Industryweek 14520 Change Agent

Change Agents Beware: Weirdness, Survival and Success

July 3, 2012
Six steps to managing your weirdness and improving your effectiveness

A few months ago we talked about the “weirdness tightrope,” and some of the difficulties inherent in being a change agent.  In this article, we will explore techniques you can use to “walk that weirdness tightrope,” yet survive, gain credibility and be successful for your clients. It makes no difference if you are an internal change agent for your company or an external change agent like me, "walking the weirdness tightrope" is not an easy task ... under any circumstance.

To do that, we’ll first explore the special abilities change agents must possess.  Then we will discuss the role of culture, and, finally, we will discuss how you can manage your weirdness and not only survive but also prosper as you assist your clients along the path of cultural change.

Engineers and Change Agents

I want to make sure we both are singing from the same sheet of music here.  In any cultural change initiative there are always two major questions.

  1. What do we change to?
  2. How do we create that change?

The cultural change we are referring to is nonspecific.  It could be a simple change, such as launching a new product; a larger change, such as implementing quality circles; or it could be a very large, penetrating, full-blown implementation of the Toyota Production System.  It does not matter how large the cultural change initiative happens to be, these two questions need to be asked and answered. 

I can tell you with certainty that no matter how complicated the first question might be, it is dwarfed by the second question. The “what” question is basically a technical question that can be handled by the professionals who can design a change initiative.  Even though they may not be engineers by discipline, I call those folks “social engineers.”  On the other hand, the question of “how we make this change happen?” is very people-related and must be handled by the behavioral scientists, the “cultural change agents,” and fortunately or not, many of these folks are engineers by degree.

Here’s the rub.  Shake a large tree and you could fill the former Sears Tower with professionals who fall from the tree who have the knowledge to provide technical solutions to your problem. These professionals are the social engineers.  Unfortunately among these social engineers there are a scarce few who also can design the necessary change process so the technical solutions can be effectively incorporated into your business culture.  These immensely talented folks are the change agents, and they are a scarce commodity indeed.

Furthermore, if you are a driven change agent, wishing to delight your client by implementing the appropriate cultural changes so your client can become a “better money-making machine and a more secure workplace for all,” then you need to be able to walk the “weirdness tightrope.” To do this you must “manage your weirdness” so you can:

  • Increase your credibility and survive in the short term yet
  • Maintain your weirdness and continue to make the changes necessary so your clients prosper, in the long term. 

We will discuss a six-step approach to managing your weirdness but first a word about culture...  

Of Balloons and Cultural Change

Think of a culture as a balloon you hold in your left hand.  Think of the size and shape of the balloon as the size and shape of your culture.  Also think of your left hand representing the external forces that work to keep your culture stable and in equilibrium.  Hence the balloon rests there nicely shaped and quiescent as long as nothing disturbs it. 

Now gently apply pressure to the balloon by poking it with the tip of the index finger of your right hand. This is the metaphor of creating a change to the culture. This will cause a dent to appear in the balloon. That dent is what we metaphorically refer to as “cultural change.”  Poking the balloon is the stimulus, and this stimulus predictably will get a response.

All too often, this visible dent is the only response we see.  It could be the only part we are trained to see or it could be all we really want to see. Both the social engineer as well as the cultural change agents can see this obvious response, the metaphorical dents. 

But what else might be happening?  In reality, that dent is not the only effect -- not the only response -- created by the cultural change.  There are two additional responses.

First, the “poke” will change the shape of the entire balloon and increase the pressure on all areas of the balloon.  This dynamic happens internally to your culture as well. Apply a stimulus and everything is affected -- sometimes more, sometimes less -- but affected nonetheless.

Likewise, the “poke” will place force on the outside of the balloon and transmit that pressure on your left hand, symbolizing the effect this cultural change has on the external environment.

Frequently the internal changes caused by the applied stimulus and the changes to the external environment go unnoticed by many -- but not by the cultural change agents.  Their cultural antennae are tuned into these changes, and their powers of observation and quantification in this area make them invaluable observers of cultural change responses.

Cultural Responses and Predictability

All these effects can be measured and responded to -- if you know what to look for as well as when and where to look.  In short, cultural change can be designed, and cultural responses can be observed, measured and, finally, also be predicted.

Herein lies the real difference between the social engineer and the cultural change agent.  An engineer can design a change -- a necessary but not sufficient condition -- for successful change.  A change agent not only can design a change but predict how this change will manifest itself in your culture. 

These cultural change agents are skilled at predicting the types, sizes and locations of responses you can expect from any given stimulus, that is, any given cultural change you implement.  It’s a bit like your local weatherman.  If he’s worth his salt, he can predict rain with a high degree of certainty long before it actually falls.  Likewise, change agents can predict the location, size and kind of response, given a certain change, long before it happens.  That is their uniqueness and their real power.

Six Steps to Managing Your Weirdness

1. “Meet them where they are” and design the change.  Designing a change to some cultural challenge often is not too difficult, especially if you are an idealist and ignore the current condition of the culture.  Many solutions can be presented, but most will not be acceptable enough to the culture to be accepted by the management team.  In addition to designing cultural countermeasures, a skilled change agent will be able to assess what level of change the culture can withstand without metaphorically exploding. Often, to get management approval to proceed, you will need to compromise on the size of the change proposed.  As long as it drives their culture in the correct direction, it’s OK.  Don’t try to be a “cultural purist,” and don’t be intractable. Focus on making progress and expanding your credibility.

2. Predict the response. Openly predict what will happen, as well as when, where and how much will happen.  Since you have met the implementers of this plan, the management team, "where they are," almost surely they will have a weaker change proposal than you'd like. If they have what you consider to be a suboptimal plan, don't denigrate their plan, just let them know that you believe more is achievable with your plan. Then explain the expected results from your plan and how it would differ from their plan. State your case and if they don't accept it, don't worry. Predicting the future cultural response and getting on the record with your concerns is absolutely crucial to all that follows. 

3. Carefully observe. Finally, being an expert you can then follow the responses as you observe and measure the culture.  A good change agent can observe and analyze a culture and be an “early warning monitor” for both success and failure.

4. & 5. Learn to say, “I told you so” without saying, “I told you so.” Create credibility by getting “their fingerprints on your murder weapon.”

When the suboptimal cultural change countermeasure fails to deliver as hoped for -- and they often do -- graciously remind them of the discussion you had earlier.  Remind them of the discussion WE had and the proposals WE reviewed and that you recall that there were other options WE evaluated and maybe WE should reconsider, especially given the less-than-desirable outcome.

Given that their proposal did not perform as expected, they are far more likely to listen to you now -- particularly if you avoid any scent of “I told you so.”  If you can negotiate this they are highly likely to listen to a better option and “voila,” you just created credibility for yourself. You are now a more powerful change agent.

6. Get more “weird” so you can assist your client even further. Recall that being “weird” is equivalent to suggesting changes, especially big ones.  Now that you have created more credibility, you have widened your "Effective Range” and you can now push “The Sweetspot”  to the right on the PWI scale (See image on Page 1. The Perceived Weirdness Index was developed by Jonno Hanafin).  Then what?  Start all over again to be more weird.

Sounds odd, doesn’t it?  Get weird, work hard to seek credibility so you can look less weird, only to get even weirder, once again.  Weird but effective...

It’s just the PDCA cycle in a slightly different form.

Lonnie Wilson has been teaching and implementing lean and other culture-changing techniques for more than 40 years. His book, “How To Implement Lean Manufacturing” was released in August 2009. His new book on “How to Lead and Manage a Lean Facility” is under construction . Wilson is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars. In addition to IndustryWeek, he has published articles in Quality Digest and is a frequent contributor to iSixSigma magazine. His manufacturing experience spans 20 years with Chevron, where he held a number of management positions. In 1990 he founded Quality Consultants,, which teaches and applies lean and other culture-changing techniques to small entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 firms, principally in the United States, Mexico and Canada. In particular, he specializes in “lean revitalizations,” assisting firms that have failed or failing lean implementations and want to ”do it right.” In his not-so-spare time, Wilson is the men’s varsity soccer coach at Cathedral High School in El Paso, Texas. You can e-mail Lonnie Wilson at [email protected].

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