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Empower your ‘secret change agents’

by on
in Employment Law,Human Resources

Buried deep in your organization, pockets of people already are doing things in a radically better way.

Typically, managers either overlook these successes or, having recognized them, repackage them as templates and foist them on the rest of the organization. Neither way works.

Now, two researchers have studied some of the “largest, messiest and most intractable change problems on the planet,” and their “positive deviance” approach has penetrated business.

Here are the basic steps:

Step 1. Establish the group as leader. Change theory usually celebrates individual leaders. Unfortunately, leaders generate dependency, as their teams feel absolved from acting. If innovators are “just like us,” resistance is lighter.

Step 2. Reframe through facts. Grasp a problem’s conventional explanation, find out if some exceptions function radically better and start people looking at the exceptions.

Step 3. Make it safe to learn. Because change is fraught with potential losses, you have to acknowledge that it’s dangerous. Even change agents may fear ridicule or retaliation. Your keys to making people feel safe: candor and not killing the messenger.

Step 4. Keep the problem concrete. To fight the spread of HIV/ AIDS in Myanmar, a group of prostitutes was asked to apply a condom to a banana. Nearly all had said they used condoms. It quickly became apparent, though, which women actually knew how to do it, and the group turned to them for advice on negotiation strategies to persuade their partners to wear protection.

Step 5. Leverage your proof. By allowing your “positive deviants” to advocate for change in small groups, word will spread.

Step 6. Confound the immune system. Internal solutions have less chance of transplant rejection. The trick is to release ideas into the mainstream without using authority. That way, you’ll circumvent an immune response.

— Adapted from “Your Company’s Secret Change Agents,” Richard Tanner Pascale, Jerry Sternin, Harvard Business Review.

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