Culture and the Real Impact of Change Agents - Part 3

At the Berlin Change Days 2019

At the Berlin Change Days 2019

Did it work?

From this question about my own work of change, I started an exploration of the impact of Change Agents on corporate culture (see part 1 and part 2). Does anything really change because of what internal change agents do? How much? Is reality more complex than the “Change” vs “Resistance to Change” polarity?

This third and last post leads us to what is, I believe, a set of questions that is more useful to change agents in assessing their impact and driving action.

Some are inspired by my work on living systems with Myron Rogers and John Atkinson. Peter Block’s “Community – The Structure of Belonging” has also been an important read. It has provided really useful keys that evolved my interpretation of a change agent’s role.

What really happened?

How do we know?

What did we learn?

Change agents create acts of possibility

When you declare that another way is possible, and act upon it, you create acts of possibilities. This way, you fight what Peter Block calls the “retribution agenda”, that is based on the marketing of fear and blame.

What’s the problem, who’s responsible, how to solve it?”. Underneath this set of common questions lies a political agenda built on division and criticism. It often confuses where problems happen (e.g. “manufacturing”) and why they happen (“operators do a bad job”), makes misleading shortcuts between cause and consequence, exploits our need for certainty. This patriarchal agenda promotes the strong leader archetype, the strong man who takes charge and saves us from our fears, and it feeds the very lucrative business of fear. It works in politics and in the corporate world alike.

Instead of serving this agenda, Peter Block suggests we work at restorative community and we raise communal power by creating different conversations. These conversations invite more people to create a collective future. I believe this is a core aspect of the change agents’ impact. We, and those who join us, feel less at the mercy of an uncontrollable future and less in need to identify wrongdoers or saviors. We act more as designers than as consumers – because we see new possibilities and we act upon them, empowered by the collective energy.

Change agents create more freedom

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Impact also arises from “confronting people with their freedom” (Peter Block again). As a change agent, that’s what you do. Both those who respond Yes to your invitation, and those who decide otherwise, are exposed by you to their freedom. In a workplace setting where it is more common to respond to imperatives and to go with the flow, the opportunity to make really free choices is rare and precious. Do you create such opportunities for yourself and your co-workers? If no space exists for people to operate as free agents within the corporate system, why don’t you build one?

Block writes further: “Confronting people with their freedom may be the ultimate act of love”. Still too often in the workplace freedom is considered as an individual privilege and as a collective risk. It is earned through one’s merit but associated to chaos and disorder at a larger scale. People with little empathy for other people, or who love themselves disproportionally more than others, are not interested in creating more collective freedom. Change agents are.


From head to heart to soul

One more thing about love: in the past, I would have found weird to use the “L” word in the context of work, but not anymore. Unlike any professional assignment, fighting for change alongside co-workers made me connect with them deeply and personally. Words are not enough to describe the intensity of our shared experience. Just as I was drafting these lines, former co-worker and companion-in-change Mrunal commented on the 1st part of this post:

“Hierarchy and network are two terms that evolve and grow with each other and we as change agents have a pivotal role to play. Thanks for the awesome time spent together working to change one human at a time!!! It’s a lifelong learning for me that cannot be erased. I can now never cease to be a change agent, no matter where I am. [The change] mindset is a way of life. Thanks to you and […] countless wonderful change agents and beloved colleagues who have become more that just that!!”

Our change journey made us evolve towards greater awareness and consciousness. So, yes, we did change things to manufacturing operations… and quality processes… and diversity policies… but this journey also changed us a lot. It made us reflect and become deeply aware of what we were doing – even, of who we were. We have seen others as fellow companions, as imperfect humans just like ourselves, as whole persons rather than roles or titles. I found echoes of this experience in Otto Scharmer’s Theory U.

A way to assess the real impact change agents have, one that feels more valuable than “did Change work or not?”, is: “Through our change work, what made us more human?


How do we make the system alive?

How organizations die

Organizations die from removing humanity from what they do, from how they work, from treating us people as interchangeable cogs in a machine. Among loads of examples, see this wonderful story shared by Hilton Barbour about car manufacturer GM: “GM’s decline truly began with its quest to turn people into machines”. Anything that pretends “improving efficiency” through the usual mechanistic cookbook (“streamlined processes + layoffs + communication campaign”) should be suspect. In the best case its impact is just a costly epiphenomenon that the organization manages to digest; it the worst case, it literally kills.  

I once had a talk with the head of a new “Process Excellence” corporate initiative. Invented by one of the world’s top consultants, this method revisits every single operation, minute by minute, and reshuffles it in order to make it as lean as possible. Boasting with pride, he said to me he was “putting people back to work” and felt glad that “staff wouldn’t have a single minute left to chat together”. None of the initiative’s performance indicators included output quality nor people’s engagement nor health. Several months later, there were already multiple cases of burn out and some legal battles had started. And yet, this technocratic, anti-human “transformation” approach kept being deployed onto other sites.

There are other ways though, that respect people – see this interview I did a while ago with shop floor leadership innovator and former colleague Bill Murray. I had been impressed by his team and I decided to spend a good time promoting this approach internally, so that it reaches more managers. Pushing other people’s ideas and practices, not just one’s own, can be a good way to achieve a greater impact.

Bringing life to organizations

I wrote briefly in a previous post (One Human at a Time) about organizations as living systems, to which I was introduced by Myron Rogers. Living systems can not be designed, they can only be disturbed. They react to external stimulation based on what they already know, i.e. what they already are. A living system will only change to remain the same: bring in activism, the organization transforms it into push communication; bring in community of practice, the system transforms it into an additional silo. Change agents need to practice their work of change at the deep level of identity, relationship and information. Only then will the system be able to accept a different kind of input and react in a different way than it has done until now.

This is precisely what my fellow change companions and myself did with the quality transformation movement (supported in this by the awesome Kotter team).  By creating a community of people who care for one another, rather than merely “fixing the problem”, and by writing & sharing our story as it unfolded, we enabled the system to see itself differently. That’s one important step towards a new identity. We leveraged living systems dynamics rather than getting in the way of life, as mechanistic approaches do.  “I feel more alive”, one of the volunteers once wrote. We made the system feel more alive, creating more energy for adaptation.

A few years back, a leadership professor wrote about my work a case that was called “Injecting Change” – a subtle reference to the vaccine industry I was in then. At that time, I felt the title was a great summary of my impact: change, that is! Today, a better title might be “Injecting Life”.


The process of doing is the impact

After my talk at the Berlin Change Days, I was pleased with a heartwarming feedback from the participants. But some (maybe committed to the idea of heroic change agents, corporate rebels knocking out old cultures in one blow) felt I’d told a grim tale. Was I downplaying the impact change agents have? Was I defeated and pessimistic? On the contrary, I believe the ideas shared here can only help us and our cause.

Change does not always happen where or when we want. Change is not always as blatant as hoped. Allies sometimes let us down. Challenging the status quo can be draining and yes, there are wider forces against which it’s hard to do anything. But to act for change, with fellow change agents, reaps its own rewards. It is the process of leading change that creates more possibility, more freedom, human connections, heightened consciousness and more aliveness. This is the real impact of change agents on culture. How important is that? It’s vital. Who else does that? No one.

Let’s keep up acting for change.


Thank you for taking the time to read this series of blog posts. You can read the beginning again here: Real Impact Part 1 and Real Impact Part 2. I would love to hear your thoughts! What impact do you have on your organization’s culture? How do you know?

Going further: join me

  • at Innov8rs 2019 Paris, April 11. I will host a 2-hour workshop on “Boosting Internal Capabilities For Innovation & Change”. Get a 15% discount on individual tickets and team packages by using this code on the registration page: 8-Celine

  • at Social Now 2019 in Lisbon, June 6-7 A different kind of conference, which theme this year is “Digital Leadership”. Can’t wait.

  • at the Berlin Change Days 2019, November 1-3! I am honored to be part of the Advisory Committee. We’re working on an awesome program.

Attend the next Living Systems event in Europe with Myron Rogers and John Atkinson

Listen to Dr. Jen Frahm’s terrific Conversations of Change podcasts