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Everyone is a Change Agent

April K Mills' Everyone is a Change Agent: A Guide to the Change Agent Essentials is a distillation of several change management approaches into clear and enjoyable approach to change (book website). It also helps that she brings out my inner engineer by describing typical scenarios with change algebra so that the reader can plug in their own instances (along with her own examples).

The book general flavor of the book reminds me of the classic not-quite-Gandhi quote, "Be the change you want to see," which is why the title is what is. And she makes it clear that "change" is a fairly broad term - these ideas cover anything that looks to make things different - undertakings geared toward creating a better world.

Mills leads the reader down the path of common pitfalls in created changes, and a better approach, which she calls the Change Agent Essentials. Mills presents the essentials with plenty of examples of how doing the opposite doesn't work too well, and she brings in just enough background and references to draw a lot of connections together.  These essentials are:

  1. Drive change, not people. It is the change we care about, so we should do whatever is required to make the change successful. It also requires that we build understanding and trust - and this approach tends to remove roadblocks. Driving people, on the other hand, gets stuck at every hurdle.
  2. Create and maintain change buffers. Buffers are a familiar concept from Theory of Constraints that help protect the system from normal variability. Mills takes this idea and suggests that one needs buffers in a change to allow for variability during an implementation. From "wearing the world like a loose garment" to relying on more formal buffers of leadership and policy buffers, these buffers protect the goal of the project from the inevitable challenges.
  3. Set a concrete goal. Describe the new reality you are trying to create. What do you expect to see, hear, touch, taste, smell? What does good look like when the change is really working? What things are you trying to create?
  4. Map the terrain. Understand the landscape you are in and the new landscape you are trying to create. Who lives in this land (Mills calls them the "settlers")? How will they be affected? Can you learn something new by listening to their concerns that might modify the approach? Listen, listen, listen!
  5. Challenge assumptions. Challenge your own assumptions. Listen some more. When people push back, assume they are trying to make the change better, rather than attacking you directly. Challenge the assumptions of others. This one I find is often easier said than done - but it becomes easier when I have a good vision of what I want to see (see #3).
  6. Focus on sustainment. How to prevent backsliding? Real change is not charging to the finish line and then walking away. It must include mechanisms to reinforce the new way of operating (policies, funds, renewal, etc) and look for opportunities to further extend and improve, where necessary.
  7. And the final essential, Try. In my heavy mountain biking days, my wife and I used to joke that if I didn't come back with a few bumps and scratches that I wasn't trying hard enough. If we don't stretch, we won't learn what is possible. It's okay to fail, so long as I listen and learn. So, get out there and try
There are thousands hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.
— Henry David Thoreau

One of the strange things about the timing for reading this book was that I had just read Mike Dalton's book on innovation that used the same Henry David Thoreau quote.

I read this book a month or two ago and overcame my own inertia to write more. And as it turns out, I was listening to Mark Graban's Leanblog podcast #276 with Andy Sheppard, who is a "change management" consultant.  I particularly noted that his introduction says leaders need both empathy and urgency in order to make change happen: urgency of purpse and direction, and empathy to hear what you don't know from your people.

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