I recently interviewed Heather Stagl who discussed how to influence organizational change without having authority.
Heather’s background is in industrial engineering, which is her undergraduate degree. Right out of school she got a job at Solo Cup Company in the Chicago area where she was on a team implementing an MRP system throughout all their plants. Heather was what she calls a ‘change agent’, which is someone who is influencing change without authority. Heather was at Corporate and working with the people at all of the different plants, trying to get them to use the new system, showing them how to use it and showing them all of the new technology they could use.
They were all working for their plant managers and Heather was working at Corporate. Therefore, she had to use her influence in order to get them to do what they needed to do. This is where she started to become more interested in things such as change management versus industrial engineering. After a few years at Solo Cup Company Heather decided to try to use her industrial engineering degree by going to a company called the Jel Sert Company out of the Chicago area. They are the makers of Flavor Ice and other fun foods.
Heather started out as an entry level industrial engineer doing things such as systems engineering, process improvement, etc. She learned pretty quickly that you can’t just design a fancy system and say ‘here this is your new job, do it this way instead’. People don’t like that very much.
Heather started to become more interested in leadership and change management and how you get people to do things which would be better for their jobs which they may not want to do because they are resistant to the whole idea of change. Heather went back to school and got an MBA in leadership and change management at De Paul University. She started learning things which really woke her up to the way that organizations should be run. Heather looked at the organization she was working at and discovered their company was “really messed up, just like any other organization on the planet is in some way messed up”.
As a result, Heather started speaking up and asking what she could do about it. The company gave her the chance and made her the director of organizational effectiveness, which was after about 5 years at the company. She was responsible for things such as developing an innovation culture, working on balanced score cards, etc.
Her current role at the company she created, called Enclaria, is to help people who are change agents in their organizations to influence change without having authority. Heather loves people who are trying to make a difference in their companies and just need a little help to get started.
Leading Change from the Middle
Someone who leads change from the middle is what Heather calls a change agent. It is someone who is influencing change without authority. It is someone who is responsible for implementing change, but they don’t actually have the authority to get it done. Heather recognizes that you can’t just change one part of a supply chain and have it not impact other parts up and down the chain. Or if you are moving from a push system to a pull system it is an even bigger change because you are changing the way people do their jobs and make decisions. Most of the people going through the change probably don’t work for you. They work for someone else in the supply chain.
How do you lead change from the middle when the middle is between the leaders of the organization, and the people going through the change.
The Difficulties in Leading Change from the Middle
When we think about leading change we tend to think of a model which is just the leadership model. Any books which you read about leadership or change management typically use this model where you have a leader or leaders at the top of an organization, a department or whatever the scope of the change is. It is their role to get everyone on board, communicate, set the vision, and really drive the change. Then you have everyone else in the organization who are just going along with it.
The standard statistic is that 30% of change initiatives meet expectations, meaning they are on time, on budget and do what they set out to do. However, there is another statistic from Daryl Conner who wrote the book managing at the speed of change. He has an organization which does a lot of research around change management. He said the standard number is 30%, however when you have someone like a change agent influencing change from the middle it is more like a 20% success rate. It actually drops from 1/3 to 1/5 because you don’t know who is really accountable for making the change happen. Is it the leader of the organization? Is it the change agent?
You have an issue where the people going through the change don’t know who they are supposed to be looking at to see what they are supposed to do. The change agent may be saying one thing, but that person’s boss may be saying something different. If someone is in that position they are not going to look at the change agent and say “I will do what you want”. Instead they will listen to what their boss is saying.
Heather likes to say that if you are a change agent it feels like you are pushing a boulder up a hill. Other people may say “I feel like I am banging my head against the wall”, or they may say “I feel like I am swimming upstream”. People tend to feel sluggish when trying to implement change in an organization where they are not in a position of authority.
As we try to do more with less you have fewer leaders at the top of an organization who can drive change. They don’t have enough time to drive change, which is why a change agent usually is someone like a project manager who ends being delegated the job of driving change. As you have more people at that level trying to implement change the tendency is to bring it inside, rather than hire outside consultants to do it.
How to Lead Change from the Middle
You need to start by identifying the roles and relationships during change. There are leaders in the organization, department heads, vice presidents, CEOs, or even a supervisor of a production line or a warehouse. You have someone like a project manager trying to influence things from the side. You need to identify who is doing what during the change and their relationships to each other.
Someone in a leadership position should most likely be doing the communicating and making the decisions that are in favor of the change, such as assigning budget dollars to it. The person in the leadership position is also holding people accountable because the person in the leadership or authority position can only really hold someone accountable. You need to make sure that someone in the leadership position knows that that is what their role is in the change.
The role of the change agent is to provide advice about the change since they are the ‘expert’, or the ‘smartest person in the room about that change’, as Heather likes to say. They need to make sure that their role as an advisor or expert is established up front so that the leader respects that. Also, the change agent is responsible for things such as reporting and providing information and feedback to the leader, which is often something which doesn’t happen, especially if the leader is someone higher up in the org chart than they are. You need to establish up front that if the leader is doing something that is hindering change, the change agent needs to let the leader know this. You need to set up what that relationship is up front.
After this, there are so many ways you can influence change. Heather has a number of books that say there is a certain process which you follow, but it is really a lot more complicated than that. There are two main categories of influence:
1. Structural Influence – the processes, systems. These are the tools you put in place in order to influence change. They are things such as training, accountability, and incentives. It also includes any kind of process you put in place so that people know what they are supposed to do differently.
2. Personal Influence – is about how you influence change on a personal one-on-one basis or yourself to a team basis. How do you work with individuals to do what you need them to do?
Heather just published a book which discusses ways to work with individuals to get them to do what you need them to do. The book is called ‘99 Ways to Influence Change’ because she was going through many change management and influence books and discovered they all were saying different things. She was curious as to how many different ways there were. She came up with 99 ways to influence change in an organization or with individuals.
She recommends starting by identifying who is doing what in the change. What are your relationships with those people? Then look at the structural influence aspects – the processes and tools you can put in place to help people change. Finally, ask what you will personally do to influence those people to do those things.
About Heather Stagl
Coach for Organizational Change Agents