THE BLOG

Where to Start When You're a Change Agent

04/02/2014 08:55 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2014

Dear Change Agent,

Let's start with the bad news. If they hired you to be a "change agent," it means you automatically have a target on your back. Companies hire change agents and "thought leaders" when they're scared to death to do the hard stuff, unsure what to do, or both. I've known quite a few people hired into these roles and many of them end up leaving the company - sometimes with the thanks and accolades, but often without.

But you wouldn't have taken this role if you were faint-hearted or looking for a safe job. Where to start? Like in most of life, there's an inner game and an outer game. The inner game almost always comes first. You have to decide on the mindset you're going to use in this job. While I'm tempted to give you happy talk about how you can choose your mindset - and that's true to some extent - I want to acknowledge that circumstances will probably influence the way you play the game.

Which set of circumstances best describe your situation?

  • Scenario A: You have life circumstances that demand a stable income stream and job situation. It could be a special needs child, a mountain of debt to pay off, or an aging parent. In this case, while you're hired to play offense, you're going to have to play a fair bit of defense at the same time. You will want to pay careful attention to identifying and managing the stakeholders in your organization. You'll need to communicate carefully with the board or your boss, to keep expectations very clear. Your mindset will be about balance and prudence.
  • Scenario B: You have margin in your life to take more risks. While you're not looking to get fired, you can afford to play more offense. Like an actor or musician, you can view roles as assignments in a larger career that may have pauses or flat-out busts. Your mindset will be less about keeping everyone happy and more about doing fantastic work that will make you even more attractive in the next gig. You will also want to keep your external network very fresh since things can change quickly when you play offense in a change agent assignment. Your mindset will be about making bold moves.

Now that you know what mix of offense and defense you need to play, what next? You'll be drowning in things to do and many will be urgent. But the first fire to put out is discerning exactly what change needs to happen to get your organization rolling.

You'll need to get out and observe a lot of people and situations. You already know that those observations will need to include seeing the customer experience and getting your hands dirty with frontline employees. You need to see things for yourself, not just hear about them. Yes, you'll want to see data and hear reports but nothing beats first-hand observation.

As you're out collecting information, start to gather people too. Many people will want to talk with you. Many will be playing angles with you, trying to shape your perception, often to preserve the status quo and their own personal position. But you will find a few people who, with the right prompting, will give you the straight scoop. Note them. Build connections to them. Draw them in regardless of role and title. Be sure to include some of your peers in this network since they can be important allies in the future.

After a period of observation - usually 30-60 days is a realistic amount of time you'll get for this - it's time to shape your conclusions. Ask yourself and your growing circle of influencers a few simple questions:

  • What's right about this organization? These are the strengths you can build on. They're also traits you can unapologetically praise, which will put political coin in your bank account with the veterans in the crowd.
  • What's wrong about this organization? These are the weaknesses you need to correct. They may be obvious to all or only to those with a fresh set of eyes. Note which variety they are.
  • What's unclear about this organization? You've been brought in because change is required and that usually means there's ambiguity. This is where you can note questions to be investigated further and hypotheses to be tested.
  • What's missing in this organization? You'll see voids that need to be filled.

I first heard these questions from master strategic planner Tom Paterson. It's amazing how they can help sort the jumbled mess of your observations into actionable insights.

It helps to capture your thoughts in a simple table like the one below, using the columns to capture the answers to the questions. To make the identification of key issues easier, sort them into categories like I've done in the rows. You may use different categories based on your situation. I'm just showing you a few that I often use as starting points.

Once you get your thoughts out and categorized, you can start to hone in on the issues that are most urgent and fundamental to change. You might circle the issues that are most urgent and star the ones that are most fundamental to change.

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If you're like most of us, you'll wish you had more time and more data. Maybe you'll be able to buy more time. Often you won't because the board or your boss is impatient, or the external circumstances are pressing. In that case, you will have to make your best calls.

You may also be able to extend your learning window and still show action by sorting your insights into two additional categories and acting accordingly.

  • For the insights that seem certain, urgent, and important, identify one or two moves you can make immediately. Identify something tangible you can achieve in 60-90 days that will symbolically and substantively show that you're moving forward.
  • From your hunches (probably largely in the "Unclear" column), pick one or two hypotheses that you can test. Propose a pass/fail experiment that will help everyone gain more insight.

Once you get your mindset straight and do an effective fast-track diagnosis, you're on your way to making the most of your change agent assignment.

Be bright.2014-04-02-NoondaySun.JPG