How to be a successful agent of change

By | 2010/05/12

Most people hate change, and with good reason — change isn’t always comfortable. It often requires us to go outside our comfort zone and try things that take more-than-average effort.  As info-tech professionals, we’re often agents of change. I rarely see people react to change with open arms and a smile. More likely, change is greeted warily — or with outright hostility.

Why is change so difficult? One reason is the presentation. If change is dumped on folks with no advance warning, they will often respond in anger. I suspect the anger has little to do with the actual change, but is more likely a result of hurt pride for not knowing about it in advance.

Over the years, I’ve learned a trick from our government – the practice of floating an idea. When change is imminent, float bits and pieces of it out to your audience over time. Often, the very people who would respond in anger will instead look forward to the change taking place!

I think of this as “marketing” the idea, and it can be an excellent way to improve your project management success as well. For example, a few years ago we designed a web site for a large corporation. The site provided ordering capabilities to the company’s sales reps. Going into the project, we were told by the stakeholders that the sales reps were a difficult bunch to please — they don’t like change, don’t like placing their own orders, and weren’t very technologically savvy.

Of course, we included a couple of reps on the project team, but that didn’t help the remaining 400+ reps feel connected to the changes. Here are some of the ways we “floated” the new site out to the reps – and it worked beautifully:

  • All reps were given a questionnaire to prioritize site functionality
  • The final list of functions was sent to the reps as a marketing piece. In it we said, “Here are the most important things YOU want in the site!”. In other words, you speak, we listen.
  • We held a “name the site” contest.
  • We created a site logo and made t-shirts.
  • We attended their national sales meeting, set up a booth, ran a slideshow, and answered questions. We also provided candy and other small give-aways, which ensured the reps would visit our table.

Since the reps were provided with increasingly detailed information as time went on, the site didn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone. They felt comfortable with it, since they had seen the mock-ups on the slideshow. They had a “connection” with the site before they were forced to use it. As a result, during the first six months of use, we received many positive comments from the reps and very few complaints.

I’ve floated ideas in this way to company owners as well. When trying to convince them that a particular project is worthwhile, I may start by framing the problem in the context of news stories. Many years ago, when I thought a company needed to implement an overall information security policy, I started by sharing security news events. Botnets, stolen credit cards, and virus/worm stories were shared until the company owners were interested enough to start asking questions. At that point, I knew they were ready to embrace the security project. But if I’d just pitched my project without laying the foundation, I doubt they would have approved it.

What techniques do you use to implement change in a friendly way?

One thought on “How to be a successful agent of change

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    Hey this is a great article. I’m going to email this to my friends. I stumbled on this while googling for some downloads, I’ll be sure to come back. thanks for sharing.


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