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Becoming an agent of change

“The only thing constant is change”. We’ve all heard that phrase. Maybe so much that we tune it out as a cliché. The world around us is constantly disrupting us … everywhere in our lives. “We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond“. But, how do we respond to change, and more importantly how can we influence or even spark it?

My research on change found study after study showing the impact on people and their resistance or support is one of the largest factors in the success or failure of business initiatives, especially those involving major transformation.

We have a choice. We can be the effect of change, being pushed around by someone else’s whims, or we can be the cause, helping set the direction and guide where we are headed.

But, isn’t that change management?

As you read this, you might be thinking … “David, you are describing the role of change managers?” They get paid really well for handling the worry and stress of leading change.

While that is right, I’m not talking about leading change.

If you do have a change manager, imagine how much easier their job would be if they could work with a group of advocates who can help describe their challenges, advise what impacts any proposed change might have, and get involved in trying to solve them.

Now look at your organisation. Do you have a change manager? If you are in a large organisation, perhaps you do. It’s more likely, though, that you have people around you who complain about things the way they are, or if you have a change program underway, complain instead about how the change is being handled.

In organisations where there is no change manager, you can still have a group of advocates, who identify issues and collaborate on a solution, breaking it into small incremental steps that could be tried out, and if successful iterate and try the next step.

The approach to change outlined here comes from the field of lean change management. This is a more modern approach to change, built on ideas from lean startup, agile development, and organizational development, as well as formal change management.

Enter the change agent

Anybody can be a change agent. You may already have been one. If, for example, you have ever acted as a subject matter expert for a project, you will have had some influence on the outcome and progress of change. A true change agent, however, is not just a supporter of change, but someone who can spark the change.

How do you do this without authority of being a senior leader or a change manager? Smart organisations are now recognizing that change initiatives are stronger and go on for longer if they are supported from the ground up. These will typically have ways for anyone in the organisation to submit suggestions for change, and then invite them to be involved in working on it. These are change agents.

Don’t worry, though, if your organisation doesn’t have a process like this; you can act as if they do. Here are some steps you can follow to become an effective agent of change.

Be the change you want to see in the world

While this phrase is normally attributed to Gandhi, it is really a distillation of his talks; but the intent is still there. If we start with ourselves (or with the “man in the mirror”), then we stop complaining, stop judging, and start taking action.

The term change agent is pretty subjective. I sometimes use it to mean anyone who is involved in or supports change in any capacity, but for this post I have chosen the focus to mean those who are the ‘agent provocateur’, the catalyst for change. Google returns more than 7.5 million results for a search on the phrase “change agent”. Maybe spend a little time researching and thinking about this for yourself; maybe discuss it with some colleagues.

Sometimes, being a change agent means being the first, the one willing to point out the elephant in the room, to say the emperor had no clothes on. This can make you feel awkward, but it’s OK. Others will follow. But it’s also OK to be the supporter of someone else’s ideas too. First followers are as important as first movers. Without them, the first move looks like a lone nutter.

To get a handle on this, think about what change means to you. Change doesn’t just happen at work. It also happens to you in your personal life, in your family, in your community, in your leisure activities, and of course at work.

How has it felt when change has happened to you? Did you feel a victim of circumstances? Does being part of the cause rather than the effect sound more compelling?

What needs to change?

Now you are ready for change, then the first step is to notice that something needs to change. But how do we do this?

As I was writing this, Neil Killick tweeted about agile transformation. Something he said about the individual’s role in change really resonated with me. If you are serious about changing your organisation to better serve your customers (for example), then a transformation makes sense. But you don’t need to start that big.

As with all lean change, you start from where you are. Think about one small challenge you want to overcome or opportunity you want to grasp. Maybe there’s a bottleneck you’d like to smooth over to improve the flow of work.

Think about what’s involved?

While you might be starting small, you should still try to step back and look at the whole. Systems thinking is a critical element in lean change. If we make a change in one place to optimize things around us, we may inadvertently push the problem somewhere else.

For example, if you check customer orders in your job, you might see a way to do this more efficiently and send more through to the warehouse. However, if they are already struggling to cope with fulfilling orders, all you will really do is make their problem worse. Taking an end-to-end systems view might help you see the bottleneck, and perhaps see if there are ways you can help them first. (Note: this is a simplification of the theory of constraints).

Take the first step

Once you think you have identified an area that should change, consider breaking the change down to make it more manageable. In lean change literature, these are referred to as ‘experiments’, but if that feels awkward, just think about them like steps towards the change you would like to see.

Now talk to some of the others affected. In our example, another order checker and maybe a couple of people from the warehouse. That feels like a good place to start.

Once you have agreement that the first small step is something that will not break the system if it doesn’t work, you are ready to try it out. Be clear on how long you want to invest in trying this out and on what a successful outcome would look like. In our example, this could be that the orders get picked and packed within 4 hours of you sending them through. That feels achievable. Also try to define what an unsuccessful outcome would look like. For example, the warehouse pickers running out of orders and standing idle would not be good. Again, in the literature, this is also known as: ’safe to fail experiments’.

Did it work?

When you have run it for the agreed time, you should then look at the outcomes. Did it work? Do you want to look at what the next step might be? Then rinse and repeat. Did it not work? Do you want to reverse the changes and take a fresh look? You can learn from either outcome, and importantly you have tried something.

Of course, sometimes, you might decide to stop early; either because it proved itself or was so bad that there was no point in continuing. Both of those are also good learning outcomes.

Keep going

After taking the learning from this, the next important step, though, is to keep going. Lasting change with significant impact comes about when we make a number of small decisions and small changes that become the new pattern.

Want to know more?

If you are interested to learn more about this field, you should check out the book Lean Change Management, by Jason Little, or consider attending a Lean Change Agent workshop. I run these in New Zealand, so check out my courses and see if one is planned near you. If not, drop me a note and let’s talk.

2 thoughts on “Becoming an agent of change

  1. Great article David. I’ve been reading a lot about this lately. It’s a fascinating topic!

    1. Thanks. I’ve been very active with this for the last four years or so, ever since I undertook my masters research on Agile Transformation. So many organizations (and consultancies) were taking the big formal change approach or following a pre-determined pattern for the transformation … and failing. I knew it had to change. One of the factors was definitely how well individuals felt connected to the change and how involved they felt. A lot of feelings. Unsurprisingly, the behemoth steamroller change programs just rolled straight over them. It led me to discover Lean Change Management, and I have been experimenting with this in couple of the organisations I’ve worked with, and it has largely led to establishing change that sticks. Having delivered some private / internal courses i this, I am now delivering the courses publicly too. Very, very excited about this now.

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