Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Becoming a more effective change agent in government

I'd like to thank Kate Carruthers, a formidable change agent and renaissance woman, for prompting this post through a presentation she's published on SlideShare, Enterprise 2.0 and stakeholder resistance.

One of my key roles and, I believe, a key role for many in the online arena, is to be a change agent for digital channels.

I've led, been involved with and witnessed both effective and ineffective change initiatives over the years - hopefully learning something over the journey.

When I am seeking to be a change agent I consider four things;
  • Whether the change is meaningful - that it deliver real value to internal or external groups
  • How to overcome resistance to change - bringing people with me
  • The process for successful implementation of change - making it work
  • Embedding change into behaviours, processes and systems - creating lasting value
To unpack the first two points,

Is the change meaningful?
Change by itself is neither good nor bad. Good changes in one organisation can be bad changes in another - either because the change was unnecessary (or even detrimental), wasn't sold well, execution was poor or it was not embedded into ongoing practice.

Change is about the future - which we like to think we can predict, but actually do very poorly. We hope and plan for change with an assumption that it will make the future brighter. My experience has been that a realistic balance between optimism and pessimism is necessary for those seeking to introduce change to ensure that they don't get carried away with the change itself and downrate the consequences.

Assessing value
So given that change can have a different impact in different organisations, and can have unforeseen consequences, how should change agents go about assessing whether a change is meaningful, irrelevant or detrimental?

I don't have a magic formula for doing this. There are many measures of value - from time and cost savings to audience satisfaction and organisational flexibility.

Any meaningful change needs to generate one or more of these benefits. The benefits must, in the views of those affected by the changes, outweigh any negative consequences.

We're only human
Unfortunately as those introducing a change are usually those who benefit from it (financially or otherwise) there is a tendency for change projects to make rosy predictions of benefits but downplay consequences and risks. It can also be much harder to be the public voice saying "don't do this, it will be bad for us", than one of the chorus in support of a change.

The best any of us can do is make an objective assessment of the change's benefits and risks and then, during the change's implementation, adapt as necessary to ensure that it provides value and minimises negative consequences.

I fall back on a mantra that meaningful change creates its own meaning by being responsive and adaptable.

Many of the negative and positive benefits of a change only become clear during or after a change occurs. A change must evolve to ensure that it delivers value as these are revealed.

Overcoming resistance
It is a common myth that people resist change.

However life changes around us every day, we must constantly change our location, our knowledge, our behaviour, our attitudes, our tools and our networks to address it.

Humans are adaptable - it makes us one of the few species able to survive and thrive in virtually any environment on this planet.

When introducing change into organisations, my experience is that most resistance is not due to the changes themselves. It is related to the way in which the change was introduced, the communication that takes place and the level of involvement with the changes themselves.

They're not wrong!
One key mistake I've seen change agents make is to introduce change because the old way of doing things was wrong or inferior.

This is almost a sure way of creating resistance as it make the people who created and manage the existing approach wrong or incompetent.

If you tell someone that they are incompetent, you will not make them want to help you.

I've fallen - and still fall - into this on occasion. It's not a deliberate step, it's an error of not thinking through my own words clearly enough.

A much better approach is to acknowledge that the current approach is right - it achieves the outcome and is entirely appropriate based on how it has developed from the past. However if the situation has changed, or if there are new technologies or systems available, it is possible to build on the current approach and make it easier for those involved and/or improve the customer service provided.

In the vast majority of cases people want to improve themselves, they want to improve their organisations and they want to improve their customer service. A change is another step on this journey and is simply a more formal approach to doing what they were already doing - a process of continual improvement.

Looking within
So when I face resistance I look first at what I have failed to do to help people be involved with, understand and influence the change. Nine times out of ten if I'd done something better, the resistance would be much less - or non-existent.

One of the key areas I look at is how much time I give people to reflect on and consider a potential change. Increasing the lead time can help enormously in allowing people to follow their own journey of understanding the value of a change - and also can help bring out any critical flaws in the change before it becomes a project.

Planting seeds
So these days I think of introducing change as planting seeds that will grow in the future. This approach is focused around establishing the preconditions for change to happen, like putting oil in a car before the gears grind to a halt.

I regularly plant seeds through telling people about new things by email (and relating them to existing context), through water cooler conversations, through participation in different groups, speaking at events and mediums such as this blog.

As gardeners know, you should plant many seeds, they should be planted in fertile ground and nurtured over a long time.

So I try to disseminate the seeds widely, identifying other change agents, influencers, decision-makers and gatekeepers within the organisation - the fertile ground where seeds can survive. I nurture them through ongoing engagement, by-the-way updates, by providing examples of success - and failure - by others and through constantly seeking opportunities to share.

I don't run strict metrics - ten seeds planted, one seed sprouts - as the value of an idea is dependent on the audience, not the innovator.

I also avoid getting trapped in 'owning' an idea. If someone wants to pick up and run with an idea I'll empower them to do so and step back into a supporting role - letting them take on most of the responsibility and the credit. Any failure is shared.

More to come
I discuss my last two points, successful implementation and embedding change in a future post.

I do appreciate all of your comments and viewpoints - they help me change myself to become a more effective change agent.

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