Monday, October 17, 2016

How To Be a Better Change Agent

Last week, I gave a presentation on the topic of being a better change agent as part of the Walk the Talk Milwaukee conference. I did this personally rather than professionally, although I often see the many challenges to change in my job helping marketing leaders adopt and execute customer experience initiatives.

With the world moving faster and technology threatening more jobs, the need for strong change agents—people who can recognize and lead necessary change—is growing. It is imperative we better understand and manage the factors that work for or against our change objectives.

Everyone recognizes the need to change, so why is it so difficult for organizations and people to embrace it? One data point that has been floating around for over 20 years is that 70% of organizational change initiatives fail. Ironically, despite the ubiquity of this "fact," it was first suggested in 1993 as nothing more than an "unscientific estimate." I suspect the reason this statistic has been repeated so often for so long is that it roughly matches our experiences. 

Research validates this unscientific estimate isn't far off. One 2013 study found that only 54% of executives say change initiatives at their companies are adopted and sustained. Clearly, this is a tremendous problem, since every failed change initiative is not just a missed opportunity but also an expensive mistake; in fact, one study found that one of every six large IT projects go so badly that they can threaten the very existence of the company.

The stakes are high for our careers and our organizations, so how can we be more effective at leading change in our personal and professional lives? To answer that question, we must appreciate that: 
  • There is no such thing as a change agent. That may sound odd considering I’m writing about being a better change agent, but this is a set of skills, not an ability. It is not something you are born with but something you can develop. All of us are change agents—none of us gets the luxury of waiting for others to change us—so it is vital we identify and sharpen the right skills.
  • Being a change agent is risky: No matter how much business leaders say they want to hire more change agents, being a change agent is hazardous. Change agents fail, stumble in their careers and can damage their reputation. We must appreciate that advocating for change entails uncertainty, which is why it is essential we become aware of the risks and work to mitigate them.
  • People hate change. Humans like to feel safe and comfortable, and change is risky and discomforting. Successful change agents must know how to encourage people, helping them to see and welcome the benefits of change. 

If we do these three things—sharpen our skills, mitigate risks and inspire people—we can better succeed at leading change.

Sharpen Your Change Agent Skills

To be a better agent for change, you must develop your people skills (such as networking and communicating challenging and complex messages) and emotional skills (including patience with process and people and self-awareness of biases and weaknesses). You also need to develop critical thinking skills, and it is these skills on which I'd like to focus since they are so essential to change agency.

Improving any skill requires you adopt different habits. If you do not change what you do, you cannot cultivate new skills. To improve your change agent skills, you must modify habits to encourage:
  • Love of Learning: You can’t lead change unless you are one of the first to know it is necessary. That means you need to be hungry for information. One habit that can develop this skill is to schedule the time to consume news; plan reading periods on your calendar and honor that commitment rather than using the time to catch up on email. Another suggested habit is to curate your learnings into social channels--once you begin to engage with others and collect an audience, this becomes yet another reason to continually stay on the prowl for professional studies, news, and case studies.
  • Contrarian Thinking: You can’t advocate for change if you think like everyone else. Most people gravitate to comfort, but good change agents do the opposite. For example, when everyone does the same thing the same way and agrees that the process works, begin to probe for a better way. Be different than most people, who are obsessed with what competitors are doing, and explore lessons from outside your industry. And when everybody agrees on a new trend, ask yourself why. Don’t merely zig when everyone zags—that’s just being disagreeable—but question everything and develop your own POV.
  • Analysis: Passion is necessary to fuel the fires of change, but passion never wins the day—you must be able to communicate why it matters, how to act and what measurable benefits it will deliver. The same enthusiasm that allows you to see trends before others may cloud your judgment and make it difficult to communicate objectively. One habit you can adopt is to be a contrarian to your ideas; attempt to refute your opinions and identify gaps in your logic and information. When you can no longer disprove your idea, you are prepared to present a logical case for change.

Mitigate the Risks of Being a Change Agent

Being a change agent is risky. Just look at the experience of Ron Johnson. In his 15 years as Target’s VP of Merchandising, he introduced design partnerships that changed customer perception of Target from a place to go for cheap products to the place to go for stylish and affordable products. Then Johnson spent 12 years as Apple’s Senior Vice President of Retail, introducing the Apple Store concept at a time when brands like Gateway were shuttering their stores. Johnson had a long, favorable history of being a change agentuntil he became JCPenney's CEO and lasted for just 18 months.

Johnson was brought into JCPenney to be a change agent. He had the backing of the Board of Directors to implement substantial change. He also had the support of shareholders, who bid up JCPenney's stock 17% on the news of Johnson’s hiring and another 24% in the three months after he joined the company,  So, with that sort of sponsorship, what went wrong in just 18 months?

Much has been written about Johnson's brief tenure at the retailer. He overestimated the desire for change or, more accurately, underestimated the organization's capacity for rapid change. In his desire to attract a new customer to JCPenney, he ignored the current customer, replacing familiar brands shoppers knew with new brands out of their budget. Johnson implemented changes without pilots, focus groups or tests, an approach that may have worked for Steve Jobs at high-tech Apple but seemed dangerous at a national mass-market retailer. Johnson attempted to run JCPenney like a startup, but changing the culture of a 159,000-employee, 1,100-store chain required more time. And lastly, Johnson quickly replaced many seasoned JCPenney executives with former colleagues, leaving few leaders who understood the business and knew the company's existing systems and processes.

Johnson's experience helps to reveal the five building blocks of change--Capital, Customer, Process, Culture, and People. If you can mitigate the risk in each of these, you can more safely and efficiently lead change: 
  • Personal Capital: None of us will find ourselves in the situation where a board of directors brings us in as CEO of a Fortune 500 company with a public mandate to change, which means we will never have as much personal capital as Ron Johnson had. The fact Johnson ran out of capital tells us how important it is to manage our "bank"--the activities that add to or draw down our personal capital reserves. You need capital to initiate change, need more for the period during which success is uncertain, and need still more to survive missteps that occur. Experience, success and working hard earn capital. So does networking and securing senior executives to mentor and sponsor you and your initiatives. Soliciting approvals at each step rather than pushing too far too fast helps you to preserve capital and spend it wisely.
  • Customer: Never forget your current customer as you pursue new ones, and make sure you base your ideas on real data about the customer. To do so, seek out information on your company's current and future customer segments and personas. Gather data and information about customer needs, goals, behaviors, and perceptions. Connect with the people in your organization who have this knowledge, such as the customer insight, customer care and voice of customer groups. Almost nothing kills an idea faster than having someone say "That is not our customer," so be sure to demonstrate how your idea fits your organization's current customers or the ones leaders wish to target.
  • Process: Business leaders may be intrigued by ideas, but they don't buy ideas; they invest in solutions and plans. If you cannot turn your ideas into logical and workable plans, you will struggle for approval. Moreover, although Steve Jobs could get away with implementing changes with little testing or piloting, you and I are not Steve Jobs. We need to preserve our personal capital by proceeding more cautiously and sensibly, which means developing a prudent, staged plan with plenty of tests along the way.
  • Culture: Change agents change organizational culture, but this occurs slowly. Work within the existing culture rather than expecting rapid change in order to preserve more personal capital. Also, you have a greater chance of success if you align plans to your enterprise's strategic initiatives, finding ways to help leaders achieve what they already want rather than suggesting something different. Finally, change agents can be perceived as square pegs in round holes within their organizations, so at every turn, demonstrate you understand and ground your ideas in corporate mission and values.

Help People Overcome their Aversion to Change

The fifth building block of change is people. People don't so much hate change as they hate being changed. No one enjoys being told what they're doing is wrong, their skills are becoming obsolete, or their jobs may be at risk. Change agents help to inspire people by: 
  •  Changing Goals and Rewards: Employees do not do what they are told to do; they do what they are paid to do. It's hard to get people to change if you do not alter the ways employees are rewarded. Improve your chances for success by identifying the right behaviors, defining proper goals and metrics, and considering new approaches to compensate people for adopting new practices.
  • Raising the Pain (with Care and Empathy): People do not change until the pain of changing is less than the pain of staying the same. Change agents help people to see the need for change and the dangers of staying the same. Position change not just in terms of what it means to the customer or the bottom line but employees, as well.
  • Creating a Positive Vision: Successful change agents don’t just tell people their futures are in jeopardy; they show people how they can enjoy more success and prosperity. When you tell people about the risks of not changing, pair it with information on the benefits of embracing something new.  Motivate people with hope, not fear.
  • Involving People: Like all successful leaders, change agents must tell people the "what" but allow them a voice in the "how." Involving employees helps to increase the chance of adopting and sustaining change. Tuckman's stages of group development can help you to plan for and execute change in teams. Plan not just for the time required but also the investment necessary to support employees—the training, coaching, information and systems people need to adjust.
We are entering a period of profound and troubling change. Improvements in machine learning, automation, robotics and artificial intelligence will threaten industries and jobs. The need for change agents who can see the future, develop workable plans and help people adopt change will only increase in the years to come.

He or she who helps people embrace change will rule the world. Go rule the world!

My presentation deck is shared below. I welcome your feedback and hope you find the information and suggestions helpful.

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