Ten Commandments for Revolutionary Change Agents

Revolutionaries are a restless lot. In a way, they are like the ‘shooting stars’ in an organization – they are seriously outnumbered by the hundreds of twinkle-twinkle little stars, they enter an organization with tails-on-fire hurry, and (try to) change everyone and everything around them within the short time span that they are there, and then they burn out (or just lose interest when the work they set out for is either accomplished, or get bored when it doesn’t get accomplished) and just move on. They don’t have a lot of time, patience or socialistic motives making small changes here and there, or to make elaborate plans and do surveys, investigations and pilots, and so on. They would rather be out there in the middle of heat, dust and all the adrenalin-pumping and chest-thumping action than be found napping in a death-by-powerpoint meeting full of naysayers who believe it is their fundamental right to protect the status quo.

While some are born revolutionaries, some people don that role for some phase of their professional life. Irrespective of whether you are one or not, chances are that you might be reporting to one, or working with one, or managing one such person sometime in your life. I would even bet that sometime in your career, you might find the need to shift gears and play that role. These ideas have helped me over the years, and I hope they help you as well:

 

  1. Don’t ever give up. Conviction of ideas and persistence of efforts are as much a key to success as the merit of proposal. The easiest thing is to give up – and perhaps everyone before you just did that (that’s why no change ever happened before there). So, you have the choice to either join the ranks of people who just couldn’t handle the heat, or stay right there and befriend the heat. 
  2. Don’t scale down what you believe is right for the organization just because some people don’t feel that way. Again, it is very easy to offer a ten-percent solution that pleases the mighty bosses but misses out on the remaining ninety-percent hard part that will either optimize the way of working, or help it self-sustain for years to come, or make the operations more efficient, etc. By scaling down and showing only the best oranges, you might gain some immediate curreny for your ideas (and it might even be a perfectly safe ploy just to get out of a deadlock) but you run the danger of setting a precedent for your ideas: low cost, high returns. Like a ponzi scheme, you might be expected to routinely dish out such ideas that offer insane amount of returns on bargain prices, and that might kill the potential of other, far better ideas that might not offer the low-hanging fruits but are required for the organization.
  3. Don’t constantly remind people whenever things fail, even when they fail due to reasons being highlighted by you and ignored by them. Many a times, people will simply ignore your ideas and opinions for various reasons and will simply go ahead with their ideas. In some such situations, their ideas could also fail. The last thing you can do to help the organization (and yourself) is to “I-told-you-so”. We human beings need to save our face. When people are down on their knees, reminding them of the obvious risks (definitely obvious to you, but perhaps not so obvious to them) will not only make your relations strained with people, it will also not help the organization. Further, you stand to lose their support, especially when some of your ideas go wrong (as they will), you can imagine being paid in same currency.
  4. Use objective, industry-respected, hard data to support your proposals, especially if people doubt the merit of proposals (as the eventually will !). Nothing works like a fully-baked data to counter opinions of people, especially when those opinions are based purely on personal whims and fancies. However, also remember – it is not your job to respond to every possible objection. Let your work do the talking, but use as much external help as will be required to give wings to your ideas. After that, they must fly by themselves.
  5. If need be, run skunkworks. After all, the programming language Java was developed as a skunkworks at Sun. Sometimes the opposition to your ideas might be so much and strong that you must backtrack. What options do you have? Try running the project secretly. Only two outcomes are possible: either your ideas will emerge stronger, or you will discover limitations of your ideas. Either way, it is your progress. However, make sure you have some allies in the organization lest your efforts be seen as another one of the hobby projects by your already unhappy boss. 
  6. Build allies by sharing success stories from other organizations, making presentations. Most managers are extremely incompetent in the fine art of building allies. We think these are some dirty tricks of an old politician to save his government. Well, guess what, it applies as much to the workplace. The old command and control structure is gone, and in today’s world, we can’t force people to follow what we like. Even the owner of a firm might not always be able to impose his opinions upon the free will of his employees. Largely, that will be resisted tooth and nail, or offered a cold shoulder. You can avoid a lot of heartburn by building allies to support your ideas. (I will write another blog on this very important topic).
  7. Build your personal and professional credibility. If there is a possibility the reason you are not being heard within the organization is because you are not considered competant in that subject, build that credibility by writing articles, presenting papers outside the organization, get involved in your technical community networks, etc. However, this is a long-term effort. In the short-term, your ideas might get you branded as anti-establishment just because you are seeking a major shake-up and that could upset a lot of people who are not only used to doing things a certain way, they have also built their careers doing things that way. By insisting on your ideas, you might only start losing everyone’s support and your own credibility. Learn to feel the pulse of people around you when that begins to happen, and use alternate means to first restore your personal and professional credibility. Be seen as the guy who knows organizational stuff, has a feel for issues facing the company, is seen being a problem-solver, etc. Once that is done, you will be once again seen as ‘one among us’ and your ideas and opinions might then be viewed little more openly then before.
  8. Solve real problems with your change proposals. That will win allies faster than any attempt to woo them by any other legal means. Let the results speak for themselves. No organization can (and needs to) solve all its problems rightaway. Some of your ideas might be little too idealistic for the organization and some might be little too futuristic. On an apple to apple comparison, you might be right in proposing to take up your ideas, but you might be missing the big picture. Instead of taking the situation holistically, you might be able to command better respect (and support) by offering solutions for today’s problems that allow the organzation to move forward. Hopefully, today’s survival will propel the organization to tomorrow where rest of your ideas will be required. If the company doesn’t survive till tomorrow, of what possible use would those holistic ideas be ?
  9. Socialize ideas with engineers in the trenches – the people who will use them. If they understand and embrace the ideas, there would be a better buy-in as compared to the senior management asking everyone to follow. Through the history, we see one consistent pattern: the lower the level at which a revolution started, the more it endured the passage of time. Military coups have not stayed that long compared to people’s marches to democracy. So, don’t ignore the people power. They might not be the decision-makers but together they constitute a huge force that can alter the future.
  10. Don’t give up on the philosophy of the proposal. Don’t take your proposal as a prestige issue. If you can get something done today without losing out on sanctity of your proposal, it might be much better than insisting on a full support that might never happen. Further, the results from what you can do today might pave the way for future proposals. There is never a single best way to anything – if there were, everyone would already be doing it. Give credit to your colleagues, for their resistance to your ideas might be there for a reason. Be open to altering your course without diluting the vision. Just like in human relations, it is not always the content of communication that destroys the relationship – it is often the way it is conveyed. Same way, your ideas might still be palatable if served in the right china.

These have helped me over years, and still continue to help. How about you ?

 

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