TBM 46b/52: 7 Lessons for Sustainable Change Agency

I wrote this in late 2020, but never got around to publishing it. It is loosely based on a talk I gave at Agile-Lean Ireland. The drawings are from a 100 day doodle challenge.

In the last eight months, I have spent countless hours speaking with change agents. They reach out to me for product management advice, but these conversations inevitably seem to turn to the topic of how to nudge their organizations in new directions. During the pandemic these discussions have acquired a new sense of urgency. 

Their anxiety is palpable.  They care for their teams but are overwhelmed by the challenges, and the opportunities, facing them.  To be sure, the pandemic has been catastrophic on every level, but many of the change agents I have spoken to are finally receiving the support they need and bringing about the impact they have long wanted to see. Their work is paying off, at the most inopportune time. There is movement in the right direction. 

This is a tough time for change agents, a time when opportunity may seem fleeting. More than ever, they will need to undertake their change-making efforts with an eye toward sustainability. 

This is probably a good time for an admission: I’ve personally never been much of a change agent. Each of the following is something that I’ve miserably failed. Repeatedly, even when I’ve known the trap. For a long time I’ve been the epitome of a non-sustainable change agent.  All of this is to say I am by no means an expert in this subject. But, like many of you, I’m learning and I want to share my observations. My hope is that I can help promote sustainable change during this very difficult time.  To that end, I have compiled seven lessons learned the hard way, including one intended to get you started on your new path. 

The Lessons

  • LESSON 1:You never know when your efforts will pay off.

  • LESSON 2: Change is happening now, it just might not be the change you want

  • LESSON 3: There is almost always an opportunity to make experiments safer and smaller

  • LESSON 4: We forget how much we know, and how counterintuitive this can all seem.

  • LESSON 5: Don’t steal people’s fun

  • Lesson 7: Give it a solid go. Give it your best try.

LESSON 1:You never know when your efforts will pay off. 

Many of you have been chipping away for years in your respective organizations. Doing the hard work. The necessary work. Running experiments. Building relationships. Trying to empower people. Day after day, month after month, and year after year. And nothing. No progress.

I know from experience that this can be incredibly draining. For many people -- and I think I fell into this myself -- it is a recipe for burnout.  We put in the work, and expect a response. So when there’s no immediate feedback, or as is often the case, things seem to slip backwards, we find ourselves demoralized, blaming our organization and what we see as its resistance to change.

But what I have observed is that often our work is, in some way “stored up.” It is potential energy stored, ready for release, like a battery, or water in a damn. During the pandemic, I have heard many stories like this:

“I worked for years on this change program. No progress. And suddenly the stars seemed to align with the worst of circumstances (the pandemic) and it was like all of our hard work paid off all at once.” 

Or...

“No one seemed to listen to us. And this went on for months and months. Until the pandemic, at which point it was as if something clicked. The pandemic was the catalyst. I could take it personally and ask ‘why didn’t they listen to us for all that time’, but part of me is just excited to see this come to fruition”

The lesson, for me, is that we can’t predict when our change efforts will transfer energy. The catalyst is often something uncomfortable, political, or threatening. In other words, what we are experiencing now. But that is what it might take to unlock the energy we’ve invested. 

Which brings us to the idea of sustainability. Clinging too tightly to the daily, weekly, or even monthly ups and downs is a losing game, a recipe for burn-out. But by investing our efforts in the regular flow of ideas and experiments, we’ll be prepared when we encounter that catalyst.   

The take-away? Things often don’t happen in a linear way. You can’t rely on the system responding immediately or predictably. But we can focus on what we can control. And thinking about our work in the context of “storing up energy” falls into that categoryThe right moment will come around.

LESSON 2: Change is happening now, it just might not be the change you want

Over the years, I often thought my employers were “resistant to change.” After all, change takes eons. Leaders are skeptical about trying anything new. Politics kill the best ideas.  If only leaders were more “open minded,” everything would be OK. 

The truth is I was missing something extremely important. And that was that change WAS happening. But I didn’t see it. I didn’t want to see it because it wasn’t the change I wanted, and frankly, I wasn’t directly involved. There were thoughtful meetings to consider the design of work, but I wasn’t invited. There were decisions about strategy. There were people who had a knack for actually getting things done, and getting decisions made. I had blinders on because I didn’t like what I saw, and I wasn’t benefitting.

I have heard these thoughts echoed in the many conversations I have had with change agents, who feel they are up against the organization’s unwillingness to try anything new. But that’s not exactly the case: organizations are not necessarily opposed to the new, but they are unlikely to try anything that is not aligned with their needs or views.

What I came to realize, was that it was vitally important to understand how change actually works in your company, right now. The difficulty here is that we often can’t pin down one root cause. We can’t say that “the change happened because of Barbara,” or “decisions follow this exact process.” In fact, the “official channels” are rarely the actual channels. In complex systems, we aren’t able to detangle the parts from the whole.  But we can become more attuned to the flow of information, the flow of influence, and the flow of change. It is a skill we can cultivate.

An important side-effect here is that when we persuade ourselves that change is impossible and that our organization is change-adverse, we are writing off our ability to tap into the existing dynamics. We imagine something stagnant when it is actually quite vibrant (but difficult for us to understand).  But when we do see that energy -- even if we don’t like it, and even if we want to change how it works -- we can start finding leverage points.

Without trying to deconstruct or oversimplify, think about how change is actually happening in your organization. What’s the story? How does it really work (not how you want it to work)? Figuring THAT out is often the best first step.

LESSON 3: There is almost always an opportunity to make experiments safer and smaller

I am a big fan of this idea of running safe-to-fail experiments, or as David Snowden calls them, “safe-to-fail probes”. The idea has always resonated with me. Experiment, learn, and don’t harm anyone or anything in the process. 

We’ve all probably seen unsafe experiments. Things that, despite our best intentions, seemed to go off the rails and leave people hurt, teams torn apart, trust damaged, months of work wasted. We know we don’t want that. I’ve run my fair share of unsafe experiments, and I would do many, many things differently if I could rerun them.

Which brings me to this lesson. Think about what could go wrong.

It’s something I always try to do in my 1:1 coaching. 

“Are we sure that talking about that in this crowd will go over as we expect?”
“Are there enough escape routes to make that safe?”

“What if it isn't working after seven days? What happens then?”

“Will the team feel threatened by this??”

“Is the team OK with talking about these things? Have you asked?”

I remember suggesting that a person take a coworker out to lunch (back when people would go out to lunch). And the person looked at me a little perplexed, because here they were excited to try this new way of visualizing work, and I was suggesting lunch. So I continued. “I know it seems small and inconsequential, but the experiment could be to ask them just one question, and see how they respond. Are they confused? Do they smile? That could be the experiment.” 

In this person’s mind, visualizing work was safe. What could go wrong? You’re just reflecting reality. I know this talk track about visualizing work, because that used to be my old talk track. But I learned over the years that visualizing work is extremely threatening to some people. Transparency seems exciting to me, but might be unsafe to others (and not just managers, but also the people doing the work who might suffer under added scrutiny). 

In short, we always need to consider if and how we can make an experiment safer. Lower the blast radius. Start smaller. Add an expiration date. Enlist the willing. Try to remove our own biases and preferences. 

LESSON 4: We forget how much we know, and how counterintuitive this can all seem. 

I will always remember the first time I conducted a usability test. The team was excited. It was our best work! Everyone in the organization loved it. Our masterpiece was easy to use, or so we thought. 

Then we invited eight customers to use it.

One after another, the customers struggled with the most basic aspects of our work. They got lost. I  sat there in near silence counting the seconds and minutes, finally interjecting to help them after they had given up. It was soul crushing.

I will never forget that day. I will also never forget watching a team crank out a working prototype in a day, and getting great feedback in 24 hours. Or a team solving a super complex problem that had been plaguing its organization. 

The point is, it’s easy to forget how our unique experiences inform the way we build and interact products. The flip side is that other people won’t have that same frame of reference. And their own past experience may not always be helpful. For instance, their understanding of how previous organizations may be incomplete. 

We also often forget what we believed before we started working in this crazy space. What did we think (or know) about professional product development when we started? What mental models did we cling to? 

We forget how much we know. We forget what we have experienced. We forget all the books we’ve read. 

I was coaching someone who was extremely passionate about Don Reinertsen’s book “Product Development Flow,” which they had read multiple times. I’ve also read it multiple times They couldn’t understand why other people in their organization couldn’t understand what they described as the book’s “basic concepts.” 

They had forgotten how much experience they had amassed, experience that  informed their reading. 

From the outside, much of what we talk about is very counterintuitive. It challenges how people think about work, responsibility, accountability, and ownership. And we need to acknowledge that.

Realize that those around you aren’t necessarily “dumb” because they doubt you. Realize how much you are a product of your experiences. This isn’t about logic. It is about showing a better way. And often what we are proposing is frankly pretty counterintuitive. 

LESSON 5: Don’t steal people’s fun

My son, even at 32 months, wants to solve things for himself. When he needs help he might ask, “show me daddy”, but he wants the screwdriver.. 

I mentioned this to my partner Sharon, and she reminded me how I’ve sat beside the road trying to fix our car for hours out of some insane need to do it myself. I tried to fix her semi-broken but not fully broken laptop in Croatia, and ended up taking it completely apart. It was really broken then.  When I played music, I would almost purposefully not read the instructions when I bought any new equipment. As a matter of fact, she does the same thing in her various hobbies.

I thought about all this not long ago when I spoke with an executive who had recently moved companies. I started to list some helpful patterns, tools, and frameworks, and he stopped me, saying: “I want to make all the mistakes myself. This is why I signed up for the job, to try to figure this out. I respect you know all of those things, and maybe I’ll try one, but I want to have the fun of discovery here!”

Product nerds like me want to be helpful. We want to share what we know. But that also means we run the risk of preventing our teammates from experiencing the thrill of discovery, of trying something new.

I had to ask myself why it was so important for me to play the role of the helper. Ultimately, I realized a lot of it had to do with seeking validation for my own ideas and expertise. But there’s another way to help: by encouraging others to explore their own ideas.  One of your greatest strengths as a change agent is figuring out how to harness other people’s excitement for discovery. 

We are all motivated by a desire to figure things out, to solve problems, , to make and learn from our own mistakes. And we can harness that. 

Lesson 6: We need a bit more credibility than we have, but less than we think we need

 It is safe to say that most people who have managed to nudge their organizations forward have established a certain level of credibility and respect. They showed, through their actions, that they could be relied upon, that they could be trusted. 

That may seem like a high bar. In reality it’s not that hard to clear. 

That’s important to keep in mind because it is easy to get discouraged. There were certainly moments in my own career when I lost sight of my progress, focusing instead on how much more I had to do to prove myself. I psyched myself out. It’s something I often see in my coaching practice too. Clients may be close to turning a corner. But they feel as though they are being asked to jump through more hoops. They grow resentful. And instead of pushing through, they jump ship. 

A bit of patience, and doing the work, can go a long way. We may be closer than we think. 

With that, I wanted to conclude with a final lesson that ties some of these ideas together.

Lesson 7: Give it a solid go. Give it your best try. 

The worst feeling is pouring your heart and soul into working toward change, only to be too bitter and burnt out by the end to enjoy the fruits of your labor. This happens so often. We probably all know someone, or we are someone, who left their company only to hear that the change that they had put in motion, that they felt so passionately about, finally came to fruition. 

Of course, this starts when we start at a new job. One of the tips I’ve had the hardest time following myself:

Shut Up For Three Months

Say there are no toxic elephants, but just your run of the mill “low hanging fruit” (which we know is rarely low hanging). Your next step is to shut up for three months. No reply-alls, no “have you tried….”, and no “oh that’s easy to fix”. Hold your cards. Just observe and write a daily journal for 5–10 minutes each day.

Considering the following questions:

  • What forces are holding the problem in place?

  • Who benefits from the status quo? Who will benefit from resolving the issue?

  • Why wasn’t the org able to fix this?

  • Does someone’s job involve fixing this? What is stopping them? Are they trying? Does someone’s job exist because this isn’t fixed?

  • Is this a bug or a feature? Are there benefits that I’m not seeing?

  • How does change actually happen here?

  • Has anything “worked”? Is there any momentum in terms of fixing the issue?

  • Who has “skin in the game” vs. a secondhand interest in seeking improvement?

  • Will anyone lose their job if the problem persists? Why?

  • How is the status quo meeting people’s needs? Is there some shared vision of the future that might also meet people’s needs? 

Journaling helps you stay objective, and also gives you an outlet (instead of firing off that awesome email that will totally change minds because it is completely rational).

Then start running experiments

So you’ve waited patiently for three months. At this point, it is probably wise to stay for a full year. Now it is time to start running some safe-to-fail experiments/probes. What we are looking for at this point is a sign, any sign, that these issues are not immovable. Limit your experiments in progress. And again, start very, very small.

Keep journaling. 

Then Amplify and Dampen.

This part is is fairly straightforward. Amplify the stuff that works. Dampen the stuff that doesn’t. The hard part, however, is knowing what “works” really looks like. This is where I’ve led myself astray in the past. When something is truly “working,”,you’ll know it.

  • People will invite you to meetings to talk about it, and learn more about it

  • Other parts of the organization will adopt it

  • You’ll have volunteers to help you grow the idea

  • Someone will try to take credit for it (a good sign)

  • People will reach out to thank you

  • It will grow organically and virally. You will sense the momentum and excitement. It will be palpable. 

Take Stock

So you’re running experiments, watching the calendar tick along…month four, five, six. I suggest using a self-assessment, and perhaps finding a friend to act as an accountability partner. For the self-assessment, consider some statements like:

  • I am learning and growing in this role

  • I am seeing concrete signs of progress against the major problems that impact me

  • I would stay here, even if offered a 10% raise for a job at another company with a guarantee that switching jobs would impact my career

  • I feel a sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose here

  • I feel supported

  • I feel able to be myself here and stay true to what I value 

Strongly Disagree | Disagree | Undecided | Agree | Strongly Agree

Set a concrete stay/leave goal…if your “score” remains undecided (or less) for an extended period of time (e.g three months), consider leaving at your twelve month mark. Use your accountability partner to stay grounded. I say this fully aware that the ability to change jobs is a luxury. At a minimum this should be a sign to start actively interviewing and seeing what else may be lurking out there.

Rinse and repeat. The summary here is to bring the lightest amount of structure to your efforts. Find that accountability partner. Don’t get to the point where you are too bitter to be effective. Treat your own change agency as a product. 

By having a structured way to make the decision, you are less likely to get “sucked in” to a pattern of anger, frustration, etc. I’ve known people who stayed at jobs for years…always hoping things would turn around. It isn’t worth it.