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The System Thinking Change Agent Survival Guide

Published: November 17, 2015

For my first post on Medium I wanted to cut straight to a topic that is rather personal. It’s personal in the sense that I represent the personality type I’m about to describe. It’s something I’ve come to peace with over the years but the road has not been easy.

For the purpose of this post I’ll call the archetype STCA (Systems Thinking Change Agent). It’s weird, I know, but it’ll have to do and I’ll explain more below. I was tempted to call it just a Change Agent —the post definitely has a change agent angle — but that wouldn’t fully describe the personality.

For some perspective, when I was in 2nd grade I played the part of the “Eternal Question” in our blockbuster play Vernacular Island. My costume was a big question mark taped to a headband.

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The Eternal Question### The Traits

So what does a STCA look like? How would you pick him/her out of a crowd? If you’re a STCA you …

  • are intense, reasonably intelligent, and move and think quickly
  • are a systems thinker. Systems thinking “concerns an understanding of a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the elements that compose the entirety of the system”. For you, thinking this way is unavoidable
  • care deeply about people and don’t like to see them frustrated, thwarted, tense, stressed, or manipulated. This impacts you on a visceral level, you internalize it, and you take on these struggles as your own
  • have a growth mindset, and assume a growth mindset in others. A growth mindset is “the belief that qualities can change and that we can develop our intelligence and abilities.” You assume (often incorrectly) that people are open to change, receptive to constructive feedback, and able to follow your logical reasoning and change direction as quickly as you
  • are passionate about the truth and discovering root cause (and various techniques to do this). Cognitive dissonance is unsettling and motivates you
  • are trusting in the basic good in people (you have faith that people can “come around” eventually)
  • are social and vocal and feel comfortable voicing what you are feeling/thinking. You’re an advocate
  • a natural problem solver with a lot of persistence, but lacking a certain level of political savviness

    Allergy Test

A good test for STCA-ism is whether you have a allergic reaction to any of the following statements. Say them aloud, and see if you get hives or your heart rate increases:

  • “Sometimes things are just political” or “Just because…”
  • “You’re over-thinking this”
  • “I’m not sure we can trust this information with those people …”
  • (A fellow coworker) “I gave up on trying to change that a long time ago” Did any of these quotes trigger anything? If so, maybe you have some shades of STCA-ism.

The Pitfalls

As a STCA, sooner or later you’ll stumble into the following pitfalls. I know because at some point or another I’ve been there. With the best of intentions you go with your gut, lay it on the line, and things don’t end up working for whatever reason.

You’ll mistake people listening to you for people supporting you. **Most people are eager to hear new ideas and fresh perspectives… to a point. They might even thank you for “challenging [their] thinking”. But this doesn’t necessarily equal support or a willingness to act on that feedback. At a certain point it becomes “too much” and the mood shifts from openness to rejection and annoyance. **Solution: Don’t assume listening correlates with support. And don’t assume — especially with email — that the lack of response equates to tacit understanding.

You’ll quickly find allies but you’ll overestimate the number of people who really care. Being vocal tends to attract likeminded people. Assuming that this sample is representative (at least in terms of how much they care) can be a costly mistake. Odds are that you’ve probably made contact with the minority of people who both notice and care enough about the issue. That doesn’t mean there aren’t others sympathetic to your effort (there most certainly are) but you can’t expect people to take too many risks. Solution: Don’t count on reinforcements until after you’ve reached the tipping point.

You’ll assume others care as much as you do (and care about the same things). “Care” is a loaded word. We’re conditioned to equate care with virtue, and may even consider ourselves virtuous for caring about or advocating for something. But people are wired in different ways. I know plenty of people who care deeply about certain aspects of work (e.g. the money, the facilities, the brand of coffee) but could care less about things like customers, culture, priorities, or ways of working. This doesn’t mean they wont express some passing interest in those topics, but rather that when the chips are down they’ll pass. Solution: Don’t use your level of concern or values as the benchmark. If anything, underestimate interest and intent.

You’ll misunderstand “how things actually work”. **Like most systems, t**he deeper story for an organization is rarely evident on first blush, and certainly defies value statement platitudes and the recruiting sales pitch. It can’t be fully understood by looking at an org chart, and can be difficult to triangulate by talking to a handful of people. Who really calls the shots? What do people really care about? What happens to people who question the status quo? What is the “real” culture? **Solution: **Use your systems thinking hat! Make a concerted effort to map organizational dynamics. Carefully observe to understand the culture as expressed through actions. Be honest about what the status quo optimizes for and whether that is conducive to your proposed change.

You’ll think you’re the only one to notice the problem. It’s easy to assume that the problem is obscured and if people could SEE the problem they’d be open to fixing the problem. More likely, the problem is clear and known to a more people than you’d think. Some are playing the long game (see below). Some people don’t really care enough to cause a fuss. Some people have alternative interpretations and/or political motivations. Don’t talk yourself into the “problem evangelist” role. It’s a losing game. Solution: Test for how other people perceive the problem. Test for their current tactics and approach. Then find a way to test whether you can enlist support.

You’ll misunderstand why other people are not speaking out. Your fellow change agents all may have similar motivations, but you may find yourself being the most vocal representative. Why? They know something you don’t know or sense something you don’t sense. It’s important to understand and respect where they’re coming from. They may have tried getting into the ring at some earlier point and were knocked out. Accept that this puts you in a somewhat precarious “kill the messenger” position. Solution: Empathy and understanding. Seek to understand their resistance to being more vocal. Try to distribute the pressure for change among more people.

**Your motives will be misunderstood. **Push beyond a certain point and you’ll be easily branded as a “too negative” or “only talking about problems”. Don’t be so quick to discount this feedback as you’d likely do the same thing if the tables were turned. Recognize that you’ve likely amped up the intensity level as you try to push through resistance. You’re responding to resistance, they’re responding to intensity, and so it goes. **Solution: **Do whatever possible to avoid the downward spiral. Be especially descriptive about your motives (building trust, continuous improvement, positive change, etc.)

You’ll get caught playing the short game. Some people play the short game and go down in a blaze of glory (or with luck into a lightning victory). Others methodically play the long game, chipping away at structures, forming alliances, and forging change. If you play the short game then you have to understand the risks involved (an organism attacked rejects threats). This may be fine — life is too short to continue doing something that brings you down — but realize what you’re getting into. And don’t judge the “long gamers”. It’s an individual decision. Solution: Decide in advance whether you are willing to play the price for playing the short game. It’s a gamble. To quote Kenny Rogers:

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run**You’ll overestimate the power of bottom-up change. **Bottom-up change is extremely difficult. At a certain point you hit the glass ceiling of established systems and structures. After any period of time those structures become rigid, self-perpetuating, and extremely difficult to “nudge”. Even Herculean individual efforts fail here. So be prepared. Consider the long game. **Solution: **Be honest with yourself about the feasibility of bottom-up change. Work tirelessly to influence someone with the power to enact far reaching change. Consider the long-game.

You’ll assume that people have the same change vision. Even in cultures that stress continuous improvement it is common for individuals and groups to jockey for ownership of change efforts. On the surface you may see openness to change. But if you peel away the layers you’ll find competing visions for change. Realize that people may agree that change is required, but be split on tactics. In my experience this is the norm. The problem typically isn’t the problem, but rather the competition for who solves it (and how). **Solution: **Map the various efforts to address the problem. Understand who shares your perspective. Understand where there is tension.

Now What?

I’m the last person to suggest that you become someone who you aren’t. The first thing to realize is that your experience will be highly org/culture specific. This is absolute key to understand. For most STCAs there is no reigning us in. It’s an ingrained mindset. Finding the right culture and environment is key.

Much of what you read online about change is written from the perspective of consultants and managers. This is top-down and outside-in change and not bottom-up change. But resistance is resistance, and it will always be a factor. The reality is that from this vantage point you’ll do no good winning even the majority of hearts, unless they care very, very deeply about the cause. The only path to success — and remember that SOME people are able to be successful — is through a disciplined tightrope walk. Without that, you may even succeed in terms of getting the ball rolling, but you’ll have a miserable time of it.

The hardest thing for STCAs to come to grips with is that politics, influence, and maneuvering are requirements for change in most orgs (short of an all out revolt, or mass exodus). You don’t have to be disingenuous, but you will have to work the people angle.

Assume that everyone is “on the same side”, but don’t assume deep trust from the outset. Probe, test, observe, map, and ask questions. Understand the resistance on a deep level before confronting it. Spend time with people who don’t share your mindset. Slow down to speed up.

  • Develop a clear vision and boil it down to its essence
  • “Be the change” in whatever way possible. Lead with results
  • Learn how to have crucial conversations
  • Patience and persistence
  • Develop strong relationships, even with those you disagree with That’s about it for now. Do you have any other tips? Did this resonate on any level? Let me know in the comments below.