Tilting at Windmills, Part 2: Change Agents in Business

The first step in becoming a successful change agent in your world is to take your superman or superwoman costume, your Social Worker Cloak of Moral Correctness, your Crusaders Mantel, your Saint-like Halo ó and put them away. They are no good to you or the issues you claim to support, other than the warm glow of superiority they give you. Others tend to be suspicious of “champions of causes” or the “insufferable morally correct.” The change you wish to implement may be a simple alteration in direction for your business, it may be to fix the most earth-shattering moral crisis in the history of incorporated workforces, or it may be something in between. But effecting and managing change is above all else a business process, and as such it has steps, rules, and success formulas. There is a “law of physics” associated with managing change. The rules are not unlike the three laws of motion as first described by Isaac Newton (a change agent promoted to visionary based on his habit of sleeping under apple trees). To refresh your memory, Newton’s three laws of motion are:

  1. A body will remain at rest, or in a uniform state of motion unless acted upon by a force.
  2. When a force acts upon a body, it imparts an acceleration proportional to the force and inversely proportional to the mass of the body and in the direction of the force.
  3. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

There will be a quiz at the end of the article. (Just kidding!) Bodies in Motion “A body,” as described by Sir Isaac, may seem to have little in common with the non-physical concept of change. After all, an object in the physical world has mass and size. Size is a function of space occupied by an object, and mass the density of the matter in that object. But change does have both properties:

  • Size, referring to the numbers of persons, processes, or procedures to be created, altered, or eliminated by the change you have chosen to champion
  • Mass, referring to the emotional response to your change

For example, a healthcare project to promote anti-smoking would have the same size in two companies with 5,000 employees, but the mass would vary if one of those companies were the American Cancer Society and the other Phillip Morris. There are other factors that alter mass from issue to issue. Timing is another factor that impacts mass. Implementing a program to increase the number of female managers of color in your organization as part of a diversity project at Harvard University in the year 2003 requires less moral courage and will meet less resistance than a similar project at the University of Alabama in 1962. Therefore, the successful change agent determines not only the size of the project he or she is considering, but also the mass of it. Size and mass are both a function of resistance. The forces of opposition will only have minor issues with your recommendation to change the size of the department’s standard paperclip. But your efforts to eliminate free coffee and bagels on Friday mornings in the same department may face severe stonewalling. Forces of Change “A force” as described by Sir Isaac could be something as small as a blow from a hammer or as large as the output of a 5 million kilowatt nuclear power plant. In our situation, force refers to:

  • Chartered authority of your position within your organization
  • Loaned authority from a person in higher authority with the charter to delegate
  • Allied authority from others within your organization with authority
  • Earned authority, or respect, as a result of past successes
  • Moral authority, the energy generated by the collective belief in the change you are championing.

The successful change agent understands the calculations needed to determine if the “force” they have available is sufficient to act on the “body” they wish to set in motion. A change agent also understands that they are not alone when it comes to force and that there are others who may be acting against them to prevent change, or at “angles” to alter the change effort and direction. Reactions to Action “Opposite and equal” reaction to action is not only a function of the moment in change management, but a consequence of resonance. If your calculations regarding the amount of force to exert against an issue to enact change are correct, based on its size and mass ó it will move. If no other forces act against it at that time, it will move in the direction and the distance you predicted. However, the change you set in motion will in many instances, based on the emotionalism or volatility of the project, create official or unofficial reactions. Your surface success may well have begun a whole new physics of its own below the surface. In a political revolution they would be referred to as counterrevolutionaries. In business, they are the legions of the “status quo.” The “Thank You” Factor There is a fourth consideration in the Laws of Change Agency not found in Sir Isaac. In nature, change occurs, for good or bad. The laws of physics and nature do not care about outcome. The random destruction of a populated planet or an unpopulated planet occurs with no consideration of the effect of the change, but is merely the predictable and programmable result of bodies interacting with gravitational pull. But change agents, unlike nature, can choose their battles. A successful change agent constantly reviews the impact of the change he or she wishes to bring about. Because power and authority are finite, every time you become involved in change, you spend some of that power. If you fail, or succeed badly, you do not get recharged. It takes years to build a reputation and only one false step to destroy it. Consider these questions:

  • Are you investing 500 million kilowatts of power on an issue that will only marginally effort less than 2% of the total workforce?
  • Is the workforce as anxious to bring about the change as you are to cause it to happen?
  • Will success in this issue make future successes less likely?
  • Are you trying to bring about a fundamental change of importance, or merely a “window dressing” response to a transitory and trendy issue du jour?
  • Does the moral imperative represented by this change override your ability to effect or bring about other changes in the future?

I call the above considerations the “thank you” factor. Of all the pitfalls, minefields, and traps laid by the opposition to forestall change, none is more powerful or more devastating than our own frustration at “their” ingratitude for all the good “we” trying to for “them.” If your motivation to seek the role of a positive change agent in your environment is to get “thanked” in proportion to the effort and risk you are taking, by those you are seeking to help, seek another form of gratification. The return is not always in proportion to the effort. Come to think of it, if you understand the physics and the dynamics of pool or billiards, then you understand the concepts of being a change agent. To further enhance your knowledge, let the cue ball smash into your hand every now and then to simulate the real total experience. In review, in planning change you must:

  1. Calculate the effort based on its physical size and emotional impact.
  2. Determine the power you have to enact the change based on all force available to you.
  3. Consider the opposing forces to your action, present and future.
  4. Determine if the use of force and reputation as a risk to initiate change are balanced out by the benefit of the outcome and the number of those benefited and their knowledge that they have been the recipients of a benefit.

An Exercise For Next Week Using the principles of SMEAC (described in a previous article of mine on ERE, “Now For Something Completely Different: ‘SMEAC’,” on 8/7/01), predict the issues you will face based on the four principles of change as outlined above: You are the human resources manager, one of four reporting directly to the VP of HR, at a manufacturing company with 5,000 employees. You have responsibility for 2,500 employees in the manufacturing group. The other three HR managers oversee sales/marketing, IT/development, and accounting/finance/administration/HR. Each HR/Manager has a recruiting peer from the staffing organization. The company is over 75 years old, publicly traded, and involved in heavy manufacturing. Twenty-seven percent of all business is federal, 32% state and local government, and the rest U.S. commercial. The shop is non-union. Business is brisk, but staffing is maintaining a reasonable fill rate against attrition and an average annual growth of 4.3%. In reviewing your employment stats, you realize that of the 2,500 employees under your care, only 123 are female and only 72 are persons of color. This is well below both your industry average and the demographic of the area your plant is located. Management, although aware, is not sufficiently concerned to take action. What steps would you take? What are the predicable issues you may face, and what actions would you plan to successfully implement a more diverse recruiting program? Plan to change this organization. Oh, by the way, it is 1972. If you would like to forward your solution and suggestions, in SMEAC format, feel free to forward them to me at kengaffey@earthlink.net. Opposing or different solutions will be incorporated and noted in the next installment, “The Solution,” since mine is not necessarily the best or only solution. You see, even change agents do not always agree. Have a great week recruiting!

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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