Fostering Change Is A Team Sport

“When you drop any new idea in the pond of the world, you get a ripple effect. You have to be aware that you will be creating a cascade of change.” — Joel A. Barker

I love kick off week.

New starts always gives me a jolt. Everyone’s filled with hope, or at least a desire to improve things. People show up with their favorite/lucky outfits with freshly minted slides and we shove off from the docks.

This exact situation was me recently with a new project. When you’re fortunate enough to present you have to take full advantage. Your jokes get real laughs. Thoughtful slides get the “mmmm hmmmm” nods of approval. Questions are thoughtful and earnest.

Yet there’s always one of two people in the room glaring at you. After all, I’m just another consultant trying to change the way teams work.

We all know what happens when change is introduced into organizations. The bigger the company, the harder it will fight. My favorite analogy is change is a virus introduced, and each org has its own antibodies to fight change to the death. If you’re a consultant like me, it’s more likely that a failed initiative has proceeded your effort than not.

It would appear that we need some help to succeed in these situations, and they’re literally looking you in the face during kick off.

Cultivating change agents is not a new thing. You can read plenty of great information about it in this sentence. I thought about making the sentence longer so I could throw more links at you, but I have a heart.

Those links all tell you the same basic information, and it’s largely not beneficial in the real world.

To make changes inside volatile power structures that last, you need help from people inside who want your efforts to succeed. Better slides and workshops won’t cut it alone. So here’s a few practical tips on building some advocates as you tweak how they work.

Start with the ones that hang around after kick off.

When I was an employee at orgs who would bring consultants in, I remember pulling them aside and commented how I’ve been saying the same things. The good ones would smile and invite me to lunch, and I’m still friends with them to this day.

“A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man’s brow.” — Ovid

When everyone disperses after the kick off has finished, I’m always curious as to who sticks around to chat. There are plenty of hints sprinkled throughout the presentation of what’s to come, so they’re there because you sparked their interest. They’re not there because you’re an amazing presenter. You said something they want to help with.

So let them.

Titles or standing aren’t important when cultivating change agents. If they were in the room during kick off, someone in the organization thinks they have something to add to your efforts. Take that as permission to invite them in and take off.

Here’s where I throw the “it depends” at you, because not every internal change agent will aid your cause. You won’t know that until you get started, though. Honestly, when you’re getting started you should take every enthusiastic voice you can find. If you start picking and choosing who you think will be the right voice early on, you might pick the wrong one and you’ve turned an advocate against you.

You can’t coach enthusiasm. This is a situation where you want early adopters. Schedule some lunches or one-on-one sessions and take off.

Build their mindset in a way that makes to them, not you.

The older I get, the more I realize how wrong I was about so much of my previous thoughts on organizational change. My early efforts were a lot more prescriptive, because I was sure I knew the right way for teams and companies to lean. If you’re honest with yourself, you can see the same things in previous iterations of your mindset.

Please resist every voice in your head to tell budding internal change agents exactly what to do.

When you start meeting, don’t come in with a list of things to read or an agenda for them to start complying with. As mentioned above, these early advocates are a little fragile in early stages because we all know they don’t really trust you yet. That has to be built over time with some wins for their teams.

The biggest way to crush enthusiasm is to tell them what they are going to do for you. Instead, let them take you where they want to go early on.

Will it be what you think they should be learning and doing? Probably not, but who says you know more than they do about changing their company? Arrogance hurts me more than them in this situation. Listen to them as they suggest a few ideas and come up with a couple of early experiments that can test the validity.

Let them fail a few times.

We all know that you’re combined backlog of ways to improve the organization is fraught with ridiculous notions. These early experiments are bound to fail. Yet time after time we continue to present ourselves as experts in knowing what they need to justify our bill rates.

Once our change agents set off with some experiments, I know what many of you are thinking because I’ve said the same thing (and still do unfortunately). Rather than trying to “save them from making the same mistakes you’ve seen fail elsewhere,” I’d encourage you to be their safety net.

This is where outcome-based coaching comes in handy.

Identify some things they would like to learn or improve on. Those are really problems they see in either themselves or the org overall. From that lens, we can put our lab coats on and hypothesize on what we want to measure and validate. It’s impossible to learn something without it changing you.

See where I’m headed?

Keep change agents focused on learning, and you’ll see them come around in ways you couldn’t have possibly imagined. That’s when the real fun begins.

You are your own impediment.

I’ve been fairly heavy handed in my language to you on one regard that I’d like to leave with. As experienced as you probably are, and your knowledge is mostly likely greater than me or your client, you need to stop being the biggest impediment to our client’s journey of change.

Humility is hard for me when I arrive on site, and it’s something I have made significant effort to safeguard. My biggest encouragement is to find someone or a group to keep you accountable in this regard. We aren’t gods of change. We’re just the fly in the ointment that makes people pay attention to what’s wrong.

I’m going to riff on my friend Bob Galen’s post ender when I say this, but stay humble my friends.

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