BIAS FOR ACTION IN ACTION I: WHAT & WHO

Previously, I have suggested that one of the things the best managers know and do is to cultivate a bias for action rather than simply talking about problems, and I introduced you to a company that has combined their creative and innovative energies with just such a bias for action to become one of the best design consultancies in the world. In my next series of entries, I will be more specific in setting out a series of steps you can employ in your own management situations to achieve a bias for action of your own.

“The Change Agent” has been a popular term in management circles for some time. It is essentially a label that others affix to someone who has a demonstrated knack for confronting problems and fixing things. In other words, changing the way things are into something that benefits individuals and organizations by eliminating obstacles to desired goals and making them better at what they do. A fellow blogger, Dennis Stevenson, Director of Software as a Service, recently provide his own definition of the term and addressed how he believes it feels to be a change agent.

But what is it the change agent should actually do process-wise to make change happen? Over the years I have observed many managers I would consider change agents in action and occasionally did my best to warrant that label myself. I believe a successful change process — or what I like to call a bias for action — has three distinct phases, each consisting of a series of important steps.  If you prefer, consider it my model for successful change.

Phase one what and who — starts with a clear-headed determination of what problems and situations are “off the table”. As troubling as certain situations may be, some are simply too systemic or big to tackle as a whole. Others may well be beyond your pay grade and represent windmills with which you should not tilt. People who act to change things successfully in their organizations do not waste time on hopeless causes.

Once the off the table candidates for change have been set aside, it’s time to pick something that can be fixed. My favorite choice was always one of those manageable problems everybody complains about but nobody ever seems to do something about. Or perhaps by disaggregating a larger, unmanageable challenge, a piece of it might make a perfect candidate and initiate the groundwork for broader change later on. Selecting a target for action is a judgment call but if your gut tells you “we can do this“, you probably can.

Lastly in this phase, you need to assemble your “action team”. Having a team — and it need not be large — is important for several reasons. First, all managers have what I call their “day jobs”. Because organizations don’t  generally select managers specifically to be nothing but change agents, fixing or changing things generally requires extra time and effort beyond supervising subordinates and managing the delivery of a product or service on a daily basis. Extra hands are a big help, as are the extra brains needed to give your candidate for change a creative and innovative assessment.  Lastly, teams do a better job of keeping momentum alive when the initial energy for the task wanes.

The critical variable in team selection is passion. Simply put, the people you pick –colleagues, subordinates, or seniors — must care as much about bringing about the change you seek as you do. Management consultant Tom Peters calls it “finding fellow freaks”. The point is to gather a group of dedicated colleagues who really care, are prepared to do something, and  who will stick with it to the end.

Next time, in Phase Two, I will address the critical thinking stage of bringing about change.

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