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Is butting heads necessary to incite change?

This week I felt powerless in affecting change in the organization. So, when I was invited on a field trip to the petting zoo yesterday to help with a video shoot for a cool project, I definitely said 'yes' to the mini escape. Petting cute baby goats with little kids around was tritely therapeutic. Standing in the goat pen in the fresh air was a welcome contrast from sitting in a stale office, where my frustration at the (slow) pace of change was aggravated by being tethered to my desk more than is usually the case.

Juxtapositions are good for flash of insights. I realized that I've been as silly as a baby goat this week, and just as prone to butting heads. In other words, I was a bit juvenile in how I tried to incite change.

Well, maybe I'm being slightly hard on myself--some things worked well, some didn't. I've noted some reminders for myself for being the change agent I hope to be:

  1. If your moral compass tells you that the battle is right, move forward--even though you might lose.
  2. Be nice. Respect everyone in the organization, because everyone is doing the best they can given their circumstance. Everyone is working within constraints--keep that in mind when considering people's decision-making processes and behaviours. Don't fight them, fight the system and the culture.
  3. Timing is important in actioning the next move in the battle. Sometimes it's just not the right time. I have a collection of little battles, so I should press pause on one if it's not the right time, and focus my energies on another.
  4. When deciding how to fight the battle, determine whether there is a way to move things forward in a less adversarial manner, one that would reduce tensions and the uncomfortableness that change inevitably causes. Only up the ante if it's needed, because doing so is risky, and there are only so many get out of jail free cards.
  5. Try to not shoot your team in the foot. It hurts and doesn't make sense.
  6. Cheerleaders are critical for success and sanity. Seek support from other colleagues and change agents. It tends to work better when a few (or more) people have your back. It works really well to lead change acting by proxy, rather than acting alone.
  7. Get insight from your mentor(s) on the best course of action. Genuinely being open to advice is really important. (On a side note, some super mentors both provide advice and cover your back--in this case, be sure to focus on and draw out the advice, because good advice is harder to come by than pompom waving, as important as pompom waving is).
  8. Forgive yourself when you mess up, learn your lessons, and move forward...hopefully with a little more wisdom.

And btw Nick Charney--I've been thinking about your post as well, on the age old question. I think that the difference between me and those who have reached the Executive ranks is that they've already figured out most of this stuff, and it now comes second nature to them. Experience is not just about knowledge and good ideas. It's about knowing how to be a leader and the ability to get a lot of people onside, juggling all the battles just right. Individuals who've been around longer tend to have a better idea of how to do this. I'm still figuring it out (and I suspect that maybe this might be the case for other under 30s).

Yes. I'm still a kid in this game.

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Tags: 2, miscellaneous, project management


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Comment by Scott Span on May 6, 2010 at 4:58pm
Interesting post and good points Nina! You may be interested in some of my blog posts: . As a change agent myself I often find facilitating head butting disputes to be a side effect of my work. It's not necessary to butt heads, however it is usually always a side effect of change. People view change in different ways, some embrace it, some fear it, some try and ignore it. Conflict is just part of the game, though if people are passionate enough about change to butt heads, then at least in most cases they are engaged!
Comment by Jane Spackman on May 3, 2010 at 6:46pm
Short answer - is it necessary - no. Some people are more creative when mental models are challenged, some just shut down. Head butting is probably overstating it, but respectful and constructive debate is useful. We need critical thinking and analysis, so we don't end up with group think and head off down the wrong path.

People don't resist change, they resist being changed. Most people are in a state of constant change in their lives, but they are in control of the type and pace of that change. If you can work with people, help them to feel more included, then you may find no reason to act like silly goats.
Comment by Carol Davison on April 16, 2010 at 5:45pm
No. I built a better mousetrap for the Department of Commerce and the world beat a path to my door.
Comment by Jay Johnson on April 16, 2010 at 4:30pm
@Shelly, The Art of War is an awesome (and short) book. I highly recommend it.
Comment by Barbara Ann Smolko on April 16, 2010 at 1:44pm
AWESOME discussion topic Nina! I'm a Planner so the nature of my job is to develop a picture of the future and shepherd the present in that direction, so, yeah, change. Your list of reminders is right on the money. If you don't mind, I have a couple of my own that have served me well and might be helpful to others. Some are just a different way of explaining the ones Nina has listed.

1) Don't be afraid of the paperwork! I've done some land use permitting and I finally figured out that government rarely says "NO" flat out. Yes, you may have to compromise, and you may have to jump through a LOT of hoops but persistence and tenacity often win the day.
2) Be patient. As you said, timing is key. Just because an idea isn't ready now doesn't mean it can't simmer on the back burner until it's ready. Just stir it occasionally.
3) Keep all eyes on the prize. It's much easier to get people to change if they're invested in the vision and excited about the possibilities.
4) Cultivate allies. Sometimes an idea has more traction if it comes from outside of your team, section, division, agency, organization. And sometimes it helps if a decision-maker hears the same message from different quarters so it's not just you being troublesome. Just remember that you should be prepared to return the favor.
5) Take baby steps. Take your big idea and plot out the steps needed to get there. They may not be totally sold on the ultimate idea but they may be willing to humor you and let you "look into it". Before they know it, they've given you permission to put together a detailed supplemental budget request.
Comment by Barry Camson on April 14, 2010 at 6:16pm
Just read the "Humble Hound" article recommended by AJ Malik in a comment. It is really good because it takes the issues of change down to sphere of one's own style, personality, or consciousness. It reflects how adopting one's style to be helpful in governance, management or change often requires some personal work. That makes sense because how can you hope to change the world if you can't change yourself.
Comment by Srinidhi Boray on April 14, 2010 at 3:51pm
Conflict and Change are part of intrinsic duality of an Enterprise in Transformation

Had put some thoughts in the below link around "Conflict", "Constraints" and "Change" all are healthy and natural as they all contribute the entropic property of the system.

Comment by Barry Camson on April 13, 2010 at 4:33pm
Nina, This is good advice that seems to be as much about life as about organizational change.

Comment by AJ Malik on April 13, 2010 at 12:12pm

David Brooks' NYT Op-Ed post, The Humble Hound, provides good advice for promoting change via a different leadership style.
Comment by Matthew Hall on April 12, 2010 at 8:52pm
@Nina, One thing I have definately come to understand is that you should never be personally disappointed or frustrated by roadblocks and the like. Without these you would never learn. Every piece of opposition you get will help to learn something. Whether you need to change your approach, rethink your beliefs, or forge ahead. We all need purpose in what we do. Learning to work is an environment of opposition is the greatest opportunity we can ask for. This become particularly clear when you consider sports. Tough competition makes teams better, leagues better, and can even unite a nation. e.g. Canada's Olympic Hockey Team!

True greatness is defined by consistently doing the small and simple things. You keep being innovative, and keep trying to prioritize your battles and when you hit 10,000 hours you'll be an expert.

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