Culture and the Real Impact of Change Agents

At the Berlin Change Days 2018

At the Berlin Change Days 2018

These days, more and more professionals get hired to “change” things.

Close to 10% of my direct network on LinkedIn now bears a professional title that includes words such as “Change”, “Transformation” or “Innovation” – from very few before.

Part of this is definitely necessity, part is fad (or wishful thinking?) I sometimes shake my head in disbelief at spotting some known individuals, whom I’ve never seen taking any risk nor changing anything, holding a “transformation” job. What in the world…?! Fortunately, many brilliant change agents out there carry out real innovation even in the absence of a professional label or recognition.

I often think about impact. What difference do we, “transformation” or “innovation” people, really make? How do we know? How can we make a bigger one?

From Boston to Berlin

When Holger Nauheimer invited me to keynote the Berlin Change Days 2018 about “Courage and Corporate Activism, it seemed like a matter of evidence. By late 2017, when our initial discussion happened, I worked for a big corporate, happy to make an impact through repeated acts of change and innovative people engagement. It felt good to be a change agent and I was looking forward to sharing some cool stories. My keynote would address the need for more courage and more corporate change, if possible through active mobilization – or corporate activism.

But then, by the time of the event a year after, I was (literally) in a different place. I had changed country, moved back to Europe with my family. I’d changed job. I’d left my employer. I’d created my own business, after 27 years as an employee. All these changes, and conversations with ex-colleagues, called for reflection about my impact and legacy. Had I been successful? Had I not? Did courage and corporate activism really work? Could these reflections help other change agents do an even better job at change?

Does “Change” Work?

What a weird question, you may ask. Does “Change” Work? Well of course! Why would so many change professionals be hired if it didn’t… On the one hand, results can be obvious. The Quality transformation story I already shared here and here resulted in mind-blowing improvements of quality (basically all positive indicators going up, all negative ones going down), better supply, huge savings, higher people engagement and so on. A real case study for culture change.

Also, those who have been actively involved in change movements have learnt new ways of working together – as it was the case in the Quality story, or in the diversity movement a few years earlier. People do not unlearn or at least not completely. When they experience an expanded zone of freedom, another way to connect across hierarchies / geographies / functions, to interact with others, to display leadership… it’s hard to forget. They now know it is possible to do things differently and, very often, they’ve experienced change in themselves too.


But, does it really work? Friend and former colleague Mohammed, a true change maker, says: “Unless we address the root of the system, unless we really influence shareholders and how organizations make their decisions – but decisions are taken along short-term financial objectives because of the capitalist system we live in – unless we change that, neither courage nor corporate activism will make any difference. They just can’t”.

Mohammed has just become a father. I asked him the meaning of Elyassa, the name he gave his newborn son. “Once” he replied “there was a prophet named Elyassa, who fought evil. He fought the bad king to put a good one in his place; but when the prophet died, the good king became a despot. I gave this name to my son to remind him that we must do change, but it’s a constant work. It’s never finished.”

Fake Change

What I have seen is that the old system perpetuates itself through many, many ways, including through the hire of new blood. You would think that the young generations will help change that… but they’re as susceptible to power and rewards, just like the old ones. Change is not a matter of age.

The system is able to mimic the work of change agents by espousing its surface only, and leaving its substance aside. Conformity agents – most of the time acting in good faith – recycle the words. They use a similar vocabulary as change agents: “purpose”, “movement”, “activism” … and yet they’re just good soldiers. They use our words, rendered meaningless. I was once asked to support an upcoming corporate initiative with advice. Then the initiative got launched, trying hard to look like a movement of volunteers, but actually top-down, controlled, aiming at changing others, deeply traditional. It’d applied a set of “recipes” but not an intent. Change was no longer an authentic belief but a set of manipulative tools.

“They” are “us”

I even found – even more disturbing – that sometimes *we* are the ones that enable the system to maintain itself; we are ourselves barriers to change. We don’t always realize. A young colleague once shared with me his frustration at our mother company, which was preventing change because they were “so controlling”. I couldn’t believe my ears. He himself was of the most controlling type of persons! How come he couldn’t see that in himself?

At another time, a friend made me realize that, among the network of volunteers I had created, I had actually duplicated the hierarchy I was trying to transform. I was acting as the boss… without the actual title, but operating just the same. I was myself reproducing the system! Thanks to this feedback, I tried to change; but how many times have I not been told and have I not changed? More and more, I am disturbed by the “they” word. Or, “the system”. I keep using them though, here and there, for convenience. But I’m aware it’s a misleading shortcut. Sometimes “they” are “us”, and we’re always part of the system.

Continued in Part 2, (click here) where I take a look at agency (or its limits) and the complex consequences of fighting the status quo. Then I will ask what I believe is the real question re: impact. You can already leave questions or comments below this post!

And, on a related topic, two blog posts you may enjoy (re) reading:

How to Measure Culture Change Without Killing It – Maintaining the essence of change despite the need for measurement

One Human At A Time – Lessons Learnt from an Epic Change Journey

Lire ce billet en français : Culture : Quel est le véritable impact des agents du changement ?