Every organization needs change agents—people who rethink, redesign, and restructure the way things work. Whether they reimagine entire programs or introduce new systems and technologies, change agents cultivate bottom-up problem solving and informal leadership at their organizations.
While many change agents can be found in the upper ranks of an organization, staff outside of the executive team can step up to play this role too. Whether you’re out in the field or overseeing an entire program, odds are you’re well aware of how organizational policies, procedures, and systems affect day-to-day functions.
The trick lies in knowing what you want to change and how—and believing you’re capable. Read on to see how you can become a change agent and make a difference at your organization.
Take a holistic approach to problem solving
When change agents confront a challenge, they rarely point to just one contributing factor. Instead, they characterize a challenge within its broader context, which lets them see multiple possible points of intervention.
When problem solving, try looking at how factors like ingrained habits, governing policies, and hierarchies interact and contribute to a problem, and then consider possible side effects of your proposed solution.
Focus on teamwork and consensus building
One person can spark new ideas and propose creative solutions to organizational challenges. But actually implementing change requires broad-based support and engagement which can help to foster a sense of common purpose among your colleagues.
To do so, be transparent about your aims, open to new ideas, and flexible about the outcomes. These qualities, along with a team-oriented effort from the start, are the basis for effective, authentic engagement.
Try hosting think-tank sessions to map shared challenges and potential resolutions. In the process, you might discover any number of related issues that affect multiple individuals and functions throughout your organization, and never hesitate to adjust your original concept.
Connect with outliers
In the best case scenario, you can diagnose a problem, map a response, and quickly gain buy-in from your colleagues—but not always. If you want a solution to take root, it’s important to check in with everyone affected before taking concrete action.
You might reach consensus with nine out of 10 people in your department, finding that one person is less engaged or even a bit wary. Speak directly with that person to understand their perspective. Absolute consensus isn’t always realistic, but it can be worth changing course if your plan is set to significantly alter or phase out something that is of critical importance to another person.
Exercise patience and persistence
Change takes time and resources. This means that the first step toward change might need to be an interim or partial solution. Change agents acknowledge constraints, and find ways to work within them.
Take change one step at a time, mapping how each step builds toward a long-term, lasting solution. By designing both short- and long-term measures, you can lay the groundwork for early progress, motivating colleagues to stay optimistic about the ultimate outcome. If you face setbacks, try seeing them as intellectual challenges, and approaching them as a chance to think outside the box and develop new skill sets.
Aim for lasting change
True change agents aim to institutionalize change so that it outlives their time at the organization. The goal isn’t to become personally indispensable, but rather to focus on lasting changes ingrained in organizational memory.
Try enlisting the skills of the communications department to brainstorm how stakeholders will best learn a new system or procedure. Next, work to plan an engaging rollout. Are they in the field using only smartphones? Who typically sends them information? Consider the situation in which they're introduced to your new idea as well as where and how each stakeholder will be engaging with and using it.
Come up with ways to make the information readily accessible and interesting, whether through webinars or guidance materials in the form of workflow maps, videos, and presentations. And remember that you may need to develop a variety of materials in order to meet the learning and communication needs of a variety of colleagues.
Look for existing solutions
Change agents know that inventive solutions to common challenges very likely already exist somewhere in an organization. They’re motivated to discover these gems, looking for positive deviants—people already using uncommon, but effective, strategies to solve a problem—and help scale up their actions.
Take time to understand different departments and how they work. Casually inquire about how people problem solve and carry out they day-to-day functions, over lunch or coffee. If you work for a large organization, crowdsource ideas for tackling specific problems.
Why be a fixer?
To stay relevant and scale up impact, nonprofits need to troubleshoot challenges and adapt how they operate. Whether this means a full-scale strategic reorientation led by executive teams, or more discrete changes, bottom-up, staff-driven action is always important. Change agents can be informal leaders in their organizations, bringing staff together to examine and tackle organizational challenges better position themselves and their nonprofit to carry out the core, mission-driven work motivating them.
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by Jen Bogle