I do a lot of planning workshops, including a lot of small-group work with front-line staff and their immediate supervisors. I love the energy and creativity that flows from these groups. But one of my reservations in working with front line people is the risk of giving my participants high hopes and dreams for real organizational change, when I really don’t have much power as an outside consultant to enforce that change. I call this the “Illusion of Agency” problem. You’re an employee with relatively little corporate power; you’ve taken part in a blue-sky planning session and seen what a better future looks like. You’ve now got vision, motivation, and concrete tools. How on earth are you going to see them through?
Believe me when I tell you that as the planning consultant, I make strong recommendations for change. Here are a few things you can do at your end.
Level One: Start Simply and Lead by Example
Say you’re in an organization where people are still not putting their pronouns on their name tags or email signature. You can spring that idea on your manager and risk having it shot down, or you can do some strategizing. You could…
- Put your pronouns in your own signature and ask your close associates to do the same
- Fabricate some inexpensive buttons with “She/Her” or “They/Their” etc on them, and put them out for free. (We did this in a nonprofit and ran out within two days.)
- Switch your writing to use the collective singular (‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’.)
- When you’ve done a few of these and demonstrated to your manager that the world hasn’t collapsed, take a little time to gently ask your manager what you might collectively do to further advance this initiative. Your manager might just come up with the great idea of instituting this organization-wide. You congratulate them on a great idea.
Level Two: Find Your Informal Thought Leaders and Influencers
A few years ago I was working on a project with a forward-thinking manager. As we were reviewing the plan, they said to me, “You better run this by Pat and Leslie. They’re thought leaders in this group.” I had never heard the term (this was a few years ago. Nowadays we would probably say “influencer” though that implies a fabulous Instagram channel.)
I asked the manager to clarify, and they said, “Pat and Leslie are not managers but they are smart as hell and everyone listens to them. If they think your plan sucks, everyone will think your plan sucks. More importantly, if they think it sucks, it probably does suck.”
Lesson learned. I set aside a little time to informally run my ideas past each of them and it was time well spent. I learned some things about how I might set up my plan a bit better, and I think I earned their trust. I think I may have got some help in paving the way toward change.
Never blindside your influencers nor your managers
If you are scheduled to present your ideas for change to a group, do some homework ahead of time. Who are the influencers in the group? Who are the managers with their hands on the money or other resources?
Always present your plan to those individuals ahead of time. Call them up or message them, and tell them you want to run a few ideas by them. They’ll feel flattered, and they’ll be much more likely to support your ideas when you pitch them. Never blindside anybody with power. Get their investment ahead of time.
Level Three: Sneak Around Your Preventers of Change
One of the keys to successful change management is anticipating resistance and planning around it. Some people don’t like change; some people have had terrible experiences with organizational change in the past. For example:
- We tried something like this but nobody identified any resources (time money expertise) to help us through it
- We tried something like this but it didn’t really work
- We could do something like this, but sweet jesus not now. There’s no time and no money.
All of the above may be true, but when you scratch the surface of their reservations and try to address them one by one, you sometimes find that the greatest resistance to change comes from comfort with the status quo. The thing nobody will say to your face is simply this: “I’m more comfortable with things the way they are.”
What do you do with the Preventer of Change when it’s someone with power over you? Well, you gently and persistently show them the advantages of your vision, always demonstrating the win-win for them, while working gently and persistently to remove obstacles (lack of time and money) from their path if you can. Meanwhile, here’s the most important thing:
Go over their heads and find your change champion at the top.
In change management, leadership is everything. Virtually all successful change programs are the result of an inspired and energized leader with a vision and the tools to execute it.
That leader probably isn’t you right now. That’s ok.
Keep your eye on the executive committee, the board of directors, that one VP who comes to your programs and loves what you’re doing. Get some of their time if you can. Find that powerful person who believes in your change, or is at least the most open-minded person at their level. Engage them casually, informally, with a few ideas. Work from there.
Ninja Level: Take Power from the Preventers
This is particularly for those who work in nonprofits—and less of an option for those in corporate or civil service settings.
Did you know your Board of Directors is a political body? They are elected, not appointed, through a transparent legal process (though sometimes their leadership doesn’t want you to know that.)
Have you read your organization’s bylaws? Do you know how many board positions are open, or could be open at the next general meeting? Do you know what the upper limit is on the number of directors? Because you should know that.
Stack your board with enablers of change.
The nonprofit model of governance is stunningly dysfunctional. People can be directors of large heritage organizations without a single qualification; they literally may not know the first thing about your subject matter, about nonprofit governance, HR, finance… nothing. But they are in change. They run your organization. This is messed up.
So channel your inner Obama, get organized, and get qualified people on your board. Find people who have the smarts and the experience and the will to make positive change. Is your board out of touch with its community? Do the faces of your board not reflect the faces of the people they are elected to represent? Recruit board members who do. Is your board incompetent in your organization’s subject matter? Recruit competent people. You can do this, as a staffer or an ally (note, you can’t run for office yourself as a staffer.) I honestly don’t know why more people aren’t doing this; I think a big part of it is that those who are new in their careers have no idea what a little democracy can do for a nonprofit. And it must be said that many boards of directors in our sector do not run particularly democratically; they recruit their friends, they suppress open nominations, and they sometimes actively discourage participation from people they don’t like. It can get ugly. But all boards of directors are legally accountable to their members. Remember that.
Change your board and change your entire organizational culture.
Change is hard.
Change is iterative and incremental. It works upward from the grass roots, and then pushes downward through leadership. It takes time.
Build coalitions and inspire trust. And be kind to yourself; this won’t be easy.