Driving Organizational Change when it isn’t wanted

Tornado illustrating being a change agent in your jobI know I am overdue to continue my post on why judgement becomes such a critical skill to advancing your career – long after your hard skills have pushed you as far as they can career-wise. However, I recently received an email from a reader of this blog around my post on moving out of your comfort zone, and why that is helpful, and in fact necessary, to keep growing in your job.

So I thought I would defer the follow-up for now on judgement, and address this readers question – namely, how do you find a work environment where change is encouraged and rewarded, versus being feared by bosses that prefer to retain power and feel threatened by anything that will upset the status quo?

This reader goes right to the heart of my experiences as well I’m sure of most people. Companies, whether big or small, can have a very entrenched leadership that have been at the company for a long time, they have clawed their way to the top, and will fear and distrust anything that could threaten their comfort zone. In fact, their comfort zone is the problem. Often leaders either aren’t sure how they reached their position [often by chance or luck unfortunately], or their narrow band of expertise enabled them to excel at some point in the companies history…but now they feel like a one trick pony. The phrase I hear all too often [even at companies that supposedly are on the cutting edge] is “if it isn’t broken, we don’t need to fix it”. The problem is these companies [and their leaders] are coasting – the business might be doing well today, or it might be starting to struggle, but in any case there is not an acknowledgement of today’s world – which is change is happening at a faster pace than ever before in human history.

Look at the valuation of Facebook, or Netflix, or a rising bio-medical company. Companies and indeed industries that didn’t exist 20 years ago are now valued at more than 100 year old “blue chip” companies. Instagram….Twitter…Amazon…the list goes on and on. Entire industries are being turned upside down virtually overnight. Yet too many entrenched managers turn a blind eye and pray their industry and their company will not be threatened and they can continue on the same course they’ve been on for years.

In companies like this, true change agents are often treated like a virus that enters your body – they are recognized as a hostile, non-native part of the system and slowly eradicated. And management often cheers when this foreign body is ejected from the system, not realizing that the long term damage they have just done. As long as their position and status is protected for today and tomorrow they are happy.

Being an Effective Change Agent

So you’re ready to move out of your comfort zone and see the next big idea on the horizon. How do you avoid being attacked by “anti-bodies” and being kicked out of the company? If you are one of the few fortunate people you’ve landed at a company where change and new ideas are valued, and you will feel at home. However, let’s consider the more common case where new ideas are not rewarded or valued [regardless of what is stated publicly].

Is it possible to drive change, see your new ideas come to fruition, and feel successful at moving the company forward in environments like this? Yes…but it isn’t easy, and requires you to really modify your approach.

I could write for hours about both successful and unsuccessful examples from my personal career, so let’s just pick something generic like a business process. This could be reducing the time it takes to fill an order, the amount of time a customer has to wait to get service, or a more efficient way to develop software or manufacture a widget.

Being a somewhat fresh set of eyes coming into the business, or maybe you woke up enlightened one morning…in any case you see a way to change the business process and really make a measurable impact on the business. It seems obvious, and truly all you should have to do is present your ideas either formally or informally to the right person [e.g. your manager] and sit back and bask in the results. Right?


Too often this “direct” approach will get shot down, will paint a perception of you as an idealist, someone that doesn’t understand the business or the “way we do things here”, and in general a negative connotation will now be associated with you and your role. Not good.

If you’re like me at all, you can’t just sit on the idea or forget you had it. So how can you see it come to fruition?

Here are some starting points to think about – depending on interest I can expand upon these in a later post. These come from my experiences and also from formal training I received in driving change, as well as extensive reading on “how to move people’s cheese”:

  • Paint a picture of a mountain. You need to move it, but the only tool you have is you and a small pick axe. Keep this image in mind.
  • Don’t immediately take your great idea and the benefits from it to your manager, a co-worker, or anyone. Sit on it and think through how you will move the mountain.
  • Recognize who will be impacted by the change – and think about their emotional reaction. Will they be out of a job, will their job change, will they be excited, fearful, risk-adverse, etc.
  • Identify who the influencers are. The funny part is often these aren’t always the senior managers, but rather lower level individuals or peers who are treated as trusted advisers to leadership. Remember they like the status quo as well.
  • Your job is to slowly start helping others, especially influencers, come up with your idea on their own. Yes, you heard me right. You have to over time get others to think they identified the opportunity and came up with the new change to the business process. They may [and often] even get rewarded when it comes to fruition versus you – this is where you decide are you in it for the ego or the true change to the business.
  • Slooooooowly bring people along on your journey. Assume at every step the idea and benefits are not evident to anyone, and slowly insert teasers, little snippets of the idea, etc. into conversations and in 1×1 discussions. The goal is to start having a group of people start wrapping their heads around it and help develop and drive it – even if you already have the answer ready to go.
  • Never act as author or inventor of the idea – BUT, you can become the person who always seems to be able to build a little on what someone else presents around the concept. By doing this you aren’t a threat to “their idea”, but you do become an adviser to them…a trusted adviser…see where this is going?
  • Sometimes it might takes months to get a team of peers and managers to feel like they’ve come up with a grand new way to modify the business process, and more times than not they will not end up at the ideal change you’ve had in your head all along.
  • They will also want to move slow – much slower than you think they should. But be an advocate of this approach and don’t threaten to tip over the car. Remember, you don’t want to be the brash newbie who just doesn’t get how the business operates!

Echo the caution and moving slowly, but be supportive of the direction and take opportunities to introduce minor course corrections if you need to [allowing others to even take credit at times].

Being a change agent can be frustrating, it can sap your patience, the timelines and “thickness” of others can be a constant burr in your side. You have to let this go. You have to focus on the long term business benefit, recognize it will not be your idea that is eventually implemented, and you may not be viewed as the champion of the initiative.

That’s ok. It has to be. Otherwise if you try and do this from an Ego or Credit/Reward perspective, you won’t be able to move that mountain – because it will just be you and 1 pick axe.

You need the entire village and their tools to move the mountain, but they have to want to do it, and in fact they have to feel like it was their idea all along. Does it matter? Play the role of trusted adviser and behind the scenes consensus builder, and your reward will be when you see an “old organization” and “old processes” actually begin to change. If you’ve been subtle but supportive of leadership and the “influencers”, they will want to keep you around and leverage you as a new trusted adviser. This is how you can advance and move into more and more senior positions, where your influence will slowly accelerate the pace of change. But it takes time. And patience. Lots of it.




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