Simon Terry

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The Pragmatism of the Change Agent

The paths of management are littered with clever research, elegant theories and efforts at intellectual rigour that are largely unused. Management is a pragmatic discipline. Action prevails over ideas and idealism. Even bad action is preferred to ideas. Change Agents must reconcile pragmatic action with movement to a better future.

Unicorns and Rainbows

The temptation for those arguing for change is to advocate for the perfect future. Many models of leadership and change begin with communicating a compelling vision. The test of these visions is usually their beauty, their completeness and their intellectual robustness. To be explicit, that means the test of a good vision is how little it resembles the reality of day-to-day management.

Idealist is a term of abuse in management. In the heavy day-to-day pressures of management sadly thinking sits a long way back from the accountability to do. There’s a good reason many managers first reaction to an elegant vision for change is to scoff. Not all that scoffing can be disregarded as cynicism.

Change visions will have thought out the peaks of the future experience. Fewer visions have considered the low and difficult paths required to be traversed in the change. The pragmatic audience that needs to lead that change knows those dark corridors too well. They know the system is complex and many of the changes proposed might not deliver as expected. They know they will be held to account for the results regardless of the quality of change path.

Hard Won Change

The best utopia is a working model. It is far harder for management to scoff at the tangible outcomes of action. Effective change agents know that their work begins not with dreams or theory but with action and the resulting adaptive learning of what works. Theory can guide the action but success will be determined by outcomes of action in real life, not the theory.

Start where the problem is. Start working on making change where it matters. Pretty powerpoint can come later. So can the expensive systems, the processes and the policies. Successful change is developed from what works, not imposed from what should work. 

The best thing for a change agent to do is to start making change. Responding to a problem that needs fixing or an opportunity that needs to be realised will provide the first impetus. Theories, visions and support will come as you act. The good ones can be adopted as support. The mediocre ones adapted to your needs. However, you won’t find our what works unless you act.


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