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  • Writer's pictureNeil Keeler

'Infecting' change agents

Change: to alter; transform; make (or become) different; from what was, or what would have been if left alone.

I facilitated an enjoyable culture change session this week with 44 professionals from an HR service working on critical transformational change .

They’d asked me to provide some content on culture and change to provoke some thinking, discussion and debate, to inform their service planning session that would follow.

It was a great high energy session with a room full of people keen to change their organisation for the better. A great start to the week!

It reminded me of some thoughts about change and what really gives it 'infectious' qualities, which with flu & cold season upon us seemed timely!

The critical discussion that was emerging was having credible, agents for change.

As the team comprised highly professional HR, People, L&D & OD type group we noted they may well expect to face some criticism of supporting change ‘because it’s your job, you work in HR (or head office) so you would say that!’. I’ve certainly heard this often enough and of course some element of truth in it.

We explored this, accepting senior leaders and managers are also generally tarred with the same brush. Not an unusual aspect to most organisational cultures I would suggest.

Change agents can add their weight for the lift.

We agreed having highly experienced, operational people on board as agents for change was critical and that made change compelling, authentic and powerful. I shared some experiences of how impactful it had been having a network of such people feeling inspired during the transformations at Southend.

We eventually formed an ongoing network of them skilling them up with solution focused thinking approaches, coaching skills and action learning techniques to add even more energy to their impact.

The most innovative (sometimes curiously simple) solutions for change are best discovered by people who co-create it, I'd suggest nearest to where the issue is. What we create we own, engagement with change then flows naturally from our own work.

If they are the most compelling force to apply to levering organisational change lets explore this challenge a little more, where are these change agents, what are they like and how might we credibly recruit them.

Most would agree that the enthusiasm of a volunteer brings the greatest degree of integrity to any change agent, when they really have absolutely no reason to be doing this, other than it's the right thing to do.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about three critical supporting factors to tipping points for change being achieved, to give change the best chance of success:

  • ‘The law of the few’ i.e. a small percentage can have a disproportionally large impact.

  • If the change is ‘infectious’ or ‘sticky’ enough it will pass on more easily.

  • If the context comes alive and shakes us from being ‘bystanders’ into the moment, to being actively part of the change.

What if enthusiasm was caught like a cold?

With statistics suggesting the vast majority of organisational change initiatives fail (70% according to CIPD p.3) most of us have experienced a lot of disappointment, disillusionment and upset from change. Often, sadly reinforced many times over, generating an unhealthy pool of burdening recalled memories that (sadly) many don’t transition from.

It is ironic to consider that the greatest challenge to future changes are all the memories of the unsuccessful attempts of the past and associated weariness of not letting of that baggage.

One of the most powerful starts to building change capacity can be to understand and address this. Enriching the skills of the change agents you identify to first overcome this heritage, is a very practical start.

Challenging those memories and the instilled beliefs that may have developed from them, addresses some of the unhelpfully failed transitions of the past will, remove some of the greatest barriers to this change. Clearly hasn’t been done before either!

To consciously engage people in the full potential of ‘now’ and doing things differently can create a level playing field and a least a neutral and hopefully now attentive team.

It might not feel a massive leap forward but it is one I would always seek to explore first.

To sow some spirit of potential change, we need to challenge the conditioning of seeking permission. In highly controlled environments and cultures this can be a complete anathema to transformative change.

Frequent encouragement, reassurance to build trust and agreed conversations regarding risk taking will be required from your senior leaders. ‘Catching them doing it right’ early on, can be very helpful to build confidence.

Language that generates more of: “What if we could get it to work this time, what benefits could that bring?”.

Generating some belief in the potential to not just give it another go, but to identify what would make success inevitable will need patience and excellent leadership from above.

This challenging and encouragement for optimism is best represented as a coaching style of behaviour, one that that seeks to address the most fundamental issue of any attempt to change something - the persons immediate inner dialogue and self belief.

The assured belief in your own ability to positively impact it or not.

At an individual level with a personal goal we would call it our self belief or confidence, at an organisational level collectively, it becomes the organisations culture.

In seeking change agents we want to ensure that they are engaged with the overall mission of the business and ideally representative of ‘the right stuff’ to represent this change. The individual infection of a new level self belief, confidence and trust is ultimately the way a viral culture change gains momentum.

Trust being the medium that the culture will grow best in of course.

Let’s come back to Gladwell:

  • Identifying what would the right few look like for you and this change? Behaviours, attitude, approach, energy, integrity and credibility of the individuals is key. Consider what might help them to better represent and pass on this change?

  • What makes this change stickier, more compelling and infectious? What will they carry and share with whom to best spread the epidemic?

  • How can the context for the change be most ardently represented? In public service I find the most compelling cases for this are frequently service user/customer based interventions - make it real.

When you look at the basic and simplistic organisational performance model I have been utilising in my video the change programme is represented by the force being applied via the lever (Leadership), resting on a fulcrum (your Employees Engagement) to lift a weight (your revised goals/strategy) to a different place (ambitions or standards).

The change programme is represented by the force being applied to lever, partly experienced via hierarchical leaders and managers who naturally make up the lever itself, but also includes the pressure from the power they naturally exert.

Your agents for change gather more people to simply even just place themselves on the lever, they don’t even need to push, just move themselves.

As more become 'infected' and enthused to shift to the right end for making change happen, momentum builds, more still will then move and Gladwell’s tipping point will then shift to a lifting point. That level of engagement has massive potential for the organisation.

Figures globally on employee engagement show only around 24% of people are highly engaged at work, 39% are moderately engaged, 22% ‘passive’ (indifferent maybe?) and 15% actively disengaged.

Incredibly sad, unhealthy and affecting productivity, low engagement, when combined with any history of poor transitions from organisational change failures previously, can generate a particularly toxic working environment.

Employee engagement is the fulcrum for our lever to pivot on and will determine how high (or not!) our highest ambitions might be. If you aren’t already prioritising engagement in my next blog I will suggest why I think you really should.

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Welcome to my blog

Hope you will find something here to really get you thinking. Topics will be on any of my passions: Organisational Development, Leadership, Employee Engagement, Culture Change, Organisational Improvement and Transformation are the key themes.  

If you have a topic or suggestion for a blog, or maybe you'd like to do a guest spot on here (!) drop me a line. I'd also like to share some of my experiences in moving from 32 years of working in the public sector to starting my own business!

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