Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Change Agents Must be Bold

Executive Summary:
Change initiatives often come more from vision and desire, than from a solid plan.  Change agents, either organizational leaders or selected agents of the vision, must act boldly in the absence of detailed planning.

The Rest of the Story:
Though it is very common for business initiatives that drive change in business culture or direction to lack detailed planning, I find it difficult to concisely explain the phenomenon.  There seem to be a great number of reasons for it, and many of them show up all at once inside of any given organization.

Here are a few.
  • Leaders don’t always know how to plan a behavioral or cultural change
  • Leaders hire or assign experts, but that expertise is geared more toward technical know-how than change management
  • We know what we want, but the path from A to B is not always clear
  • Changing organization structure and metrics is relatively easy, but performance comes from changing behavior, which is hard
  • Most of us have never been trained how to plan performance change through changing behavior
  • Leaders engage consultants to advise, but consultants don’t intimately know or understand the business culture
  • Sometimes we don’t realize that we need to change in order to improve, so we don’t plan on it occurring

I’m sure that with the above food for thought, the reader can add his or her own insights to the list.  The bottom line is that when we drive an initiative to improve business performance, something must change.  Our leaders expect and demand the change, but we often don’t have the benefit of a plan for how that change will occur.

Agents of the internal business change can represent a wide variety of roles.  We can be the executive leader, middle managers tasked to make it happen, or we can be individual contributors tapped on the shoulder to exercise our skills and influence to facilitate the change.

Not one of the roles mentioned is truly positioned to build a detailed change plan alone.  The executive is often too far removed from actual challenges and behavior to build an insightful plan.  Middle managers are stuck asking for permission and managing multiple authorities and expectations.  Individual contributors have no real authority at all.

So, as change agents in any of these roles, or any other, what are we to do?  I suggest two courses of action to take.  Both of them require boldness and initiative and a great deal of interpersonal influence. (Don’t worry; the simple fact that you were chosen implies that you have lots of each.)

First, work with your organizational leaders and contributors to identify holes in the current plan and begin filling them.  I know that it sounds obvious, but because of uncertainty on all fronts about what to do, we often don’t feel comfortable doing it.  Our impulse is to wait for instructions or to pray for inspiration.

Be bold.  Be courageous.  Be understanding.  Understand that the reason we don’t have the direction we would like is probably because those around us are just as uncertain about what is required as are we.  Approach them humbly and with a plan.

It does no good to point out problems and stand and wait for solutions.  Chances are, if we are the first to see the problem, then we understand it or feel it more than anyone else.  Therefore, we are probably the most qualified to propose a solution.  Do so. 

While we are waiting for others in the organization to catch up to meeting our needs for direction, or to digest our proposals for how to fill in the planning gaps, we can’t just twiddle our thumbs.  We are still trying to drive a change and momentum is vital.  We can’t pause.

Therefore, the second thing we must do is build our own plans.  By all means get insight and advice from peers, internal customers, leaders, and most of all from your own experience.  In a directional vacuum, build your own directions.  Then communicate that direction aggressively.

Chances are we have been told what is desired.  Probably, we have been given some interpretation of our personal responsibility for that desired outcome.  What we are likely lacking is a clear explanation of our authority, the tools or methods we can use, clarity of how resources or personnel will be made available or will cooperate, or what tactical strategy or priorities we should act upon.  Does that sound familiar?

As the first suggestion implies, don’t wait for those gaps to fill in, ask.  When no clear answers are forthcoming, make up your own answers.  Be bold.  Be courageous.  Be forthright with your answers and communicate your plan to everyone in your immediate circle of influence:  your leader, teammates, collaborators, and internal customers.

Here is an example of exercising both suggestions.  “Agent Q” is a contributor without direct reports, is tasked with improving certain business metrics.  That is the extent of the direction provided.  Where should Agent Q begin?

Agent Q’s first frustration is that the business metric itself is not clear.  Different leaders seem to interpret it differently.  So Agent Q gathers an understanding from the various leaders and diagrams them for a consultation with his direct leader.  In that consultation he demonstrates the confusion and, therefore, the challenge and proposes the simplest calculation of the metric to be the standard.

Agent Q’s manager agrees to help and provides his own insight to the metric and who to approach first among the executive leaders to establish the standard.  While that negotiation is going on, at least Agent Q and his manager are on the same page about the metric.  While it may still change, Agent Q is not prohibited by confusion from proceeding, and personal risk has been mitigated.

Next, Agent Q faces the dilemma of executing something to make some changes and some progress toward the metric.  A number of managers have thrown out suggestions, but no clear priority exists, and no resolution or starting place has been dictated.  Agent Q must decide for himself.

He knows that he must explain and support his decision.  He makes a tool.  He establishes his own means of listing the various projects identified and sorting them according to a reasonable measure of their probable impact to the business metric.  Then he gathers a little data and quickly ranks the projects.

With a means available to rank projects according to value, Agent Q uses that to interrogate the business and it’s systems.  By investigating the causes for the metric and current performance, he comes up with his own set of potential projects to improve business performance and adds them to the list.

Now, he goes back to his boss and shares his insights.  The work done is not weeks or months of work, it’s hours or a couple of days; just enough to sketch out a proposed plan.  Agent Q’s manager provides some additional insight and even provides some direction.  The picture Agent Q was able to present inspires the manager’s sudden decisions and direction.

Agent Q now has some direction and priority agreed upon by he and his manager, and probably by higher-level committees once the prioritization is shared and explained.  So, with the metric clarified, priority established, and some assignments made, Agent Q is ready to engage.  Unfortunately, no one has thought that far either.

When Agent Q goes to the process owners he must engage to make the improvements at the top of his priority, how will they react, and how can he count on their cooperation?  The good news is that the clear metric and explanation of how the project will improve the metric should go a long way toward opening the door.  If that doesn’t work, Agent Q will need to work the management chain for assistance.  Again, the clarity of metrics and priority should help that process too.

In the face of, more-or-less, telling the management chain above him what he needed, or what must be done to facilitate his success, Agent Q is not the least daunted by the fact that no standardization exists for the tools or methods his training compels him to use to solve the problems and execute his projects.  He simply begins by experimenting, sharing with his peers, and eventually the group settles on some best practices.

Life as a change agent is certainly more complicated, at lease in dialogue, than the example above.  However, the reality of what needs to happen and what can and does happen is relatively simple.

Change agents, for many, many reasons, often do not have the luxury of a detailed plan for success.  Sometimes all we have are a vague vision, some technical training, and a deadline.  When we don’t have the direction, priority, resources, or agreement we need to proceed successfully, we must create our own.  There’s no whining in leading change (we get enough of that from those who resist). 

Be bold.  Tell your leadership what you need.  Propose plans and courses of action if you aren’t dictated some.  Share your insights unreservedly.  Don’t wait; master your fate.  Exercise your interpersonal influence to the greatest degree.  After all, your influence is probably what landed you the role.

Stay wise, friends.


  1. Change within the organization is something that humans adopt to on a day-to-day basis. On the other hand, computer software cannot be instructed to adopt to emergent change which may cause data loss, pertinent to the company's success. As such, a company should also have a stable itil incident management software in order to provide solutions to possible problems.