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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Kitty Wooley

Sage advice, Nina. My observation of the Executive ranks is that many of them haven’t figured it out either. Hope you’ll keep thinking and writing.


Really like this one…Personally I think timing is a key one that good change agents know how to play well. They keep their cards and build their cards for the time they can play them.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Not so much butting heads as shaking up mental models. A major reason why people resist change is that they spend a good deal of cognitive energy building their mental models of how things work in an agency. Suddenly changing things means that the person has both lost their current mental model and have to spend time and energy building a new mental model. Thus, the double fear of looking incompetent and of the unknown.

A simple example from my workplace. On Monday morning, some workers came in to find that they now Microsoft Office 2007 instead of the familiar Microsoft Office 2003. Their mental model of where to find functions on 2003 is now useless and they have to spend time struggling with this “Ribbon” thing. One colleague called me in frustration because he couldn’t figure out how to change the orientation from portrait to landscape and was doubly angry when he learned where the function was now located.

Understanding the person’s current mental model and then helping him or her to build a new mental model of the changed process may be less painful than butting heads. 🙂

Kitty Wooley

Bill, what a terrific example. We just went through that upgrade last year and it drove us all nuts for a while. Those of us who pride ourselves in thinking outside the box were not exempt ;).

Nina Adrianna

So, being totally open here, one of the people I butted heads with this week was my new boss. The cool thing is, we’re working on building an open and honest relationship. She’s written a blog post in response to this post…an interesting perspective. Apparently I’m radical. (?!)

On another note, Bill and Kitty–do you think some people are more prone to having more immovable mental modes than others? It’s an ongoing question I wonder when pushing change–why some people are more set in their ways than others. Not convinced it’s necessarily related to age.

And Savi, sounds like a cool book. Maybe it’ll make me less ‘radical’, as per description of my boss.

Harold (Hal) Good, CPPO

Excellent post and exchange we can all benefit from! I know I can. As was so well pointed out, we have to reconcile the new revised model with the old in our minds. Sometimes that is easier said than done, especially if we were stakeholders in creating and or revising the old model. Most of us, I think, wish to view ourselves as “progressive”. It’s just “change” we don’t like.

Robin Farr

Boss here 😉 Nina, I think you’re radical in a good way, just in a different way than I am. And I think you don’t see that because you’re used to working with people who think the same way (and because maybe you underestimate yourself – though I don’t think so). Part of figuring out how best to do our work is having an understanding of how our approach to things is going to be welcomed – or not – by the rest of a very large organization, many of whom really don’t think this way.

Have I figured this all out? As someone else pointed out (though I’m not in the executive ranks) of course I haven’t. I’ve figured a few things out and you’ve figured a few things out and I think we’re getting closer. In the meantime, I think these types of conversations help.

Amanda Blount

WOW – I cannot tell you how cool this is. I read both posts, and I think you are both radicals! And… that is a very good thing! This is what a modern workplace should look like. 30 years ago it would have been – Employee do this; I don’t care how you feel, just do it. Now, look at what has happened here. Look at how far we have come. An actual conversation on how to make the workplace a better place to work. “open and honest relationship” WOW – What a concept more people should accept.


Amanda Blount

BTW – I think it is very interesting that agencies in all countries basically have the same issues. So, what does all this mean? It means we are all people, no matter where we come from, just trying to make our mark the best way we can, and communicate with others who are also trying to do the same.

Very good stuff from our neighbors to the North.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Nina: “On another note, Bill and Kitty–do you think some people are more prone to having more immovable mental modes than others? It’s an ongoing question I wonder when pushing change–why some people are more set in their ways than others. Not convinced it’s necessarily related to age.”

I do believe that some people have more immovable mental models than others and it doesn’t relate to age. Yoram Wind and Colin Cook addresses this question in “The Power of Impossible Thinking: Transform the Business of Your Life and the Life of Your Business.”

Bob Carey

“Don’t fight them, fight the system and the culture.”

But if the people you are working with believe in the system and the culture with which you are fighting, don’t you necessarily end up fighting with them, especially if they’ve spent their whole careers developing expertise in that system and culture? What makes us think those folks are going to give up the system and culture in which they’ve developed a career?

The additional point of this is that we’ve set up the government systems now so that some government agencies are simply there to perpetuate those systems and that culture. By separating the administrative support services from the mission-oriented field agencies, we’ve ensured that the centralized administrative support agencies are fully incentivized to perpetuate the status quo systems and culture (because their organizations were established to execute those systems and protect that culture), and totally disincentivized to allow change-oriented organizations from implementing very radical change because these centralized administrative support organizations only get to clean up the messes of failure, they enjoy none of the success of the changing organizations.

Am I misunderstanding this basic problem that will always lead the changers to battle the bureaucrats, and have to necessarily make it personal because the bureaucrats’ jobs depend on the perpetuation of the status quo systems and culture?

Daniel Bevarly

This is a time when revolution must trump evolution. Can I suggest that many of the flaws in today’s democractic processes are due to 50+ years evolving into a “we vs.them” governance system (internally and externally) instead of one based on “us”?

Faye Newsham

I have to admit that my first reaction is that “butting heads” is only obvious during big change. Subtle, slow, or iterative change can be so smooth as to almost be ignored. Is one better than the other? Not always. I do like sneaking in change and then telling people about it afterward as a way to encurage further change (“hey, this change didn’t kill you, let’s try this thing next!”). There are some changes that are worth a bit of head butting but strategies to avoid are frequently preferable. If you have a really big issue where, if you do head butt but win, the log-jam of resistance may crumble, these issues have to be carefully weighed and managed! Interesting discussion.

Eric Melton

Not so much butting heads, as challenging norms, but in positive ways. As Daniel B. said, keep it in the spirit of “us”.
But I do like the metaphors.
Keep on charging ahead.

Bowen Moran

I agree rather wholeheartedly with Amanda Blount’s declaration that you are both radicals. By engaging in this discussion in this forum, you and Robin are adding something incredibly valuable to this community: transparency about how to address this sort of conflict. I love how well you both are setting a standard for open dialogue about that which is often taboo in our institutions – innovation conflict between subordinates and superiors. Kudos.

I know I’m the guy with his heart on his sleeve (and an apple in his face), but I don’t that anything that makes us feel better when we feel bruised is trite. Your own lesson 8 is important – forgive yourself and others in this.

I do offer a slight caution – beware the moral compass. I agree that we all must do that which we believe is right. Belief however, isn’t fact. I know gov2 detractors who believe that they are morally right in withstanding a government that shares information “willy nilly”. How do we ensure we don’t follow into the same traps?

Matthew Hall

@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.

Srinidhi Boray

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.




Barry Camson

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.

Barbara Ann Smolko

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.

Jane Spackman

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.

Scott Span

Interesting post and good points Nina! You may be interested in some of my blog posts: http://www.tolerosolutions.com/resources.php#Blogs . 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!