Culture and the Real Impact of Change Agents

The complete story

At the Berlin Change Days 2018

These days, more and more professionals get hired to “change” things.

Close to 10% of my direct network on LinkedIn now bears a professional title that includes words such as “Change”, “Transformation” or “Innovation” — from very few before. Part of this is definitely necessity, part is fad (or wishful thinking?) I sometimes shake my head in disbelief at spotting some known individuals, whom I’ve never seen taking any risk nor changing anything, holding a “transformation” job. What in the world…?! Fortunately, many brilliant change agents out there carry out real innovation even in the absence of a professional label or recognition.

I often think about impact. What difference do we, “transformation” or “innovation” people, really make? How do we know? How can we make a bigger one?

From Boston to Berlin

When Holger Nauheimer invited me to keynote the Berlin Change Days 2018 about “Courage and Corporate Activism, it seemed like a matter of evidence. By late 2017, when our initial discussion happened, I worked for a big corporate, happy to make an impact through repeated acts of change and innovative people engagement. It felt good to be a change agent and I was looking forward to sharing some cool stories. My keynote would address the need for more courage and more corporate change, if possible through active mobilization — or corporate activism.

But then, by the time of the event a year after, I was (literally) in a different place. I had changed country, moved back to Europe with my family. I’d changed job. I’d left my employer. I’d created my own business, after 27 years as an employee. All these changes, and conversations with ex-colleagues, called for reflection about my impact and legacy. Had I been successful? Had I not? Did courage and corporate activism really work? Could these reflections help other change agents do an even better job at change?

Does “Change” Work?

What a weird question, you may ask.

Does “Change” Work? Well of course! Why would so many change professionals be hired if it didn’t… On the one hand, results can be obvious. The Quality transformation story I already shared here and here resulted in mind-blowing improvements of quality (basically all positive indicators going up, all negative ones going down), better supply, huge savings, higher people engagement and so on. A real case study for culture change.

Also, those who have been actively involved in change movements have learnt new ways of working together — as it was the case in the Quality story, or in the diversity movement a few years earlier. People do not unlearn or at least not completely. When they experience an expanded zone of freedom, another way to connect across hierarchies / geographies / functions, to interact with others, to display leadership… it’s hard to forget. They now know it is possible to do things differently and, very often, they’ve experienced change in themselves too.


But, does it really work? Friend and former colleague Mohammed, a true change maker, says: “Unless we address the root of the system, unless we really influence shareholders and how organizations make their decisions — but decisions are taken along short-term financial objectives because of the capitalist system we live in — unless we change that, neither courage nor corporate activism will make any difference. They just can’t”.

Mohammed has just become a father. I asked him the meaning of Elyassa, the name he gave his newborn son. “Once” he replied “there was a prophet named Elyassa, who fought evil. He fought the bad king to put a good one in his place; but when the prophet died, the good king became a despot. I gave this name to my son to remind him that we must do change, but it’s a constant work. It’s never finished.”

Fake Change

What I have seen is that the old system perpetuates itself through many, many ways, including through the hire of new blood. You would think that the young generations will help change that… but they’re as susceptible to power and rewards, just like the old ones. Change is not a matter of age.

The system is able to mimic the work of change agents by espousing its surface only, and leaving its substance aside. Conformity agents — most of the time acting in good faith — recycle the words. They use a similar vocabulary as change agents: “purpose”, “movement”, “activism” … and yet they’re just good soldiers. They use our words, rendered meaningless.

I was once asked to support an upcoming corporate initiative with advice. Then the initiative got launched, trying hard to look like a movement of volunteers, but actually top-down, controlled, aiming at changing others, deeply traditional. It’d applied a set of “recipes” but not an intent.

Change was no longer an authentic belief but a set of manipulative tools.

“They” are “us”

I even found — even more disturbing — that sometimes *we* are the ones that enable the system to maintain itself; we are ourselves barriers to change. We don’t always realize. A young colleague once shared with me his frustration at our mother company, which was preventing change because they were “so controlling”. I couldn’t believe my ears. He himself was of the most controlling type of persons! How come he couldn’t see that in himself?

At another time, a friend made me realize that, among the network of volunteers I had created, I had actually duplicated the hierarchy I was trying to transform. I was acting as the boss… without the actual title, but operating just the same. I was myself reproducing the system! Thanks to this feedback, I tried to change; but how many times have I not been told and have I not changed? More and more, I am disturbed by the “they” word. Or, “the system”. I keep using them though, here and there, for convenience. But I’m aware it’s a misleading shortcut. Sometimes “they” are “us”, and we’re always part of the system.

So, does it make sense to blame change resisters from opposing our efforts?

How can we better identify what our own actions entail, in order to gain in efficiency and increase impact?

The limits of agency

Negative, controlling, oppressive behaviors are often merely symptoms of bad systems. They do not necessarily reflect the nature nor the intent of people. Employees of all levels operate as the systems asks them to. Similarly, citizens’ behaviors are shaped by macro decisions, as reminded by Umair Haque in this staggering read about the effects of austerity.

Also, the system is independent from the individuals who compose it. A company culture is created by multiple conversations over time that form patterns of conversations which become independent from the people having those conversations. After a while, when the culture is established, changing the people only gets limited to no effect on the company culture. Very often, top leaders act in the illusion that a new governance or a shift in leadership will impact the culture. They come in, they reshuffle teams and committees and department boundaries. But it doesn’t change anything.

Heroic change?

Is it always a good thing to challenge the status quo anyway? Another weird question, you may say. I’ve spent several good years already fighting the status quo and have found there lots to like and learn from. All of us change agents want to change the way things work. We find it positive and valuable to see ourselves as change agents. There’s a certain melodramatic appeal in framing reality as “Us vs The Bad Guys” (the Change Makers vs Resistance to Change). But I argue we can’t afford to picture ourselves as heroic change makers. This romanticism is an illusion in the world of business. It makes us lose our efficiency.

Change: what comes with ‘success’ or ‘failure’

What happens then if our efforts are not successful? When fighting the status quo doesn’t work, change agents can get really frustrated and withdraw, not wanting to put the effort deeply anymore. Lee Bryant said recently “I feel disappointing to see so many change agents lack the ambition to change the system and instead retreat into self-help”. Some precious competence and experience get diverted and lost to the cause of change.

On the other hand, our efforts may seem successful… while actually serving a different objective. That’s when we get exploited. Picture this situation: you step up as a change agent, but your organization actually uses you because of something else (e.g. for your network, your charisma, your leadership). Once, I got appointed to an internal “change agents’ network” which only objective was to broadcast the new business strategy of a certain division.

This network was about supporting a player in a power game, not about change.

When our efforts seem to work… then comes another pitfall for change agents. Often, success is heterogeneous across the organization (“like a leopard skin” I heard once — pockets of success here and there amidst a largely unchanged culture). Focusing on the bright spots is tempting because that‘s where the energy. It can result though in a bubble that isolates the change agent and her fellow change makers from the rest of the organization. Their bubble is a wonderful place for deep purpose and transformation talk but it doesn’t trigger any systemic change.

Sometimes change works, but too late to protect the change agent. Given the fate of some known whistle blowers, who see their reputation attacked, their lives disrupted, and all sorts of hard economic consequences, it takes a lot of courage to raise a hand and say “something is wrong here, it must change”.

As change agents engaged in the transformation of powerful traditional systems, we know the risks it entails. Women fighting patriarchy do know it is risky business. Corporate activists trying to make their organization more diverse, more humane and more environment-friendly know they need to build their resilience. But what about the others they lead into activism — and into the possibility of not succeeding? Raising false hopes is to me the biggest pitfall because it is an ethical issue. Picture this: you spark a community of people who believe that change can happen… They expose themselves, they take risks, and… the system strikes back. You move on but they can’t, locked into their jobs. What happens to them?

We change agents have a responsibility that we ought to reflect upon seriously. It’s one thing to be motivated to change the system, it’s another thing to bring people into the battle. Speaking the truth, considering others as equals (not as “followers”) and acting accordingly are in my mind parts of the solution.

So, does anything really change because of what internal change agents do? How much? Is reality more complex than the “Change” vs “Resistance to Change” polarity?

This exploration leads us to a set of questions that I believe is more valuable to change agents for assessing their impact and driving action. Some are inspired by my work on living systems with Myron Rogers and John Atkinson. Peter Block’s “Community — The Structure of Belonging” has also been an important read. It has provided really useful keys that evolved my interpretation of a change agent’s role.

What really happened?

How do we know?

What did we learn?

Change agents create acts of possibility

When you declare that another way is possible, and act upon it, you create acts of possibilities. This way, you fight what Peter Block calls the “retribution agenda”, that is based on the marketing of fear and blame.

What’s the problem, who’s responsible, how to solve it?”. Underneath this set of common questions lies a political agenda built on division and criticism. It often confuses where problems happen (e.g. “manufacturing”) and why they happen (“operators do a bad job”), makes misleading shortcuts between cause and consequence, exploits our need for certainty. This patriarchal agenda promotes the strong leader archetype, the strong man who takes charge and saves us from our fears, and it feeds the very lucrative business of fear. It works in politics and in the corporate world alike.

Instead of serving this agenda, Peter Block suggests we work at restorative community and we raise communal power by creating different conversations. These conversations invite more people to create a collective future. I believe this is a core aspect of the change agents’ impact. We, and those who join us, feel less at the mercy of an uncontrollable future and less in need to identify wrongdoers or saviors. We act more as designers than as consumers — because we see new possibilities and we act upon them, empowered by the collective energy.

Change agents create more freedom

Impact also arises from “confronting people with their freedom” (Peter Block again). As a change agent, that’s what you do. Both those who respond Yes to your invitation, and those who decide otherwise, are exposed by you to their freedom. In a workplace setting where it is more common to respond to imperatives and to go with the flow, the opportunity to make really free choices is rare and precious. Do you create such opportunities for yourself and your co-workers? If no space exists for people to operate as free agents within the corporate system, why don’t you build one?

Block writes further: “Confronting people with their freedom may be the ultimate act of love”. Still too often in the workplace freedom is considered as an individual privilege and as a collective risk. It is earned through one’s merit but associated to chaos and disorder at a larger scale. People with little empathy for other people, or who love themselves disproportionally more than others, are not interested in creating more collective freedom. Change agents are.

From head to heart to soul

One more thing about love: in the past, I would have found weird to use the “L” word in the context of work, but not anymore. Unlike any professional assignment, fighting for change alongside co-workers made me connect with them deeply and personally. Words are not enough to describe the intensity of our shared experience. Just as I was drafting these lines, former co-worker and companion-in-change Mrunal commented on the 1st part of this post:

“Hierarchy and network are two terms that evolve and grow with each other and we as change agents have a pivotal role to play. Thanks for the awesome time spent together working to change one human at a time!!! It’s a lifelong learning for me that cannot be erased. I can now never cease to be a change agent, no matter where I am. [The change] mindset is a way of life. Thanks to you and […] countless wonderful change agents and beloved colleagues who have become more that just that!!”

Our change journey made us evolve towards greater awareness and consciousness. So, yes, we did change things to manufacturing operations… and quality processes… and diversity policies… but this journey also changed us a lot. It made us reflect and become deeply aware of what we were doing — even, of who we were. We have seen others as fellow companions, as imperfect humans just like ourselves, as whole persons rather than roles or titles. I found echoes of this experience in Otto Scharmer’s Theory U.

A way to assess the real impact change agents have, one that feels more important than “did Change work or not?”, is: “Through our change work, what made us more human?

How do we make the system alive?

How organizations die

Organizations die from removing humanity from what they do, from how they work, from treating us people as interchangeable cogs in a machine. Among loads of examples, see this wonderful story shared by Hilton Barbour about car manufacturer GM: “GM’s decline truly began with its quest to turn people into machines”. Anything that pretends “improving efficiency” through the usual mechanistic cookbook (“streamlined processes + layoffs + communication campaign”) should be suspect. In the best case its impact is just a costly epiphenomenon that the organization manages to digest; it the worst case, it literally kills.

I once had a talk with the head of a new “Process Excellence” corporate initiative. Invented by one of the world’s top consultants, this method revisits every single operation, minute by minute, and reshuffles it in order to make it as lean as possible. Boasting with pride, he said to me he was “putting people back to work” and felt glad that “staff wouldn’t have a single minute left to chat together”. None of the initiative’s performance indicators included output quality nor people’s engagement nor health. Several months later, there were already multiple cases of burn out and some legal battles had started. And yet, this technocratic, anti-human “transformation” approach kept being deployed onto other sites.

There are other ways though, that respect people — see this interview I did a while ago with shop floor leadership innovator and former colleague Bill Murray. I had been impressed by his team and I decided to spend a good time promoting this approach internally, so that it reaches more managers. Pushing other people’s ideas and practices, not just one’s own, can be a good way to achieve a greater impact.

Bringing life to organizations

I wrote briefly in a previous post (One Human at a Time) about organizations as living systems, to which I was introduced by Myron Rogers. Living systems can not be designed, they can only be disturbed. They react to external stimulation based on what they already know, i.e. what they already are. A living system will only change to remain the same: bring in activism, the organization transforms it into push communication; bring in community of practice, the system transforms it into an additional silo. Change agents need to practice their work of change at the deep level of identity, relationship and information. Only then will the system be able to accept a different kind of input and react in a different way than it has done until now.

This is precisely what my fellow change companions and myself did with the quality transformation movement (supported in this by the awesome Kotter team). By creating a community of people who care for one another, rather than merely “fixing the problem”, we enabled the system to see itself differently — one step towards a new identity. We leveraged living systems dynamics rather than getting in the way of life, as mechanistic approaches do. “I feel more alive”, one of the volunteers once wrote. We made the system feel more alive, creating more energy for adaptation.

A few years back, a leadership professor wrote about my work a case that was called “Injecting Change” — a subtle reference to the vaccine industry I was in then. At that time, I felt the title was a great summary of my impact: change, that is! Today, a better title might be “Injecting Life”.

The process of doing is the impact

After my talk at the Berlin Change Days, I was pleased with a heartwarming feedback from the participants. But some (maybe committed to the idea of heroic change agents, corporate rebels knocking out old cultures in one blow) felt I’d told a grim tale. Was I downplaying the impact change agents have? Was I defeated and pessimistic?

On the contrary, I believe the ideas shared here can only help us and our cause.

Change does not always happen where or when we want. Change is not always as blatant as hoped. Allies sometimes let us down. Challenging the status quo can be draining and yes, there are wider forces against which it’s hard to do anything.

But to act for change, with fellow change agents, reaps its own rewards. It is the process of leading change that creates more possibility, more freedom, human connections, heightened consciousness and more aliveness. This is the real impact of change agents on culture. How important is that? It’s vital. Who else does that? No one.

Let’s keep up acting for change.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. It was originally published in 3 parts on my blog WeNeedSocial and on LinkedIn. I would love to hear your thoughts! What impact do you have on your organization’s culture? How do you know?