Here’s how to instigate change.
(Even if you’re not the Boss…)
Note: This is the first in a series of articles I’m doing in partnership with BeyondImpact. I’ve known many of the people there for nearly 20 years. They’re a different kind of company with a culture focused not only on great business & tech solutions, but on truly improving the lives of others. I encourage you to check them out here.
Bloom Where You’re Planted…
There’s a false rumor floating around the rank and file of many organizations today that goes something like this:
“You really can’t change much unless you’re in charge – and the folks steering the ship are too busy to listen anyway.”
There’s another equally limiting thought hovering around the top levels of many of those same organizations that cripples the chances for meaningful innovation. It comes from the exact opposite direction, but contributes to the same basic effect. It goes like this:
“Real progress is so slow here because people really resist change. And try as we might, our culture just can’t be overcome.”
In my experience, that first rumor is typical of a workforce that doesn’t realize their individual or collective capability to drive innovation. The second falsehood can signal an organization doomed to a rudderless drift marked by occasional and futile change initiatives. Together they represent two sides of the same unhelpful coin.
When I work with organizations to improve their overall change capacity, I start by recognizing three groups of potential Change Agents and treat them each a bit differently:
• Executives and high-level leaders with clear positional authority are often charged with generating the momentum for change and providing the vision, resources and reinforcement to enable transformation. I usually start by helping them clarify what they feel needs to be changed and why it is important. Then we talk about how they want to see this change unfold at the strategic level. (“Here is the change we need to see and here’s why it matters…”)
• Managers and team leaders provide work direction to their direct and indirect reports and often become so consumed with driving the day-to-day operation that transformation is just not a luxury they have time to address. They will prioritize the tactical work of change more readily when it becomes clear that those in charge of the entire organization want them to make it a priority. (“OK. If that’s what you need us to focus on, give me the resources and let’s get this done…”)
• Individual Team Members probably have the biggest challenge when it comes to being effective and impactful Change Agents. For purposes of this discussion, I’m talking about people without direct reports. They don’t control the vision. They lack the power to redistribute resources toward change-related priorities and the amount of effort they can contribute to a given change is capped at whatever discretionary time is left after they’ve churned out the ground-level work needed to deliver on their commitments to internal and external customers. (“Hey! I’m working down here. Somebody has to get into the weeds and take care of the customer. I’ll get to your change stuff when you tell me what else I should set aside in order to do that.”)
Plenty has been written to help bosses drive change and managers get lots of advice on how to execute the tactical work of change.
Today I want to ask:
Given their power and resource constraints, how can individual team members be effective as Change Agents?
Here are four practical things that individual team members with great ideas can do to contribute to meaningful transformation within their companies and their cultures:
1. Clarify your idea.
2. Consider the context.
3. Leverage your expertise.
4. Demonstrate a positive impact first – then try to save the world.
I’d like to focus on getting clarity around your innovative idea first, because it is absolutely critical. Frankly, without it – your change will not survive long enough to worry about the others.
1. Clarify your innovative idea. First, take a little time to clarify if you are talking about a process change, a culture change or something else. An example of a process change might be “…this could work better if we have other people unit test our modules before integration testing to reduce coder’s bias…” or “Let’s make it a rule to address the top 5 most common customer complaints in the first half of the weekly meeting, then dig into details of the one-offs.”
Examples of culture changes might include something you’ve noticed in the way people interact that continually holds your team back from realizing success. For example: “We don’t listen to each other very well – alternate opinions are quashed by dominant voices.” or “We tend to unravel decisions halfway through implementation…”.
Write down your thoughts and start checking with your colleagues to see if they agree. Focus the discussion on clarifying the problem and resulting damage it causes as well as the benefits everyone could derive from fixing it. Avoid name-calling or blaming.
Remember, this is not about finding the villain.
It’s about finding a better way to work.
Up Next: Future articles in this series will focus on how Change Agents need to understand and consider the context in which their innovation would unfold, how to leverage their expertise for change, and why it’s important to achieve positive impact early in the transformation process.
Questions for Chatter:
1. What’s the one element of your organization’s culture that you’d like to see changed for the better?
2. Who else agrees with you and how could you frame up this culture change in a way that could start to generate momentum for seeing it actually happen?