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Enter the Change Agent, Part I: Prepare the Ground

May 28, 2014
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As an operations executive, you seek a cure for an ailing and caustic culture. You need a driver, a catalyst for change, and have decided to enlist the services of a mercenary: a hired gun.


Accept that you are inviting a powerful personality into your camp. Imagine that you are embarking on a military campaign together, creating an insurgency in your own ranks and engendering revolution. During this willful disruption, it is incumbent upon you, the highest authority, to understand both roles clearly, and to work to mutual aid. You must help establish the conditions necessary for success at your level. You must shape the battle space.


During the advance, senior management provides strategic vision and critical support, clearing obstacles from above and below. The change agent delivers the tactical execution by engaging directly with the workforce, initiating and guiding employees through the transformation. Whether this person is a direct hire or an external consultant, trust is vital. Maintain confidentiality regarding assessments, purposes and priorities. Keep in mind that a consultant eventually leaves, while a hire remains in the environment created.


Your agent must be suitably empowered. To the self-assured, titles are meaningless; but recognize appropriate rank is necessary for freedom of maneuver in hierarchical corporate structures. Subordinating him or her to those who will resist change is folly; don’t blunt the tip of the spear.


Also, too many bosses deflect the angle of attack through misdirection or impede momentum. Clarity of command chain is crucial, and there must be direct access to the initiating authority, no gatekeepers!


Furthermore, do not encumber a change agent with excessive administrative tasks. Clear a lane; let the agent roam, evaluate and seek targets of opportunity. Fresh eyes reveal much.


The agent must gather intelligence and effectively graft him or herself on to the existing culture. Building the required relationships takes time. Like a guerilla fighter, an agent must be allowed to read the terrain, determine the best indirect approach and slip behind the lines.


Most humans instinctively resist change. When introductions are made, do not herald the hire as a “fixer.” No “new sheriff in town” speeches. This creates alarm and suspicion. Resistance will prematurely coalesce.


Remember that the agent is not your nemesis. Activities should not be punitive. The change agent is not here to lash or enslave, but to empower and unite. The agent’s role is to achieve your strategic aim as a valued councilor, not as a sycophant.


The agent must refrain from court intrigue and be perceived as a positive influence in possession of the moral high ground: a force multiplier.


A change agent without a precise goal is like a gun without a sight. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, he who fights everywhere wins nowhere; choose your battles wisely. Understand the enemy and empathize. What is the severity and scope of the problem? How much time do you have? What does victory look like?


Clarity of objectives requires a strong sense of what is achievable with the resources available. Develop a sense of proportion and mass, practice economy of force and curb the urge for grand roll outs or lofty presentations. Practice discretion; and while formulating a plan, consider change curve behavior and its impact on operations.


There is confusion inherent in change. Clausewitz describes the “fog of war”. Few plans survive contact with the enemy. The well-coordinated effort requires constant communication. Gauge your reports, reconnoiter, fire for effect and pivot. Ask managers what they perceive their responsibilities to be. Past efforts may have created ambiguity. Is there clarity? What are their boundaries? Is there overlap or cross purposes? People spend years augmenting their authority. This often leads to redundancy: duplication of effort and inefficiency.
 

Consider motivations. What are their ambitions? Is there alignment? Anticipate their reactions to change. Find advantages in unintended consequences; seize fleeting opportunities; coach. Make course corrections with your agent and shift the axis of advance.


Seek reform, simplify, and analyze departmental leadership, functions and structure. Many positions and duties are designed to deflect accountability and project power, creating a layered defense in depth.


Guderian emphasized preserving the schwerepunkt, or the point of impact. That is, do not diffuse the main effort. Coordinate efforts with your agent and penetrate. De-construct, ease or redistribute burdens where necessary.


Isolate and diminish negative influence. Expect friction. Some will abide while others will dig in. In disputes among leadership, you are the final arbiter. Transcend petty jealousies and egocentric thinking. Recognize a tipping point, weigh in and exploit. Use the opportunity to influence, develop and convert. Re-train hourlies and management, too.


Have leadership audit, revise and refine procedures and practices. Think of this as breaking up enemy concentrations by bombardment with assignments, but only tasks that either directly or tangentially aid the advance. Seek the good but prepare for the bad. Expect shifting alliances and escalation of tension as sins are revealed. Do not allow counterattacks to distract. See through diversions and feints. Truth is your shield.
 

If you are combating entrenched indolence, ignorance or incompetence, recognize some cultures only respond to certain stimuli. As a forward observer, your agent will call in airstrikes, i.e. discipline. This should be judicious and surgical to clear obstructions to the advance and divide the enemy.
 

Terminations may be needed. Reserve such slash-and-burn scorched earth tactics for only the most dire of situations. Beware the Pyrrhic victory; is the gain as great as the cost? Will you be able to stabilize and sustain?


If you and your agent have coordinated activities well, you will have weakened and encircled resistance. After envelopment is complete, pause and re-group. This is a period of absorption, reflection and revision. To quote Bismarck, “History tells how far one may safely go…” If necessary, resume the advance. If not, recognize capitulation and consolidate; give quarter and be magnanimous in victory. You have won with Byzantine logic. Avoid a Carthaginian peace.


Suggested Viewing: “Fog of War” (2003), an Academy Award-winning documentary, should be required viewing in management training courses.


Steve Adams is President of Clawmounts Mfg. Inc., A precision machining and engineering solutions provider. He holds 2 U.S. Patents and has a B.A. in History from Lewis University. 

 

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