Becoming a change agent
As you become more senior you find yourself becoming a change agent.
You stop focusing inwards – you look around and see that your team, your organization, or even your entire industry should be doing things differently.
It's a very scary place to be, especially if you've just been doing as you've been told until now. The prospect of convincing even a single person seems daunting, let alone masses of people.
But if you are passionate enough the need for change is impossible to quell. The need for change becomes a hunger, a devotion.
This condition isn't limited to the software industry – I've felt this need when working in other industries too (chemical engineering, logistics).
In this article I share brief thoughts on various aspects of being a professional change agent. Some aspects may become new articles of their own.
Master the problem statement
If you cannot clearly state and convince people that there is a problem and it is worth solving then you won't succeed. Master the problem before focusing on which solution to drive. Talk to several people from different backgrounds about the problem to refine your thinking.
I once coached an engineer who was having trouble convincing his teammates of his ideas. He was inspired by an article he read and shared it with his team, but couldn't back up his proposal when challenged. After some discussion he had a pivotal insight: "I cannot even explain the idea to myself."
Keep it about people, always
Technology doesn't have problems. People have problems. All problems are people problems. Figure out the pain caused by the problem.
Courage comes from your passion to fix the problem. Passion comes from your self-respect. You have to respect your expertise and your time enough that you can't bear the thought of wasting your life suffering the status quo.
And I can't imagine living without self-respect.
You may fear that trying to change things will hurt your career. You will know best what situation you are in. If you really want to affect change try to move to a situation where people are friendly enough to listen. Otherwise get comfortable with the status quo.
Respect the past
The people before you were just as smart as you, however they:
- faced different conditions,
- had different biases and preferences, and
- made different decisions.
Never disparage other teams or other techniques. Keep it factual and impersonal.
Understand the past
Figure out why things are they way they are today. If you can't answer this then you will fail to sustain your change and things will quickly revert to how they used to be. The answer usually has something to do with human incentives and emotions. Look for organizational structures which overload potential change agents, reward the status quo, or isolate change responsibilities into a silo without authority.
Don't expect your seniority to convince others
Your seniority will only help you get an initial 30 seconds of attention. Your argument must support itself. You cannot force people to do anything willingly. They might oblige because of fear (i.e. fear of losing a job, relationship, or reputation), but you will have failed to affect real change. Smart people can do amazing things when they feel ownership of a problem, but you will never see that with forced change.
You don't know everything.
You will run into people who already considered your ideas but encountered an obstacle. Most likely you have a general idea but it has wrinkles when applied to a real domain. Listen sincerely – if you can figure out how to get past those obstacles you gain trust. Not to mention that you are saving time by learning from others' experiences.
If you don't listen sincerely you will not form any allies. Never make this mistake.
Find those who already agree with you and team up with them. This is a no-brainer. Don't worry about losing credit for your ideas. As long as you keeping working away you will be noticed.
Another way of forming allies: hire them.
Bryan Finster shared a mindset hack for making allies: "Speak to everyone as someone who will help you. Act as if you already know they will."
Know the type of change
Sometimes you want people to just follow the already published best practices.
But sometimes you want them to try something new.
There are different approaches to take for either type of change.
Give it a name
Name your change. Concepts feel more real and familiar with a name, and they are more sharable.
- continuous improvement
- immutable infrastructure
- source of truth
Use social proof
Social proof is when you can point to others also doing the same thing successfully as a reason for adopting a change. Maybe your change is already an industry best practice. Maybe your competitor is also adopting your change and reaping the benefits. Humans respond strongly to social proof. Don't abuse this.
It takes years to change a culture. Settle in for the long haul.
A super high-level timeline:
- 1 month: you find an ally or two
- 3 to 6 months: you have convinced a few managers and teams
- 2 years: you have convinced an executive
- 7 years: you have changed the entire culture
Your cultural wins have to be guarded closely. It is very easy for organizations to revert to their old culture. You are fighting against gravity.
If you aren't likable then your change will fail. Work on your social skills and maintain your relationships.
This does not mean being a pushover or compromising on the core idea of your change.
Know how to spead your ideas
Escalating ways to spread ideas:
- one-on-one conversations
- everyday conversations with your team
- a presentation to your team
- a series of presentations to many teams
- a presentation to your VP (just go say hi and invite them to a presentation)
- speaking at a meetup
- speaking at a conference
- writing a blog
- writing a book
- becoming a full-time consultant for your change
Think about how far you want to go. Work your way up the ladder. If you encounter too much difficulty at any level it may be a sign that you didn't build enough allies at a previous level.
On being a contractor
It's often harder to be a change agent as a contractor because you are easy to get rid of and you have limited voice in the organization. I've done it though. Focus mostly on changing your immediate team. You will have the most success on a smaller scale.
Avoid unwinnable battles
Somethings can never be changed within a reasonable timeframe – pick your battles. For example you are more likely to change a technical process than to convince your company to publish everyone's salaries.
Just do it
Sometimes you need a visible and tangible artifact of your change: a spreadsheet, a website, a presentation, or a demo. If your environment permits this is one of the strongest ways to affect change because it proves the possibility of the change. It builds inertia. The conversation shifts from "can it be done?" to "how to we scale this to the organization?"
Maintain inertia always
Lack of inertia will kill your change. Never stop pushing, even when you think you are done. Old incentives will forever try to pull everyone back to the past.
Enable change agents as a manager
Change agents are wonderful things to have. Please nurture them, make them feel safe, and give them a voice beyond their team. You will be rewarded both personally and professionally for this.
Invest yourself personally
One tactic is to invest yourself personally for the sake of the change: working in your personal hours or spending your own money. This can be incredibly effective in conveying your passion and seriousness.
Enjoy the ride!
We aren't martyrs – we change people's lives for the better and it feels good when we do. Nothing feels better than seeing your ideas come to life or a key problem solved.
Market the fact that you accomplished change. The reputation for being a change agent will reward you personally in your career, as well as smoothen the effort for future changes (by establishing your track record for good ideas).
Thanks to Bryan Finster for reviewing this article and providing helpful suggestions.