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Insights from working with change agents: how the good ones do well

The most common role we interact with on our projects is the person in the Executive team responsible for organisational change. We interact with a lot of these types of people in lots of different contexts and are noticing a pattern emerge as to "why" they are doing the projects that surprised us. This post explores how effective “change agents” take a disciplined approach to the management of their political capital.  

Part of my role as CEO is to get to the heart of why our customers buy off us. So I spend a lot of time with heads of transformation and the likes talking about exactly that.

When we first engage, the "why" is what you'd expect. The headline business reasons: Profit up, costs down, intelligence not information, better decisions etc.

But as trust builds, and we get to know one another, we get to depths that show new insights. 

One, in particular, surprised me, and I think it stands as one of the key points of difference between experienced and successful change agents vs unsuccessful or newer, untested, change agents.

Here's the thing, they don't do this by "politicking". 

This is the key insight: They do this by rigorously grooming their "change portfolio" to ensure it has enough initiatives that will achieve escape velocity and break through the organisation’s innovation “kill zone".

Let me explain.

Just like Venture Capitalists de-risk their investments by spreading the risks across a large portfolio of companies, so too do effective change agents take a portfolio approach to their change initiatives.

It is not about a single "swing for the fences" initiative; it is about a blend of short vs long-term, incremental v innovative. 

This is now conventional wisdom.

Introducing the Kill Zone.

The concept of the organisational kill zone is something we came up with at Arcanum.

I find it’s a compelling way to visualise the play between the time a new initiative takes to develop and deliver results, with the reality that not only does an initiative have to give positive business impact, but it also needs to be obvious and irrefutable. All of this overlaid with the extent of organisation patience that exists.

Time = The time to develop an initiative and for it to deliver/the amount of organisational patience.

Obvious Organisational Impact (OOI) = the positive impact x the breadth of acknowledgement that has delivered positive impact.

All change agents refer to "organisational antibodies resisting change" or "tractor beams back to status quo". This is just a different way of framing it.

Problem #1

The kill zone is not static. It changes depending on the organisation context and priorities. And it can, and often does, change dramatically overnight. 

That's the challenge for change agents. How do I get my initiatives to achieve "escape velocity" in an environment where you thought you had six months to reach OOI, but now (eg: due to COVID) you now have six weeks.

Insight #1

Whilst the Killzone moves around; it is a function of your Political Capital - not a random thing out of your control. 

Insight #2

Your political capital is not about how you manage politics. Indeed the most successful change-agents are notably non-political in this respect. For change agents it’s a function of the number of your interventions that have achieved "escape velocity".

It is all about your initiatives having obviously and irrefutably delivered positive organisational impact. Don't have that proof? You need to get it. Have it in spades; you can double down on some bigger bets.

Insight #3

The portfolio changes over time.

There is a place for "quick wins", but they're a double-edged sword. They help you on the TIME spectrum, but often fail on the OOI spectrum - they're small, no one notices. 

I've noticed a pattern with those that have done this before - they view the portfolio in a different way. 

The question they ask themselves?

"Where should I be placing my bets?" on a spectrum of degree of speculation v OOI. 

Essentially "how sure a thing is this to deliver OOI?"

Getting the balance and sequence right is the key.

Too many in 3 - you "fail-fast" a lot. This consumes organisation patience - and you get pigeon-holed as "the post-it note brigade".

Successful, long-term sustainable programs over skew to 1 and 2 in the first 12 - 18 months. Notably, the balance 1 and 2, rather than skew to 1. This is an acknowledgement of the "problem with quick wins" mentioned above.

What it comes down to is ensuring that you are investing in change initiatives that you can be certain will have the most significant organisational impact, and can demonstrate a bunch of quick wins along the way.

Notably, AI and Machine Learning fall into that camp. Read on to my other posts to understand why.