Leadership: Practical advice for change agents

Resistance to change is the enemy of innovation. Two seasoned executives share their tips for overcoming obstacles and driving transformation.

Large organizations gravitate toward stability and predictability, forces that create continuity while hindering innovation and reducing flexibility.

Private sector companies seek predictable revenue and sales growth, for example, while government workers want clear process and stable outcomes for initiatives and programs. And every quarter, stock markets measure public companies on the accuracy of revenue predictions.

Since innovation and change may disrupt stability, resistance to change is understandable despite causing unhealthy organizational behaviors including turf wars and inability to adapt when market conditions evolve. The dangerous cocktail of personal vulnerability combined with organizational fear of change is indeed a serious problem.

Related: How to build trust, influence, and credibility

When considering change-related initiatives, organizations must create an environment where employees feel sufficiently safe to experiment and try new things. Although not easy, overcoming resistance to change is essential for innovation and even long-term survival.

Because organizational change is difficult but essential, change agents -- people willing to push for improvement even when entrenched interests and processes resist -- play a vital role in business transformation.

The best change agents push relentlessly against ineffective or counter-productive organizational "habits." Through leadership, these folks encourage others to participate in change by demonstrating the benefits of doing so.

To explore the role of change agents and the challenges they face, I invited two government innovators as guests on the CXOTalk show.

David Bray, Chief Information Officer of the Federal Communications Commission, and Corina DuBois, Communications & Strategic Advisor with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, shared their experience on the challenges and opportunities of being a change agent.

You can read a detailed transcript of the entire conversation or watch it below.

Here is important advice from David Bray and Corina DuBois on being a successful change agent (quotes are edited for length and clarity):

On taking personal risk
david-bray.png
David Bray, Federal Communications Commission (image courtesy cxotalk.com)

Change agents risk their credibility to drive change. Willingness to place reputation and even job security at risk are part of the role.

David Bray notes the challenge:

You have to be willing to take flack. Often, people never know the flack we encounter as we try to be change agents.

On finding other change agents

Anyone trying to drive change should find other change agents with whom to build mutually supportive relationships.

David recounts his first experience with Corina:

When I first met Corina, I recognized that she was a fellow change agent. It's important to meet other change agents, not just within your agency, but across agencies, because the only real way you get change done that's lasting in public service is to build networks and build consensus.

On communication and language
corina-l-dubois.png
Corina DuBois, Department of Defense (image courtesy cxotalk.com)

Being a successful change agent demands empathy and understanding other people in your organization. Communication, willingness to listen and an attitude of humility are the starting points.

Corina elaborates:

The change agents that I've encountered can speak in more than one language. I don't mean Spanish or French, but it's I'm not illiterate in what David is trying to do. I understand it enough; although I might not be able to write fluently in it, I can speak it.

When the change agent understands the same common vocabulary that people [in the organization] are using, it helps them understand why they need to do something.

On building consensus for change

Creating consensus on the need for transformation is an important role for every change agent. Building a coalition involves:

  • Listening to the narrative that people in the organization use to describe their needs and issues. Understanding their problems is the first step to gaining their support.
  • Building trust and reduce fear with consistent communication
  • Articulating a vision of the future that others will support and around which they will rally

Corina presents her approach to building consensus:

I start out understanding the organization, its needs, and ways in which they've worked to meet those needs. But then, I jump all the way forward and think about where I want things to go.

In three years what I would want to see -- what will that legacy be. Then, I work backward from there. Who needs to know about this; who needs to give buy-in; who should we consult when I'm getting more information. What are the actual tactics that we have to start taking to get there.

David talks about creative spaces where change agents can experiment:

In creative spaces, change agents can show what's possible, build a coalition of the willing, and demonstrate that we can take steps forward. With this, late adopters or even laggards can see what's possible.

On trust and credibility

Trust makes possible the work of change agents. Corina explains why being trusted is so important:

People trust that the things that I talk to them about will benefit the organization rather than just me as a leader. I have pushed forward ideas I don't care for because I think they are best for the organization or the people that we serve.

If you want to take a risk, trust makes it a lot easier to say, "This is going to seem a little whack-a-doodle, but just hear me out."

I've also found great value in being told "No." Sometimes, that requires walking away, but other times it means I never gave you enough information to get to a "yes." After consideration, that can [require] asking the change agents, "How did we get here, help me out with this."

This article was written in collaboration with my colleague from cxotalk.com, Lisbeth Shaw.