What makes an effective change agent?

Paradigma del Change Management
Paradigma del Change Management (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been mulling this question over for some time now, partly as (one of many) ways of continually improving my own articulation of my value proposition and brand as a “change guy”.  Here’s my short list for how one should approach a potential change initiative with multiple stakeholders involved:

  1. Get everyone to the table.
  2. Forget everything you know.
  3. Hold your tongue. Listen. Deeply.
  4. Dig through your toolbox and share your tools with the team.
  5. Collaboratively construct possible solutions to try out.
  6. “Lock and load” on something. Move forward. Measure.
  7. Adjust the path accordingly based on real feedback about the progress made.
  8. Be a good guest and leave before you are asked.

What does this all mean? First, you have to involve — in some way or other — all the different interest groups and stakeholders in the change initiative. Otherwise, it is going to be seen as an exercise in “they’re doing it to us again!” by those not at the table. Ultimately that’s not going to be helpful in getting some sort of sustainable solution. Short term gains, sure, but nothing that lasts.

Then, don’t presume the outcome based on your past experiences. This is a different group of people, a different place, and a different time, so you’re all most likely to jointly arrive at a different outcome. Sorry — no shrink-wrapped solutions. (This doesn’t play well to those consultants and companies that sell shrink-wrapped solutions. Too bad for them, I guess.)

Really getting people to embrace change starts with respecting the starting positions of everyone. And people can only move off their initial positions once they feel they have been listened to and had their feelings acknowledged. Messy stuff, this engaging with people. You need to do it with a clear agenda, respect, and true concern for the participants. Then, you might be able to get a real conversation going.

Once you’ve got a conversation going and everyone is really participating in framing the issues and promoting various approaches to moving forward, then it’s time to dig around in your tool box and see what different tools might be useful in the current context. Tools, models, methodologies abound. You’re the facilitator and its your job to have a well developed tool kit at the ready. Sharing those tools with the team, educating them on how they can be used, and having further conversations about what might be useful maximizes the buy-in and participation. After all, it’s their environment and you’re probably just an interloper. So share your toys, try to be helpful, and jointly you can create some context-specific solutions to try to move things forward.

The conversations get us to the edge of the grass, ready to blaze a new trail.  Real change begins with real action, so we have to really answer that key question: “what am I (individually) and we (collectively) going to do differently later today, tomorrow, and the following day?”.  So agree on some specific actions, who’s doing them and when, and how they’ll be measured and how often. Follow up. Regularly. Every organization has a natural “heartbeat” and it’s a good idea to sync up your agreed actions with the natural heartbeat.

And finally, don’t be afraid to do course corrections. But don’t do them based on a whim, or because of the lack of follow-through by an individual team member. Make your course corrections based on real feedback on the trip so far and what everyone has discovered. And for those team members that aren’t with the program — when it comes down to it, the team has to collectively decide whether those not able to keep the pace are wounded or just stragglers. Carry the wounded, and shoot the stragglers.  A bit Darwinian to be sure, but a critical survival technique. The stragglers are just going to slow you all down, and frankly they’re voting with their feet. You and the rest of the team need to do the same.

And as the change agent/interloper — one last thought: as the team starts to march in unison and picks up their pace and moves boldly forward down the path you all charted together, it’s time for you to drop to the back of the pack and ultimately exit the scene.

This is not your path, it’s theirs. And Rule #1 of being a change agent — when the change is baked in, you’re no longer necessary, and in fact you’re quite possibly a distraction. So say your goodbyes and move on.

Don’t take it personally. It comes with the gig.

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