Ten Counterintuitive Principles for Change Agents

Change agents often struggle during the process of bringing about transformation. The process of facilitating change is one that requires a great deal of individuals and ongoing effort across a wide range of stakeholders.

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What makes this process hard is that many principles of change sit in contrast to change agent’s initial naïve enthusiasm and some of the key principles of change thought leadership. Things just don’t work the way you expect. From the battlefields of my career in change, here are my somewhat counterintuitive principles.

  1. Every time you want someone else to change check that you don’t need to change yourself first: Some times change isn’t required. You might be the issue. Some systems won’t change you might need to move systems. Some times you need to be the first person to change.
  2. Those aren’t flaws. The system is working as intended: It is obvious to you that this is wrong and things need to change. That’s not the case for everyone. The errors and flaws you see aren’t accidents. People choose to let those things happen. Some are even deliberate trade-offs.
  3. The change wouldn’t be possible without you but you are much less important than you think to the change required: You might have spotted the need for change. You might be the champion of the need for change. Despite all that others need to join you to make the change come to life. Your contributions and your ego aren’t at all important in the end.
  4. Some change is better than no change: You are so excited about the potential. You have worked so hard. Get something for your efforts even if it is soul crushingly disappointing. Some times real change takes multiple efforts of incremental change.
  5. No change happens in meetings, PowerPoint, change templates or the mind of leaders: The path of many change initiatives is very familiar. You can see it in Kotter’s 8 steps. Those domains might be where you need to do a lot of work to be allowed to make change. That is not where the change happens. Change happens when people do things differently.
  6. You have to meet every standard. Your opponents have to meet none and need to find only one flaw. You won’t be perfect: Opponents of change have an easy job. They just need to delay. They don’t have to meet the standards you meet. They don’t have to act or respond or work at anything. They just delay. You will be delayed.
  7. Resistance is Success: You want people to push back. You need people to push back. Tension helps change. If nobody pushes back then nothing is changing. Resistance tells you that the change is biting and also what you need to do next.
  8. You need a perfect rational case for change but it is your emotional case that matters: The people asking you for a business case or a risk assessment haven’t bought in emotionally yet. If they had, they would wave you through.
  9. You can’t do it alone, but you can’t do it with everyone either: If you want to be loved do something else. Not everyone will get on board. You don’t need everyone (see Resistance above) and that might well include the CEO or the Executive team. You need enough of the right people to change behaviours.
  10. You don’t understand the change until someone else describes to you the simple different behaviours after the change: Your nose is pinned to the pane of glass. You can see the glory on the other side. You are too close to the problem, too deep in the change and its worst exponent. Your glorious communication documents and your high falutin’ concepts are in your way. You need someone to tell you the simple behaviours after. When you have that change can start.
  11. Bonus general life principle: Failure is a Success: It is. They get to choose. You get to learn.

I hope this list helps one other person survive, foster, accelerate or even develop their change. I hope some of these principles help unravel the confusion and sustain resilience. Change is hard but incredibly worthwhile. Making a difference as a change agent is incredibly rewarding.

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