Five Daily Reflections of the Change Agent

Reading Seeds for a Boundless Life, a book on Zen Buddhism by Zenkei Blanch Hartman, I came across a reference to the Upajjhatthana Sutra’s Five Daily Reflections. The Sutra recommends daily reflections to help Buddhists to focus less on their attachments to ego & desires and more upon their actions.

Reflecting on these, I saw a parallel to common challenges for each change agent’s practice of bringing about a better world. Change agents are taking on difficult work, not for the benefits of ego or any personal desire. Change agents act out of a purpose to make an impact that helps others.  At the same time what surprises many who take on change is that the road is harder and more difficult than they ever expected.

Every change agent lives with these five daily reflections:

  • I can’t go back. There is no way to go back.
  • I can’t avoid obstacles. Obstacles are the work.
  • I don’t have forever. Time is limited.
  • Everything changes. Loss is part of that change.
  • My actions and my interactions are how I make the change work.

Once a change agent sees the need to make a change in the world, it becomes impossible to ignore. They can’t wish it away or pretend things are as they were. They can’t undo their commitment to purpose. 

Embracing that commitment means accepting that there will be obstacles to be overcome. The obstacles aren’t inconveniences or distractions. They are the work to be done to bring about the change. 

Time is always a constraint. Time demands we make the most of every opportunities to create change. Time means we must start now. Time means we must involve others.

Just as we must embrace the obstacles we encounter in our work, we must accept that there will be loss in bringing about change. Some things we lose will be important to us and to others. Part of a change agent’s role is to help others understand and manage that loss. 

We have only our actions and our interactions. That is how we bring about change. That is how our change will be judged. Ends don’t justify means. The means are a key part of the change.

Change agents can and do wish it were different. Keeping reflections like these ever in mind helps us to avoid the disillusionment that comes along with unmet expectations and unfulfilled wishes. Change agents are pragmatic and realise that little changes without the hard work to make change happen.

The Leverage of the Change Agent

Give me a lever and a place to stand and I shall move the earth – Archimedes

There’s a tiny thing on the edge of a rudder called a trim tab. Just moving that little trim tab creates a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. It takes almost no effort at all – Buckminster Fuller

Change Agents move the world to change because they understand the importance of leverage. Small actions can be leveraged into larger outcomes through their work.

The Leverage of Purpose

Change agents take grievances, disappointments and frustrations and turn them into purposeful action. Crowds can easily share a grievance. However someone needs to help the group to turn abstract frustration into a shared purpose. Discovering that shared purpose in a group is a lever of influence and motivation that scales rapidly.

The Leverage of Networks

Change agents understand that networks are extraordinary ways to scale their influence. They can connect with likeminded individuals, share information, solve challenges and develop new ways of working. The network expands the influence of the change agent across their organisation and across the world.

The Leverage of Role Modelling

Change agents do. Change agents understand that the most effective way to lead change is to show others change is possible through action. For every role model there are thousands of eyes in networks who can be influenced to magnify the scale of the change.

The Leverage of Experimentation

Change agents take advantage of the leverage that comes with experimentation. If you do more often, you have had a greater impact. Rather than wait for the perfect information, change agents experiment to learn and create an example for others.  Experimentation enables networks to scale beyond individual expertise and accelerate learning and change.

The Leverage of Tension

Change agents create tension. For many organisations, the existence of people pushing for change creates tension that focuses new attention on the need to change. Creating and shaping tensions in the organisation is a role that change agents play to create the ‘low pressure’ pull through the resulting focus, discomfort and action.

The Leverage of Generosity

Change agents give because a culture of giving expands influence. Working out loud with a generous intent, giving of their time and effort to help others or focusing on the needs of others are highly effective ways to move change forward and set an example that encourages others to do the same.

Change Agents

At the heart of every failed adoption of social collaboration in an organisation is a piece of technology. The technology is only a medium for work.

At the heart of every successful implementation of the value of social collaboration is a change agent. Change agents help humans realise the value of changed ways of working.

Change agents work from purpose. It is not their job or their project. Change is a quest. They lead change because they passionately believe in a better future for everyone. Purpose enables change agents to push on when others would stop. Purpose guides change agents to focus on the shifting needs of value over the demands of the means.

Change agents realise that others must come to the same realisation of the value of change as they have. They know change can’t be mandated, managed or measured into existence. Change agents use influence, experimentation and open agile change activities to create networks of allies experiencing the new changes. They build capabilities and confidence in others through experiences, support and personal motivation. Change agents connect people, encourage the people to engage in two way sharing and solving of issues on the way to new ways of working.

Change agents focus on the system of the human organisation to influence new ways of work. They don’t focus on the technology of the medium.

Lessons from Presenting

Last week I had a long and challenging presentation to give. Here’s some lessons that I take away from that experience:

Blogging helped: all the ideas in my keynote had been explored out loud before on this blog. It is so much easier to put together a big presentation when you have ideas that you have worked up, shared and discussed with others. Where I saw gaps in the presentation, I even blogged them to make sure I had worked out what I wanted to say.

Networks helped: a fortnight out from the talk I lost confidence that what I had to say was worth saying. I asked my Change Agent Worldwide colleagues for advice. As ever they were wonderful encouraging me to speak to my passions, tell stories and be practical.

A Role Models helps:: Looking for a role model to emulate, I studied Nilofer Merchant’s TED talk. At once, I saw a way to connect quickly with the audience and to advance my presentation.

Structure helped:With days to go I had my content, but a mess of a presentation. I went back to first principles and used Barabara Minto’s pyramid principle to rebuild the presentation. I discovered my issue. I had forgotten to explicitly make & support my main point. It sounds obvious but your point can get lost in all the action & theatrics. Fixing that helped.

Practice helped: All the way along I had been practising and refining the pitch. There was one more glitch. The night before I delivered the talk I felt my stories were like a laundry list and not very practical. As I grappled with this I realised I needed to add a pattern to help the audience follow the stories. I settled on Idea>Story>So What>Extended Story. This pattern forced me to make the ‘so what’ real in another story of the same organisation. That was good discipline and helped the flow.

Preparation Helps:Because of all the changes I need not have time to commit my talk to memory. I created a bullet point list of key points, lines and transitions. This enabled me to iron out kinks and simplify again. I was very nervous when I woke but the preparation gave me confidence it couldn’t be too bad. Thankfully my nerves vanished as I began to speak.

The audience enjoyed the talk. I couldn’t have been more thrilled that the message connected and people had idea to take away and try.

Arbitrary Power

‘A tyrannick and arbitrary power …is contrary to the Will and Happiness of any rational being’. – Benjamin Franklin

Arbitrary power has a huge effect on the human psyche. We have devoted much of our efforts at civilisation to restrain its negative effects. So why does your organisation still have arbitrary power?

The Civilisation of the Arbitrary

The cost of arbitrary power on human performance is real. We have spent centuries trying to restrain it.

We began sacrificing to fickle gods in efforts to control the weather, prosperity or safety in a harsh and uncertain world. We build institutions to protect us from the arbitrary powers of other tribes and eventually our own. We invented insurance to mitigate the uncontrollable. Our culture is rife with constraints on untrammelled power: etiquette, rule of law, political systems, etc.

The Last Domain

We’ve come a long way to constrain the arbitrary power in our businesses. All sorts of legal and social changes have made the modern organisation in many ways different to that of the early capitalists. However our organisation remain the social sphere with the strongest residual legacy of arbitrary power.

The costs of fickle managers are real. Engagement is poor. Trust is low. The psychological costs of a highly uncertain workplace are rising. We even impose our corporate power on customers and the community in arbitrary ways. All this results in wasted human potential at work and wider social impacts

If we have spent so much effort to constrain power and to make it fit within human relationships, why don’t we extend that throughout our workplace? Next time you have a choice ask yourself is there a way to make this process more engaging, transparent and predictable? You may not change the results of the process but you will be making work more human and improving the long term outcomes.

The Emperor’s New Clothes


“By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can co- exist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.” – Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless

What exactly is the power in your company’s hierarchy?

A Culture of Consent

Debates over structure, governance and power dominate management. We want to get the right balance between command and autonomy as if this is a formula that can be designed externally and imposed. The realities of power in organisations are simpler than we perceive.  

An organisation is not a state. Despite their orders, minions, wealth and luxurious surrounds, senior managers are not rulers. There is no army, no police force and no jail. Shareholders are not voters to provide legitimacy to coercion. Security guards have limits on their ability to apply force and is rarely constructive. Coercive power is in organisations is rather like the Emperor’s New Clothes. Senior managers know this well because daily they experience the limits of their ability to order.

Organisations have one form of power – exclusion through exile or ostracism. Senior management have security guards to escort you from the building.  Management can encourage others to turn on you. They can deprive you of this source of income and relationships in a community of peers, but have no other power. Look closely, they probably can’t even deprive you of resources, as these are usually under the day-to-day management of your peers. You already work around that issue daily as you make your organisation’s budgeting work.

All the power of the hierarchical leaders of organisations is given to them by the culture within the organisation. It is social influence, not power backed by force. Like the greengrocer in Vaclav Havel’s example above, you either live within that culture (and sustain its power) or you don’t (and become a dissident or rebel).

If the Emperor of Management has no clothes..

  • Change is closer than you think. Start to create new influence or question the sources and approaches of power and you are already leading change, potentially far more quickly than you realise.
  • Management are not a blocker outside the system preventing change. They are a part of the same system and equally aware of its issues. Encourage them to adapt management practice through conversations about influence, culture and the practices of power.
  • Network with like minded peers discuss and debate what needs to change. How should influence be structured in your organisation?
  • Culture is not a project just for the HR team. The consequences of the real cultural norms are far wider and far more important than a poster of values. Culture will shape what the organisation perceives and how it is able to respond.
  • Living in reality and being more human is harder than you think. First, you must separate reality from the views that you have chosen to believe. Second, you must continue to engage with the reality of the situation without the warm support of culture.
  • The future models of power in your organisation are a discussion for the community. Adopting elaborate models of autonomy and decision making without this discussion is swapping one naked emperor for another. If you adopting a new model, what is it about this model that makes it closer to the reality of influence in your organisation?
  • The ability to survive and restart reduces the threat of management power. That means a sense of personal purpose, savings of six to twelve months of living expenses, marketable capabilities and good external networks. Removing the danger from exile and strengthening purpose against ostracism frees the rebel to lead change.

“For the real question is whether the brighter future is really always so distant. What if it has been here for a long time already and only our own blindness and weakness and has prevented us from seeing it around and within us and prevented us from developing it?” – Vaclav Havel

Superheroes & Change Agents


Superheroes are dumb ideas — big, bold, brightly-colored dumb ideas. They are what happens when pure, unfettered imagination encounters our world as it is, finds it wanting, and conjures something to fix it. Something joyous and colorful, something that can perform astounding feats, something that – crucially – is looking out for us. That’s all a superhero is: something wonderful that’s got our backs. – Glen Weldon ‘Floating Eyeballs, Trained Bees: History’s Most Cringeworthy Crusaders’

Change Agents can often feel that they are expected to be superheroes. Organisations can create unrealistic expectations of those leading change. Change Agents aren’t super heroes. They are ordinary humans who do unlikely things together for the benefits of all.

Leap Buildings in a Single Bound

Change Agents like superheroes see the world find it wanting and conjure up something to fix it. They need extraordinary capabilities because they step forward to take on the tough challenges. They look out for others and in so doing take on awesome responsibilities.

The difference with a superhero is that the extraordinary capabilities in a Change Agent are not physical ones that can be “big bold brightly coloured dumb ideas”. The extraordinary capabilities of a change agent are spirit, compassion, intelligence, purpose and initiative. 

Change Agents are the people who act when others won’t. They act when permission is ambiguous or even absent. That takes a robust spirit & all the nous you can muster.


Superheroes have a lot of capabilities to stand and defeat their enemies’ bullets. Change Agents aren’t that lucky. They have only one choice. Don’t get hit. Stop people firing and if they must fire then move fast out of the way.

Change Agents sign up for the challenge knowing that at some point the bullets will hit. They hope they can get far enough down the path for the damage to be minimal or at least the project to survive the bruising impacts.  Bullets are inevitable. The success of the project depends on momentum and agility.

Mutant Powers with an Unlikely Source

I ran a transformation program and a member of my team started referring to my influence in stakeholder engagement as ‘Jedi mind tricks’. I wasn’t relying on the midi-chlorians of the Force to warp people’s minds. The reality was far more mundane. Most of the influence came from three simple features of those conversations:

  • I prepared for each conversation by seeking to understand the stakeholders position first
  • I listened carefully, questioned and probed for common ground
  • I had confidence in my project, its purpose and the work we had done

Sadly these features of conversation may be uncommon but they are not a rare mutation. Every Change Agent I have met has similar sources of their extraordinary effectiveness in driving change. They do the little uncommon things consistently well. They focus on and leverage the human potential to make change.

Change Agents deal with greater complexity of change than your average superhero. There is no single villain or arch-enemy. Challenges don’t come one at a time. Changing systems is far more complex than saving the world in the pages of a comic. Why? Because the people involved in changing those systems are real three-dimensional people with their own complex agendas, histories and needs.

League of Justice

Superheroes are a lonely lot. Sure they have a few sidekicks. Occasionally they band together to form a quarrelsome league or a partnership where there is more often conflict within than without. Extraordinary physical gifts are isolating and often create extraordinary egos. There’s plenty of literature on the similarity of our superhero fantasies and the fantasies of the dictators of our totalitarian states.

Change Agents understand that networks are their best ally and a great way to overcome personal limitations. They seek to leverage all the human potential that they can to create change. They inspire and lead movements to bring others to help with changing the world. More importantly they are in service of the purpose of the network, not dictating it. Change Agents have everyone’s back too.

Creating super hero expectations for Change Agents is dangerous for the individuals and for the change. Treat them like humans but support their extraordinary powers for change.

Break the Management Spiral


Some days I wonder how much of what we call management theory is piling on new practices to treat the symptoms of the last practice we implemented. Let’s break the management spiral.

The Management Spiral

Let’s assume we are a traditional organisation run in line with prevailing management practices.  Here’s one example of what we might experience:

  • We hire to match fixed definitions of expertise and because we don’t help our people to learn & adapt so we don’t trust them to deliver alone. 
  • Because we don’t trust our employees to be able to work unguided, we have a strict processes & policies. 
  • The policies and processes don’t cover all situations or all decisions, so we have hierarchy to lead, sort issues & coordinate. 
  • Our hierarchy doesn’t do that work because human nature means hierarchical leaders become invested in their power and expertise which disengages people, so we run a complicated scheme of performance management and incentives. 
  • The performance system isn’t perfect and worsens performance by creating conflict, waste and misalignment so we need to resort to layoffs, restructures, outsourcing and automation in an effort to restore performance. 
  • Now that we are letting expert people go, it’s clear that we can’t trust anyone and there’s no point investing in people so we are back at the beginning again and need better compliance with policies and process, more effective hierarchy and a new performance management system.

This is a simple linear story.  Even small organisations are far more complex than this example with interplay between each of these factors and a range of personal, political and human issues influencing performance. For example, there’s a reason engagement is low across many industries and countries as every one of the bullets above affects engagement.

We can’t go on adding bandaids to the symptoms of our previous management practices.

Breaking the Spiral

To break this spiral we need to change two key elements of the modern management paradigm:

  • From knowing to learning: Expertise won’t cut it anymore. We need to embrace the pace of knowledge in a connected economy and focus on flows of knowledge, not stocks. Organisations need to ensure that they have Big Learning, where every role is building capability and contributing to the potential of the organisation. It also means means change & growth is inherent in every role and each role has a responsibility to fix, to improve and to share. 
  • From controlling to enabling: If the world is dynamic, we can’t specify in advance. We can’t dictate the process at the detail required. We can’t anticipate every customer need or every community demand. We need to focus instead on enabling the person best placed to make the call and realising value through enabling those outside the organisation. We need to manage to realise and enable our collective potential, the potential of employees, customers and community. 

These two concepts seem to be at the heart of many of the new practices developed to help enhance the future of work. Let’s hope better practices will help us to better manage the system and break the spiral.