The Patient Change Agent
Don’t become part of the problem (and quit while you’re ahead)
The optimistic change-agent believes there is always a way forward: a communication issue to unravel, low hanging fruit to tackle, and more opportunities to establish psychological safety. But it also gets people (me included) into trouble.
I was speaking to a product manager friend recently. Describing a nagging issue in her organization, she said:
What really, really gets me is that [the problem] is totally fixable. Everyone seems to see it, but we just can’t seem to work it out. Which is so frustrating. It pains me that I love the mission of the company and my coworkers, but I’ll probably end up leaving because of something we could have totally fixed.
That resonated. I’ve experienced that mix of hope, dedication, and frustration. But…
- People don’t like hearing that entrenched problems are “totally fixable” (none of us do — not just those “other” people).
- “Everyone” may “see it” — and even use the same words — but perceptions of the issue are likely very different.
- To you, the fix is “common sense”, but to outsiders it may be counterintuitive.
- By definition, a problem that remains entrenched is not “totally fixable” (without a change in context, actors, intent, etc.) On paper it may be fixable. In context, it is not.
- Tolerance for “just talking it out” varies a great deal, along with beliefs about who should be involved, and how the talking-it-out happens.
“Eternal optimism”, seeing “low hanging fruit”, and a desire to “just get in a room and figure it out” are easily interpreted as pompous, power-hungry, inflexible, impatient, and insensitive. It’s easy to unconsciously exude frustration and an air of superiority, even when you’re “just trying to help”, and then slip into a cycle of increasing frustration as things stay the same. The frustration may not have been real at first, but it becomes real.
It’s this last part that I’m particularly interested in.
Did It Work?
When we run small experiments in product development, we look for evidence that the intervention is, indeed, working. I wish I could say the same for my various efforts at change over the years (and those of folks I have worked with). It’s hard to see the writing on the wall for some reason — perhaps because we become deeply vested in improving our work environments, believe strongly in the fix and low-hanging-fruitedness, or receive just enough positive confirmation from some (but not all) of our teammates. And at some point it does get personal. It develops into a you (or us) vs. them situation, and this is a problem.
I was speaking to an executive recently who had been previously critical of team members for being pessimistic, antagonistic, and obstructionist.
I noticed that I was starting to act like them (the team members), and it freaked me out. I could see myself slipping into feeling doubted and diminished. I found myself being the angry person I dislike and becoming way less effective at encouraging change.
Heavy! So…right or not, when what we’re trying isn’t working…well, it isn’t working.
It is easy to frame this as fixed vs. growth mindset (recently under fire), change resistance/risk aversion, office politics, a power-hungry manager, Theory X vs. Theory Y, pathological vs. bureaucratic vs. generative (Westrum), and good old “they just don’t understand!” Frame away. The reality remains: what you’re trying isn’t working. It doesn’t matter how good your intentions are, how selfless you are (or think you are), how passionate about continuous improvement you are, and/or how inclusive or empowering you’re trying to be…it isn’t working.
A Solid Try
So, what can you do? How can you advocate while avoiding the burnout, lost months/years, and damaged work relationships? How can you give it an “solid try”, stay if things improve, and go gracefully if things don’t?
Let’s get back to the idea of running experiments (or as Dave Snowden likes to call them Safe to Fail Probes). Part of the challenge here is that it is often not easy to sense these issues before joining a company. We all put our best foot forward when hiring (and being hired). But “probes” can start before you join the company with Glassdoor stalking, ex-employee conversations, and interviewer questions. Are you aligned with how the company works? Have you zeroed in on the current warts? Is your role an aspirational role — one that is desired, but not necessarily supported — or a role that has been successful in the past? Does your manager-to-be share your views on advocacy, continuous improvement, and transparency? These questions take self-awareness, so I would suggest some journaling, checking our Designing Your Life, and perhaps reviewing the situations and loops that have sapped your energy in the past.
At a minimum, ask someone:
Can you describe an elephant in the room that I will quickly encounter, will think is totally fixable, but will be wrong? Why is the status quo difficult to change?
If you join, it is time to take stock. You will immediately find entrenched problems. It is safe to say that all organizations have them (though some seem to have fewer chronic issues, and deal with acute problems more quickly and effectively). A good rule is that if you find something unquestionably toxic or uncomfortable…just leave. Certain things never get better. If they were allowed to exist/persist, that’s a big warning sign. You don’t even need to mention the job on your resume (if you’re afraid of being pegged a job hopper).
Shut Up For Three Months
Say there are no toxic elephants, but just your run of the mill “low hanging fruit” (which we know is rarely low hanging). Your next step is to shut up for three months. No reply-alls, no “have you tried….”, and no “oh that’s easy to fix”. Hold your cards. Just observe and write a daily journal for 5–10 minutes each day.
Considering the following questions:
- What forces are holding the problem in place?
- Who benefits from the status quo? Who will benefit from resolving the issue?
- Why wasn’t the org able to fix this?
- Does someone’s job involving fixing this? What is stopping them? Are they trying? Does someone’s job exist because this isn’t fixed?
- Is this a bug or a feature? Are there benefits that I’m not seeing?
- How does change actually happen here?
- Has anything “worked”? Is there any momentum in terms of fixing the issue?
- Who has “skin in the game” vs. a secondhand interest in seeking improvement?
- Will anyone lose their job if the problem persists? Why?
- How is the status quo meeting people’s needs? Is there some shared vision of the future that might also meet people’s needs?
Journaling helps you stay objective, and also gives you an outlet (instead of firing off that awesome email that will totally change minds because it is completely rational).
So you’ve waited patiently for three months. At this point, it is probably wise to stay for a full year. Now it is time to start running some safe-to-fail experiments/probes. What we are looking for at this point is a sign, any sign, that these issues are not immovable. Make your experiments:
- Safe to fail…you can press rewind (in fact, expect they will fail). And don’t forget to make these safe FOR YOU! To quote Dave Snowden, “The emphasis [with Safe to Fail probes] is not on ensuring success or avoiding failure, but in allowing ideas that are not useful to fail in small, contained and tolerable ways.”
- “Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities & titles” (see Kanban Method).
- Limited. Try only one or two things at once.
- Observable and time-bound. You’ll get data relatively quickly.
- Involve invitation, not imposition.
- Look for leverage points (I highly recommend Donella Meadows’s Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System). Read the post to untangle the lingo.
I also suggest using a tool like POPCORN to keep track of your experiments. Above all, the key thing here is to make them safe to fail. At no point should you put your job/career/well-being/sanity/relationships/enthusiasm in jeopardy. Never. It’s not worth it.
Amplify and Dampen
This part is is fairly straightforward. Amplify the stuff that works. Dampen the stuff that doesn’t. The hard part, however, is knowing what “works” really looks like. This is where I’ve led myself astray in the past. When something is truly “working”, you’ll know it:
- People will invite you to meetings to talk about it, and learn more about it
- Other parts of the organization will adopt it
- You’ll have volunteers to help you grow the idea
- Someone will try to take credit for it (a good sign)
- People will reach out to thank you
- It will grow organically and virally
You will sense the momentum and excitement. It will be palpable. No momentum…then it isn’t working.
Hmmm. That’s interesting…
…Is not momentum.
So you’re running experiments, watching the calendar tick along…month four, five, six. I suggest using a self-assessment, and perhaps finding a friend to act as an accountability partner. For the self-assessment, consider some statements like:
- I am learning and growing in this role
- I am seeing concrete signs of progress against the major problems that impact me
- I would stay here, even if offered a 10% raise for a job at another company with a guarantee that switching jobs would be impact my career
- I feel a sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose here
- I feel supported
- I feel able to be myself here and stay true to what I value
Strongly Disagree | Disagree | Undecided | Agree | Strongly Agree
Set a concrete stay/leave goal…if your “score” remains undecided (or less) for an extended period of time (e.g three months), consider leaving at your twelve month mark. Use your accountability partner to stay grounded. I say this fully aware that the ability to change jobs is a luxury. At a minimum this should be a sign to start actively interviewing and seeing what else may be lurking out there.
By having a structured way to make the decision, you are less likely to get “sucked in” to a pattern of anger, frustration, etc. I’ve known people who stayed at jobs for years…always hoping things would turn around. It isn’t worth it.
Rinse and Repeat — In Conclusion
You’re not done at the twelve month mark. Keep at it. To repeat what I wrote above:
How can you advocate while avoiding the burnout, lost months/years, and damaged work relationships? How can you give it an “solid try”, stay if things improve, and go gracefully if things don’t?
The whole idea here is to never leave bitter, and never let yourself become your own worst enemy. Most people don’t want to “accept defeat”. But part of self-care is to know you did your best, acknowledge the complexity of the problems you face (even the “low hanging fruit”), and move on when the odds aren’t in your favor, and you lack autonomy/agency over the problem.
You’ll need to drive this process. Most managers will not.
I had a manager once who shared the serenity prayer with me:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
It angered me on a couple levels because it conveyed a level of permanence — a kind of “just accept it” attitude that isn’t really my style. My version is a bit different:
Run safe to fail experiments (which means honoring today’s context and limits)
Invite don’t impose. Show don’t tell.
Amplify the good. Dampen the bad. Build on wins.
Take care of yourself, and honor your needs (and the needs of others)
Quit while you are ahead, before you become part of the problem
And with that…writing time-box hit. What did I miss? Thoughts?