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Monday, March 11, 2013

“Change Agents Wanted!”


A paradox: The companies whose feet are most stuck in the late 1970s are most likely to want the biggest, baddest change agents ever to join the team.

Of course “change agents” have some strange inner need to take on the thankless task of standing before the mountain that is congealed bureaucracy, pushing and pushing to move it forward.

I remember my first job in government, my boss liked all the creativity on my resume. “Innovation, wow! Creativity, wow! Branding, let’s go!”

It was not three months thereafter that I sat in her office, watching her type emails and take personal phone calls, giggle with her friends and make trips to the restroom and back. Sometimes I actually had to accompany her.

It is extremely embarrassing to stand there in the restroom while your boss is giving you instructions from within a stall.

The way we innovated in that job was the “sneak attack.” When her boss was on vacation we threw in the new newsletter. Of course it had no marketing research or focus testing behind it – because it was innovative, we couldn’t freak anyone out by showing it to them.

Um, when that didn’t work I had to innovate on my own. So I came up with a rating system for the newsletter online. The point was to combat those deadly boring articles, e.g. “Breakfast With Our Leader” or “How To Secure Your Notebook Computer.”

Yes! We had those!

At the next job interview they loved the branding stuff. Loved it, loved it, loved it. “Wow, your work is so CREATIVE,” they said, oohing and aahing over the portfolio. “Advertorials in the employee newsletter, that’s terrific.” (That one went over big in the previous job.)

What they don’t tell you is that there are much larger forces at play than little you.

“What should we call the new campaign?” they ask you.

“Anything but an acronym, nobody can remember them and the last one was the name of a Spanish terrorist group as ___ recently pointed out.”

One month later. “Guess what our new campaign is called? Our brand?”

“No, what?”

“It’s a great acronym – it stands for the legislation itself! And look we have lots of money to put behind it for the rollout.”

Hands clapping over eyes. Hands clapping over eyes.

Someone came up to me the other day and said, “Yeah, I can never remember the name of that law, and it hits me in the face all the time.”

The one thing senior leaders have mastered, in all their senior leadership experience and training, is clearly innovation.

They speak it well.

They know what they want to do.

They tell their management to go do it.

Yet change on the ground in a mammoth organization that has changed very little in fifty years, or even a hundred, never, never happens easily.

Because we get frustrated at the slow pace of change, we often bring in the person who seems to represent that restless need to break through the walls.

The practice is delusional, self-destructive, and unfair to all parties concerned.

What we need in a broken system is not a change agent to serve as the spokesperson and lightning rod for some cause that is perceived as “outside.”

Rather the task is to master the art of change management itself – to equip and empower the organization to grow from within.

Growth is very hard for all of us. Believe it or not it may even be harder for change agents. Because we’re so used to fighting an irrational system that we neglect to question ourselves enough.

Research has shown that breaking successfully from a dysfunctional past requires concerted effort not by a single individual or visionary leader. But by a group of people who share a vision and are united in their resolve to achieve it.

At the end of the day there is no quick fix for organizational change. Things get the way they are for a reason. The cure can sometimes even be worse than the original problem.

In the modern enterprise, it is incumbent upon each person to be responsible for their part. It’s not about change for change’s sake but rather about good health. Being in touch with external and internal requirements, and the gaps between those and current practice, and closing them.

The Jewish holiday of Passover is coming soon. For us, Passover symbolizes freedom from slavery. The worst kind of slavery is on the inside, when you are not able to see yourself, to change, to break from the past and your own bad habits.

Here’s to getting over ourselves, and making our organizations great – as great as we can make them, together.