explain the change.

Recipients: People who are impacted by a change. These are usually people on the front line of the organization, but may also include managers and leaders as well. The primary responsibility of the recipient is to experience the change.

In addition to these four roles, there are two roles that may be also a part of a change effort:

Catalysts: People at any level of the organization who see a need for a change and who are able to focus others’ attention and energy on potential solutions. The primary responsibility of the recipient is to energize or mobilize others to take action.

Champions: Often people in senior leadership roles who act as the sponsor or spokesperson for a particular change effort. The champion may be the strategist, or may be an executive who has more political power or influence than the strategist. The primary responsibility of the champion is to pro-actively engage others to generate support for the change.

In order for your change efforts to succeed, you need to:

  • Identify which people will perform which roles;
  • Equip each person or group of people to perform their roles; and
  • Pay special attention to closing any communication and commitment gaps between the various roles.

Equip people to perform their roles

Many organizations offer some sort of training on leading or managing change. Unfortunately, too few consider the concept of roles when training their leaders. As a result, front-line leaders are often taught how to lead change at an organizational level rather than the more relevant skills they need to translate change at the individual at team level. Training is a critical component, but it will only be effective when tailored to each role.

Close communication and commitment gaps

If you are rolling out a planned change, the most important step you can take is to pay attention to the communication that takes place between people playing each role. The strategists must communicate effectively with the implementers. Implementers, in turn, must understand that their most crucial task is communicating with translators. The measure of whether communication at each transition point has been successful is how much commitment there is at the next level. Proceeding with your cascade or implementation plan without commitment at each level is a recipe for failure.


When an organization is driven to innovate and change, there are various roles required to initiate and see it through. Being clear about the roles, who is to perform them, and closing communication gaps at each transition point will increase the likelihood of your change effort’s success.

Mack is a Woodland Park based consultant. Reach her at