Posts Tagged ‘change agent’

shovel3Leadership is not a position, it is an attitude. It comes from inside. I don’t know who coined this phrase but I love it, which is why I have stolen it for my next sentence.

Being a change agent is not a position, it is an attitude. And not only is it an attitude but a skill. Every manager at every level should possess a change attitude and the skills that need to go with it.

It’s not a nice to have. It’s a need to have. In a world where we expect change to constantly bombard us, we need people who have the right attitude and the right skills.

Sure, you say, it’s hard to argue with that. But how do we get there? Yes, yes. How? That is indeed a good question. I’m sure there are many good answers.

I’m going to skip all the vision and mission jabber, not because I don’t think it is important but because wiser people than I have expounded on that. I’ll make the assumption that we have one.

I was going to launch into my typical angle of needing to train people on continuous improvement and feedback loops and theory of constraints and so on.  Then I thought, no, those are tools. And the tools I might use might be different than yours, which am sure are good too. And tools are always subject to context. Don’t want to get into those weeds. So let’s not go there. Hmm. So where do we start?

Architecture. That’s it! Just like a computer system needs a good architecture. Just like a building needs a good architecture. A management system needs a good architecture.

So back to the question of how. If we want managers to have the change agent attitude and skills then it must be part of the management architecture.

Now just like a system’s architecture is dependent on the role the software needs to play, management architecture will depend on the needs of the business so no two would or should be the same. But if I were developing a management architecture for the modern world where change is constant I might include some key structural building blocks. Some basic expectations of capability and attitude that would allow the system to run efficiently. Here we go.

  • Systems Thinking – You Are Not Alone
    • This is a three for one.
      • If your managers don’t know about systems thinking, educate them. The understanding of context is crucial to interacting with the world around you.
      • Require them to understand the world around them. A thorough understanding of the processes that impact them and the process that they impact.
      • Systems thinking means people will question the world around them. This has to be encouraged and supported.
    • What is Systems Thinking? Here’s a primer.
  • Support Role – Why You are Here
    • Unless you are creating value, creating output, you are support.
    • This means your role is to make sure that all processes related to that are efficient and accurate.
    • Your role is to remove barriers to production and work toward continuous improvement.
    • Everything else is secondary. Everyone has to understand this.
  • Change Management – It’s the People
    • You are not managing processes you are managing people.
    • You are helping people perform to meet the needs of the organization.
    • Learn it, live it, love it. Understand the human condition. Motivations, habits, behaviors.
    • Relationship Management. Build trust and you build willingness.

There you have it. Some basic conditions and attributes of a management architecture that will allow you to more systemically approach change and many other business challenges. Give your people this knowledge and these expectations. Give them a strong base of support to stand on.

And especially give these attributes to yourself. Perhaps this is where the “leadership is an attitude” comes in.

And just because it came to mind, a little Pete Townshend digging away.


floodA few years ago quite a few members of my family were displaced by flooding. Ultimately their houses were condemned or determined not worth the effort to restore. They were displaced. Displaced in a dramatic fashion as they had twenty four hours to evacuate what they could. Everything was different. Immediately.

That’s traumatic change. There are multiple government and non-profit agencies set up to deal with displacement. It’s a big deal. From afar we don’t always see the trauma beyond the physical damage but the psychological and emotional needs are there. What can we learn from this when helping others work through change?  Here’s some thought.

Basic Needs:

The first thing you have to deal with is providing basic needs. In a natural disaster this is water, food and shelter.

In the business world it might be awareness and training on new processes and conditions, access to the right or new resources and a thorough understanding of expectations.


You want displaced people to feel safe. They are, after all, in a foreign place of shelter and surrounded by strangers. Routines have been upset. Having authority figures around to show that order and control still exists helps ease the anxiety.

In the business world you need people to feel secure as well. Authority figures need to be seen here as well. That means management needs to be visible during and after change. They need to be accessible. They need to be there to answer questions, assuage fears or patrol the perimeter to watch for outside threats. You need to have their backs.

Keys to the House:

You want displaced people to feel there is a little permanence in the world, that they have a little control. They don’t want to feel dependent on others. Give them keys to the shelter, show them around the new neighborhood. Also creating a little permanence edges them toward the possibility that they can’t go back. Sometimes there’s nowhere to go back to.

In business as well you want to start to instill ownership of the new environment. Make sure they stay involved in decision making. Continue to explore new resources.  Need to work at making it the new normal.

And there are many more ways to help the process. How will you help?

china2Don’t be a Change Thug, Please

Change Thugs. They mean well. They’re knowledgeable, experienced, bold. And they’re like bulls in a china shop. They put up some new signage, break a bunch of plates and then leave, touting all the good work they’ve done. They never look back long enough to see the damage done.

And damage they do. I know it and you know it because either it’s been done to you or you’ve walked into the aftermath. They didn’t like the Change Thugs and now they don’t like you.

Yes, Change Thugs know how to spur change. They have their favorite tools and tricks to pull the right levers and make things happen. These are good tools: maybe visual management, or PDCA or standard work or others. All good tools. All very useful.

And all abandoned when the Change Thug leaves. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but soon after. And with a bitter memory of how change was forced on them. And you are one of the Change Thugs until you prove otherwise.

We’ll save how to dig out of that hole for another day. Today we’re going to talk about how not to be a Change Thug because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So let’s look at the mistakes a Change Thug makes and what you should do instead to work better with the team.

Your Ego vs. Their Self-Esteem

Yes, you are the expert. And yes you need to demonstrate your fluency. Change Thugs, unfortunately, make things about them, about their expertise. But this isn’t about you. They already know you’re the expert. Every time you forget and make this about you the team will notice and you’ll have one more hurdle to clear.

Instead, your job is to boost their self-esteem, their belief that they can make improvements and change. In fact your job is to make sure they so strongly believe they can carry on the change, that they don’t need you.  If you don’t change them, you’ve changed nothing.

Doing it to Them vs. Doing it with Them

I call it the cookie cutter approach. This happens when within days or weeks the Change Thug has already decided on the solution and often the tool to fix the problem. It’s visual management or it’s feedback loops. And often that is the right answer because the Change Thug has been here before. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious. But that’s not the point.

The problem with the cookie cutter is that it’s the Change Thug’s solution. The Change Thug is the one who worked through the analysis and methodologies and understanding to that conclusion. There’s no way that in a couple weeks, the team came to that conclusion.

You have to work them through the analysis and the method and tool options until they have an epiphany or understanding. They have to get it.

Lecturing vs. Dialog

The Change Thug knows we need to teach them about methods and tools so they go to the PowerPoint on keys to visual management in front of the room like they are a bunch students at the university. They assign a management book for them to read. Then ask, “Did you get that?” Then get a room of blank stares and somehow take that as a yes.

This instead needs to be an engagement, a dialog. You need to gauge the current level of understanding so you can shape your message. Skimming over Algebra because you’re in a hurry to talk about the more exciting and relevant Calculus is just going to leave everyone in the dust.

Be patient. You need to spend time talking with them so you know what building blocks are necessary. And this dialog gives you the relationship building bonus, that wonderful tool for building trust.

Piling On vs. Prioritizing

The Change Thug says “Here’s all these great new tools and tasks for you to do. They’ll improve the process and make things wonderful.”

But guess what? Someone forgot to change prioritizations. The Change Thug forgot to help management understand the importance of not piling on. Managers decide prioritization. And prioritization is time. And no one has enough of it.

New process improving tools and tasks are great. Except like everything else they take time. So tasks have to get prioritized. And in the real world that means things at the top of the list get done and those at the bottom don’t. So as a team you need to make a choice as to what tasks are going to slide from the top of the list to the bottom, to below the line where they don’t get done.

You need to do this together to remove the anxiety and angst over things we now all know aren’t going to be done. And that’s OK. We know if we do the right things more and more effective work will get done and hopefully, if we’ve done the steps above, everyone will understand why.

And that, after all, is why we’re here.


Science.1How does change look? How does change happen?

I suppose the answer to this is that it looks and happens in many ways.

One of the ways to make it happen is at the grass roots level. You start small and it grows from seeds and reactions and fertile environments and energy being pumped into the system by you and then at some point the system begins to generate its own energy.

This week’s message takes the form of a visual. It ended up looking like chemical reaction at the molecular level, like fusion. It’s a series of progressions.

I’ve attached a legend for a bit of clarity:

Change Agent: Obviously, that’s you.

Manager: A manager at some level

Barkis: This is the person who is willing. Could be manager, could be supervisor, could be team member. Barkis is the person most receptive to your ideas

Team Member: Anyone under said manager in the org chart

Arrows: The influence and ideas that you and others are injecting into the system

So no more words. Here are some pictures.














Danger, what Danger?

The advantages of being a change agent often come from being outside the process or the culture. We get to look at it from a different angle. We also have tools and skills that help us leverage that perspective. We can bring a breath of fresh air.

Or we can be annoying. I know, it’s hard to believe. We’re here to help. How can that be bad?  True, it’s not always our fault. You can work with groups that are in defensive mode, or jaded mode or cynic mode and will initiate those behaviors as soon as you walk in the door.

But sometimes it is our fault. Heaven knows I’ve fallen into the pit more than once. I have scars to prove it.

Besides being a charming cult of personality, what are some ways to avoid some of those pitfalls? Let’s take a look.

The Pit of Objectivity

This one is usually covered by branches of good intentions. We mean well.  Really, we do. But we often confuse having perspective with being objective. I hate to break it to you but not one of us is objective. Not a single one. We might not have the cultural baggage but we are not objective.

We come with process biases, strategic opinions, schools of thought, methodology approaches. All of which are good. And all of which will influence your interaction with your team. That’s OK. But it’s not objective. You know it and I know it and more importantly the team knows it.

How do we avoid this? A couple options. One: Do not tell them you are objective. Don’t bring it up or use the word at all. Two: Specifically tell them you are not objective for the exact reasons stated above.

Instead tell them how you are going to interact with. Tell them where you come from and what your philosophies are. And then show them.

The Pit of Ego

This is a tough one. It’s hiding in plain sight. We’re experts. We’re good at what we do. We need to have confidence in that. We need to have a healthy ego.  No one wants to follow someone who lacks surety.

So we have to talk about what we know. We have to talk about what we’ve done and seen. We have to illustrate some of our skills and knowledge. This is indeed necessary. The problem is that we are talking a lot about ourselves. A lot.

The team might start seeing us as the talking head, the expert from out of town, the know it all. In fact the team might give us a little nudge into the Pit of Ego.

How do we avoid this? Redirection.  Always, always, always bring it back to the team. Never end an exposition without bringing it back to the team or the project. This is what I know. This is what I see. Then. What do you see? What do you know? How is my perspective valid? How is my perspective not valid?

The best thing about this approach is that you can even use it if they’ve already pushed you in the pit. Bring it back to the team. They might even help you out.

The Pit of Immersion

Or sometimes called going native. This is a pitfall where we perhaps do not become annoying but ineffectual.  Out of good intentions, of course. We perhaps try so hard not to be annoying that we pass from empathy for their situation to sympathy. We take up their cause. We see and champion all the wrongs that stop them from moving on.

We often do this with jaded and cynical teams. We do it to build trust.  But we move in closer and closer and soon are in the middle and have lost whatever perspective we had. We’ve gone native.

How do we avoid this? Keep going back to the goal, your mission, your objective. We must ask ourselves repeatedly, what are we trying to achieve?

If the team is too jaded and defensive to buy into the objective, the objective needs to change. The objective needs to be to change their attitude. We need to be aware of how we’re achieving trust and not fall into the Pit of Immersion.


I had a daydream about a change meeting the other day that went like this. Heaven knows what manager would let me do this but it would be intriguing to see it play out.

The scene: Meeting room with a team whose manager has asked me to mentor on changing culture.

The actors: Myself, team manager, fifteen team members

Good morning. My name is Joe. I’m a change agent. Manager Bob has asked me to help create a culture more adept at creating and dealing with change.

I know you’re thinking  “Oh great, another consultant come to tell us how to do our jobs.” Fair enough. And in some ways that is true. But in most ways it is not.

Think of me as an architect helping you build your house. You brought me in because you want me to help you design a  really cool house. I am not here to tell you what kind of house to build. I’m not here to tell you how many rooms you need.  I’m not going to tell you what amenities you should have. That’s not my job. That’s your job. Because frankly, I don’t know.

What I am here to do is help you make decisions, to learn new ways to make decisions. As an architect I might help bring issues like physical limitations or repercussions. You may want to have a pool above the garage. My job is to tell you that might require different engineering and a different budget. Oh, you want a four season porch.  It’s my job to talk about the different heating options you may not know about. Or to probe about how you will use it so the design can reflect that.

You see it’s my job to introduce you to methods or approaches or attitudes about work that needs to get done that may be new to you. And not just to you but to Bob as well. So not only are you going to be introduced to unfamiliar things so is Bob. Because if you are going to change the way you work and approach work so will Bob need to change.

But at the end of the day what I want is for you to learn new methods and approaches and acquires a new attitude about change so you don’t need me. I want you to think in a new way. We want the culture itself to change and that is all about you.

The key to achieving that is attitude. Change is about attitude. It’s about belief that change can happen. It’s about desire to learn how to control that change.

Here is the deal. If you don’t think things need to get better. If you don’t think things can or will change. If you think this is a waste of time.  If you are just going to go through the motions. Then I don’t need to be here. A lot of time will be wasted and no one wants that.

That’s not to say you can’t be cynical. That’s not to say you can’t question.  That’s not to say you can’t offer alternatives.

So what we’re going to do is vote. Voting will be anonymous and majority rules. Manager Bob will count the votes. You just have to answer this question Yes or No.

Do you think things can get better?

If more than fifty percent believe we can change, we’ll get to work.

If more than fifty percent believe we can’t, I’m out of here.

Thank you.


Something’s wrong. Maybe the data is telling you. Maybe your gut is telling you. Either way, you know you’re on the wrong path. It’s not that you’ve even failed yet. It’s just not going to work and you know it.

And you’re the one who insisted you take the path. You were so sure. It’s OK. No one’s perfect. But you know this isn’t working.

Now what?  Obviously, you need to steer the team to a new course. So buck up and own up.

What are your options for doing that? Here are two.

Be the Expert

You would do this when you feel the team still needs stronger direction or illustration of how to change course. In this case you would work to present the case for why.  That means digging into the data or your guts and finding the root cause for your discomfort.  Illuminating the obstacle or the dead end that you see.

You may also need to propose the alternative path. Again this will require you to have done your homework on what a better path is and the rationale for taking it. You could also present multiple options.

The key here is knowing where the team is developmentally and psychologically. Will they accept your leading them?

Be the Guide

In being the guide you almost follow the same steps above in that you still need to make your case for changing course. You even need to explore what alternatives you would take.

But as the guide you make your case for change but you don’t tell them the alternatives. You go through some exercise to help them choose an alternative. You’re still the guide so you make sure they don’t get off track. You make sure the goal is still intact.

It’s a good opportunity for the team to learn and gain experience.

The key here is knowing where the team is developmentally and psychologically as well. Are they ready to do some heavy lifting? If so, this is the way to go.

Of course, I am sure there are other options out there to communicate a need for changing course. The key is to understand where your team is developmentally, psychologically and even emotionally.

Turn the wheel and off you go.


prohibition_poster3Change and politics don’t mix. They don’t mix in government and they don’t mix in business. We don’t like to talk about politics. It’s taboo. Oh well, here we go anyway.

You see sometimes politics like change. If it sees advantage in it. Sometime politics dislike change. If it sees it as threatening to the status quo. And of course politics are fickle. Change that was good may abruptly become bad. Or the other way around. Makes you skittish to deal with it. You lose trust. Losing trust is bad.

I talk about politics as some abstract concept, which it is, but on practical level it is about leaders and managers. And leaders and managers are people. People whose behavior can be changed.

Politics happen for all kinds of reasons. The ones I see as most destructive to change are leaders jumping ion the latest management craze or jumping on the band wagon of the latest and hottest manager. I don’t know that either of these is avoidable and necessarily all bad.

The problem is that existing  improvement initiatives get the heave ho. Creating an environment of starts and stops. Attempts at improvements become out of joint, as Shakespeare might say.

I guess you might say we need to get used to it. This is after all a sort of ongoing change that we should know how to handle. But I’d rather not get used to it. To me these stops and starts caused by politics are juts chaos. It doesn’t have to be like this. We can change it.

I wrote about managing managers a bit ago in this blog: Change Managing the Management:  It was about educating managers about how change works. This is piece of the puzzle.

It’s not the whole puzzle. The other piece in the puzzle is awareness. Awareness of the ramifications and repercussions of swaying with the political winds.

We sometimes think everyone is in tune with all the ramifications of choices.  Unfortunately, they’re not. And the more they’re not in tune the more the term “unintended consequences” comes up. It’s not good when that term comes up.

Yes, there are certainly times in any situation that you can get bit by unintended consequences bug. But you’d much rather be bit by the unintended consequences complexity bug than by the unintended consequences clueless bug.

How do you teach someone to be more aware? That’s a tough one.

You could be blunt and say ” Hey, let’s not be that guy.” That might work. Make sure to know your audience on that one.

You can certainly start with education and communication like I mention in Change Managing the Management. This is always a good path to enlightenment.

But I like metaphors or analogies to spread complex ideas.

A good analogy for unintended consequences is Prohibition.  Prohibition is a good metaphor because it was clearly political. It had good intentions. And it snapped into place in the snap of a finger.

Unintended consequence heaven. That’s what it was. And it’s a good example because some were good and many were bad.

Increases in alcohol poisoning, DUI arrests, prison inmates, organized crime and so. Lot’s of fascinating stories out there on this.

Here’s a nice infographgic:  America’s Hangover: Prohibitions Unintended Consequences




I’m a change agent. I know I’m a change agent. It’s my job to help things move along the change continuum.

But things don’t easily change if I’m the only change agent on the project. The inertia that is resisting change is just too substantial for one person to move. You need help. You need people from the project team to be change agents as well.

I’m going steal a belief from the annals of leadership thinking that tell us that leadership is a behavior not a position. It’s an attitude. So it is with change. Change is about attitude.

And what attitude is that exactly? That attitude is belief. Belief that you have the skills to make change. Belief that you can make a change. Belief that you will be allowed to make change.

Your job as an official change agent is to create that belief in as many team members as possible. Will everybody become a change agent? No, they won’t.  Why not? Because being a change agent requires that you be an optimist. And we all know everyone is not an optimist. But some people are.  Someone once asked me why I cared so much. I said I couldn’t help it. I said I believed I could make things better.

Our job is to nurture optimism in team members and draw them along with us to the attitude of belief. That we can do it. That it is worth it. So how do we do that?

I like to show by doing. I like to take a small manageable project that will illustrate that you have the skills, that you can execute and that you are allowed.

First step. Take a look at the project and determine what skills will be needed to achieve it. Make sure the team has the skills. Educate and train them on necessary concepts and tools. Perhaps it is data skills, tracking skills, charting skills or so on.

Second Step. Execute. Put the tools in place. Identify the steps. Iterate the process until proficiency is gained, until they can perform without your assistance.

Third step. Project team presents to progress to management. Of course, your job is to make sure management understands the point of the exercise. That management recognizes the effort and applauds it and approves it.

Badda Bing, Badda Boom. You’ve started to create an environment where change agents can emerge and help you. You’ve shown them that they can be the change.


“Know thyself” is a good Greek saying. As a change agent I’ve always thought “Know thy role” is also a good saying. And as a change agent one of the things I’ve found most helpful is tackling the slippery idea of role.

What is a change agent’s role? The biggest challenge I’ve discovered is arriving at a common understanding of that role. Does everybody involved think it‘s the same thing? The answer is usually no. That’s OK. It provides us with the opportunity to think a little deeper and know thy role.

The three groups that need to be on the same page: you, the management and the team. 

Let’s start with you. What do you think your role is? This is probably different for each of us. It might be different for each project. That’s OK. The goal is to understand your expectations of yourself for this project. If you don’t have clarity, who will? 

You might define this yourself. You might define it along with your manager. Defining this before you start helps you know where to insert yourself and where to draw lines. Of course you always you need to be adaptable, but having a starting point is priceless. 

Now, what does management think your role is? They probably have ideas of what you will and won’t be doing. They’ll probably be different than your ideas. That’s OK.  A little negotiation may be in order. Negotiations often hinge around perceptions, wishes and realities. Be positive but real. If your role has to change, try to make sure all parts of the role you defined are handled by someone. 

And lastly, what does the team think your role is? Here is where you’ll probably get the most variety of belief. This is also going to be more of an education than a negotiation. Based on the agreements made above, you’ll walk through the approach and what it is you’ll be doing. And sometime you’ll need to talk about what you won’t be doing. 

That’s not to say there won’t be any negotiation. The team’s level of sophistication will enter into the equation. Some teams may need you to do things others wouldn’t. Again, be positive but realistic. 

Why is this important? 

Obviously, it starts out as just good communication. We should talk about these expectations as part of the greater project anyway. But in the end it’s about relationship building. You are working towards avoiding misunderstandings that lead to disruptions in flow. About minimizing the “Why are you doing that?” scenarios that lead to friction about the wrong things. How many times have people thought you were over stepping your boundaries when you thought you were just doing your job? That’s never good for trust, I am sure of that.

And the reality is you can’t do everything. So having everyone on the same page about your role also allows you to begin defining other people’s roles.