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.

Small Changes Accumulate

1 – Make a small change today.

2 – Do it again tomorrow. You have doubled your influence.

4 (2 to the power 2)- The next day invite 3 people to join with you in the next change. You have doubled your influence again.

8 (2 to the power of 3)- The following day ask everyone to bring 1 people to make the next day’s change. 

16 (to the power of 4) – From day five ask everyone to keep adding one person each time you make a change. Spread the message far and wide in your network.

1,073, 741, 824 (2 to the power of 30) – If you can double your influence for 31 days, only one month, you will have over a billion people carrying out that change. 

Most changes you want to make don’t need that many people or that cumulative power for change.  You might not get to double every day for a month, but the further you get down the path of small changes powered by a network, the greater your influence.

Of course, you have no influence until you start making change. Today.

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.

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.

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.

#EductechAU Workplace Learning – Building Strategic Capability for Change

Photo: Shannon Tipton (@stipton) votes to change the status quo at #EdutechAU.

As our organisations look to adapt to a connected world, learning will need to play a far more strategic role. Learning functions need to move from being order takers to change agents in the transformation of leadership, culture, work and organisational structures. After all, we won’t achieve our strategic goals if people don’t have the capabilities we need.

Changing the Learning Game

Change was at the forefront of the agenda of the EdutechAU workplace learning congress this week. There wasn’t a speaker or a panel that did not seek to address how organisations were using learning to manage change. These changes were hardly minor. For example, in the case studies alone we had examples of:

  • Medibank building capability for workplace culture and wellness issues in an activity based workplace through experiential & mobile learning
  • the Australian Electoral Commission rethinking its entire employee development cycle between elections with a goal of focusing more on the why and how than the what.
  • Coca Cola Amatil building the capability of its operations teams to learn for themselves and from each other without training
  • AT&T using the scale of MOOCs to retrain its global workforce into strategic capabilities and out of declining roles
  • using learning and the learning function to change culture at Northern Lights

In all the talks were the key drivers of transformation for businesses and that learning is seeking to better leverage.  All our work is becoming:

  • more connected and social
  • more open and transparent
  • more automated
  • more flexible
  • more complex
  • more knowledge based
  • more dependant on culture
  • more demanding in terms of speed, quality, efficiency, effectiveness, etc

These changes present an opportunity and a threat to learning function everywhere. Learning has opportunities to be more strategically valuable, reach more people than every and in far more engaging ways. Learning has the potential to do and control less but achieve far more by moving from design and delivery to facilitating learners to pull what they need. At the same time, the threat to learning is that both learners and management has far more available from social channels external to the organisation and the participatory culture available in those networks often more agile and even more engaging.

To leverage these challenges for opportunity, learning needs to move from an order taker for training programs to a strategic agent of change. The new challenge for learning is to rethink how they set about enabling the network of people in the organisation to build key capabilities, to help people build constructive culture and to change the way managers manage and leaders lead. The answer will be less about control and specific training programs and tools and more about how learning works in a system of capability building that reinforces the organisation’s goals and uses the best of what is available in learning, in the social capital of the organisation and its networks.

Becoming More Human

Speaker after speaker highlighted another key element of this transformation.  As work becomes more personal and more human, there is also a need for learning to lead that change too. Learning functions need to consider how they design human experiences, faciltitate human networks and realise human potential, even anticipate human emotions. The future of work puts a greater demand on design mindsets, systemic approaches and the ability to weave together networks of experiences and people in support of capability building in the organisation.

This human approach extends also to how learning works. These kinds of programs need experimentation, learning from failure and adaptation over time as the people and the organisation changes.  Learning will need to role model and shape leadership as a vehicle for realising the human potential of each individual, organisation and each network.

The Obstacles are The Work

EdutechAU was not an event where people walked away with only a technique to try on a new project. There were undoubtedly many such ideas and examples from social learning, to MOOCs, to experience design & gamification, to networked business models, to simulations and other tools. However, the speakers also challenged the audience to consider the whole learning system in and around their people. That presents immediate challenges of the capability of the learning team and their support to work in new ways.  However, those very challenges are part of helping the system in their organisation to learn and adapt. The obstacles are the work.

Thanks to Harold Jarche, Alec Couros, Marigo Raftopoulos, David Price, Ryan Tracey, Shannon Tipton, Emma Deutrom, Joyce Seitzinger, Con Ongarezos, Peter Baines, Amy Rouse, Mark L Sheppard and Michelle Ockers for their contributions to a great event.

The Normative Value of Failure Comes from Your Next Act

Embrace failure. Fail fast. Fail small and early. Everyone has failures. Few failures are fatal. 

Despite all the good advice about failure, people find it very hard to sit comfortably with failure. When outcomes matter and achievements are celebrated failure is often a disappointment regardless of the amount of official imprimatur. Failure attracts a whole lot of personal and cultural baggage. This is a significant issue when willingness to risk failure is a large part of an organisations ability to adapt.

Reading The Pirate Organization by Durand and Vergne gave me a somewhat different perspective on failure. Noting that many pirate organisations were short-lived and easily defeated by the forces of the state, Durand and Vergne still noted that pirate organisations helped establish new norms for international trade and even the way organisations worked. Pirates showed where states were weak, where trade was broken and where traditional organisations needed to become more agile and adapt. Their thesis is these fragile and often failing pirate organisations are a critical part of the process by which sovereign states and capitalist organisations adjust to new territories of economic endeavour.

Failures Create Norms Too

Projects that end in failure can play a critical role in defining norms in an organisation in a similar way. They also set norms that shape future activity as well. Failure draws human attention and with that attention there is a chance to influence the way that people perceive culture – the how we work around here expectation. Critically culture is an expectation of how we will interact. It is shaped more by what you do about failure than what you say.

Failure has a big influence because the activity that follows failures sends signals that shape people’s perspective on a few key elements of organisational activity:

  • People worth supporting: How do you treat those whose projects fail. Give them the plum choice of the next project. Support them to learn what they need to learn to make their next efforts more successful. Whatever you do, don’t pretend the failure didn’t happen. They know it did. Hiding it loses the lessons and the uncertainty of silent treatment can be worse for people involved than blame. 
  • Purposes worth achieving:  The surest way to signal that a purpose is important, is shared and is worth achieving is that people persist after a failed attempt and start developing new ways to achieve the goal based on the lessons from the failure.
  • Problems needing fixes: Failures often highlight problems in supporting areas, systems or processes that need attention. This is how lessons are revealed by a chaos monkey. Whether or not people are prepared to learn and adapt to remedy these problems following failure is a major signal of the culture of an organisation. Do nothing and you can’t expect anyone else to care for those issues.
  • Ways worth working: Failures often take down more than just a specific objective or a specific project. Small specific failures in organisations can be used as a weapon to sabotage wider transformations, particularly ones that change the way an organisation works. We’ve all heard some version of the refrain of the cynics “How can they succeed in the whole organisation if they can’t get their first pilot to work?” Whether an organisation persists, adapts or abandons a new way of working following a related failure sends a critical signal.

Norms Come From Actions. Not Posters.

You are going to struggle to convince people that you love and desire failure. The achievement orientation in your organisation culture will work against you all the way. Hiring a few change agents will help show tolerance and foster some adaptation but it won’t necessarily make failure acceptable.

Take down the posters encouraging people to risk failure. Show them instead how you act after failures happen. That moment is when you get to signal what matters to your organisation in terms of purposes, people and processes.

Truth, Persuasion & the Future of Work


We often slip into use the language of force to describe transformation of our organisations in the future of work: rebels, revolution, vanguard, etc. In so doing, we inadvertently romanticise the force & power dynamics that are at the heart of traditional organisations. Using the language of persuasion is more aligned to the changes advocated by the future of work.

Managers will transform to a new way of working when they are persuaded it is truly a better way. The future of work needs the employee’s engagement. We are transforming work to make it more human. Let’s use more human means in that transformation.


Satyagraha is the term used to describe Mahamatma Gandhi’s approach to nonviolence. This approach has inspired non-violent change since. Focused on ‘insistence in truth’ it sought to focus on action that would bring forth persuasion of the opponents of change and strength in those arguing for change:

pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other.

Gandhi also said:

Satygraha is a weapon of the strong; it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatsoever; and it ever insists upon truth.

Critical to Gandhi’s approach was the recognition that arguing for a new truth is an act of strength and that the means matter. Adopting the means of the oppressor to justify change weakens the cause.

Changing to the Future of Work

The future of work will not arrive in a revolution. As tempting as it may be to declare that there will be a moment of radical transformation, the changes that will come to the way we work will arrive as one by one managers change to new and better practices.  If they fail to change, it will come as their organisations are replaced by those who work in better ways.

The critical challenge for those advocating change is to endure and persuade. Those managers clinging to old ways genuinely believe that they are better. Use of these means is often a ‘self evident truth’ or ‘what management means’. Change agents must continue to advocate, to seek new arguments to demonstrate the truth of better practices and to take their arguments to those who need to hear change. Most of all they must retain compassion.

There will be no storming of corporate barricades. No new flag will be raised to herald a new era. There will be victories one person at a time as persuasion wins managers over from old models of management. 

Change Agents Must Endure, Prove their Truth and Persuade

Advocating for this change will take endurance. Old models of management are not beyond using force, punishment and exile to preserve their turf. The change agent must understand and embrace the setbacks and difficulties of the challenge.

Change agents must be humble enough to put their truth to the test. Managers will not be convinced by speeches and hype. They are convinced by value and results and when they are comfortable against the risks and emotions of change from the very practices that have founded their success and identity. Their minds will change when they accept a better truth.

If we are to make work more human, more driven by human purpose and human relationships, we must accept the means of change matter. Persuasion is the acceptable means. We must demonstrate better ways, prove the value of experiments and argue the case for change until it is accepted. Our new networks run best on integrity, influence and trust. Let’s make these core to our transformation to the future of work.

The Cold Dark Path


Two Competing Loops

This week at the first meeting of the League of Social Intrapreneurs in Melbourne I was introduced to the Berkana Institute two loops theory of change. The model of change in complex systems resonated immediately.

When a system nears its peak, change agents identify the need for alternatives and drop out.  They connect and begin to explore alternatives nourishing a new system through experimentation. Eventually the stories of their success illuminates the change to those who remain in the old declining system.

A four step model with four simple verbs seems clear and straightforward. Why is it that the path of change is such a cold dark path?

Nobody Warns You about the Dip

Stepping out of a warm and comfortable ongoing system with its present day rewards is a daunting uncertain choice however bleak the future of that system may look. Those with most to gain will oppose the agents of change who name the issues and start to work on alternatives. Opposition will not always be fair or balanced.


Most difficult of all is that dip in the diagram above. The uncertainty and the need to build a new complex future means the alternative system starts along way back and with a great deal more risk. Selling another path even to yourself can be a challenge in this scenario.

All the discussions about collaboration, requests for advice and stories shared among change agents at the League of Social Entrepreneurs, in Responsive Organisation, in Change Agents Worldwide or in other conversations that I have with unreasonable people belong at the bottom of the loop where people struggle nourishing new alternatives.

We must embrace the fact that the road to change is a road with dips and uncertainties. Proceeding any other way does not prepare people for the work ahead.

Nourishing Change Takes Hard Work

Most change fails after the connect stage.  Declaring a need for change is initially easy and exhilarating. Manifestos are thrilling. Connecting with other like minded people has a wonderful effect for the spirits and is a great way to reinforce the need for change.

Then nothing happens for a really long time. It grows cold and dark on the path of change.

Lots of drudgery dogs those walking the cold dark path of change. Meetings need to be organised and venues found. Compromises need to be negotiated between people who are 99% aligned. Factions and fragmentation occurs and saps the energy of everyone. More change agents need to be recruited, especially for the work. Experiments need to be agreed, funded and run. Failed experiments need to be cleaned up. New experiments agreed, funded and implemented. Success needs to be found. Someone needs to find money or work out the details of the new model. Communication materials don’t write themselves. Just when success seems inevitable the dying system finds a way to set you back.

Change falls apart when the connected agents of change won’t work the experiments long or hard enough to nourish the success of the new system. If they won’t invest the time to build new connections, share successes, to solve the daily issues and to innovate a path forward then the nourish stage will never offer an opportunity to others to join in the change.

If the organisers of the first meet up about a change end up with all the actions, then a change initiative has work to do to find others to nourish the change. Engaging others in the work matters more than engaging them in the idea of the change.

Join in the Work

Lots of people want to join change at the exhilarating beginning and again at the celebratory end. Traditional management focus only on the beginnings and the endings but leadership is found in realising the collective potential of the journey.

The question is who is willing to walk the cold dark road. Those change agents who do the leadership work of nourishing new experiments shape the future. That path is hard but the work is the most purposeful and rewarding

Cold Hard Clarity and the Passion to Act

Business culture can be quite reductionist, favouring simple stereotypes. Anything that removes complexity and makes the modern large organisation easier to manage is embraced.

Stereotyping people is a common way to simplify the organisation for managers. For example we often see the use of a simple pair of stereotypes to influence debate around any issue. Someone in an effort to win an argument will type the participants in any debate into two camps:

  1. Managers: The sharp, rational, level-headed, pragmatic, outcome-focused, action-oriented realists
  2. Daydreamers: The fluffy, optimistic, utopian, enthusiastic, do-gooding, people-focused, passionate daydreamers

There is little surprise that in most businesses team 1 is the ‘right team’. These are the people who are trusted to ‘get the job done’ and ‘speak good sense’. These people have the interests of the corporation at heart and are management material. Labelling your opponent as part of team 2 can usually get you a long way towards winning any argument.

If you are an organisation change agent, you are going to find yourself lumped into team 2 often. To expand their influence in organisation, change agents need to learn to unpick these stereotypes. 

These stereotypes play on the fact that many people believe that the passion and optimism of those advocating change are inconsistent with being disciplined and realistic. This does not have to be the case:

  • Realism is now: Seeing things as they are is a challenge for today. Many organisations full of managers who fit the criteria in team 1 struggle to do this. Sometimes the sources of information, stakeholders and impacts considered are too narrow. Often they are beholden to management ideologies that distort perceptions. Risk aversion and other forms of conservatism may force them to resist or ignore the signals of required change. All managers, change agent or not, should aim to have a cold hard grip on the widest possible set of present facts. 
  • Optimism is tomorrow: Optimism is not inconsistent with realism because it does not describe today. Optimism is a hope for a better future. We can’t be realistic about the future, only optimistic or pessimistic. All managers should embrace hope because it is the only way to validate their potential to be the actor that brings about improvement. If you don’t have hope for your own influence, why are you there?
  • Passion is the vehicle for action: Passion is what drives action. Passion is what builds trust and wins support of others. Passion should be the impetus for action and sustain it through all the challenges of making change happen. When balanced with realism, passion is an enormous force for connection and change. 

Let’s help those seeking to bring about change to shift the debate from one between the fluffy no-hopers and the model managers. All parties in the debate needs to be realistic, optimistic and passionate. Only then will it be a fairer fight between the forces of change and the forces of conservatism.

The best change agents convince others because they demonstrate cold hard clarity as to the challenges and issues of today. They make change happen because of their passion and optimism for the future and because of their willingness to act. They do so because making change happen realises their potential and is the impact that they choose to have on the world

Tell me why that is not what every great manager does.