Congenial Disruption: Advice for Change Agents

In May 2016, I was accepted into the Free Agents pilot at Natural Resources Canada. Essentially, it is a new model of work that manages human resources in much the same way that cloud computing manages computing resources. Departments with a particular need can request one of us to work for them on a particular project for a defined period of time. When the project is complete or the time has elapsed, we return to NRCAN to be redeployed to a new assignment with a new department.

Recently, we welcomed our second cohort of Free Agents into the pilot. It finally prompted me to sit down and try to distill the basic framework I use when I enter a new workplace. It may also have general applicability to any Change Agent in the public service.

Success as a Free Agent (for me) is a four step process.

Acknowledge that you are a disruption to your new group
  • You are an outsider touted as having superior expertise
  • You are replacing someone they liked, or are keeping the job away from someone else they would prefer–possibly one of them
  • You are asking them to change their beliefs or practices, without having historical or cultural context to appreciate why things are and how they came to be
Befriend everyone—especially your toughest critics
  • Don’t pretend. Find the reason to appreciate what everyone has to offer
  • Put the most amount of relationship building into the people who have the most reason to dislike you
  • Talk to people to figure out who has what skills and expertise
  • Share time and knowledge freely; listen carefully, learn daily, praise often and openly
Co-opt collaborators
  • Get the team involved in shaping initiatives that will ultimately affect them
  • Lead when necessary, stand back when possible, boss never.
  • Learn about problems, failed fixes, and potential solutions from everyone.
  • Ask questions, suggest areas for exploration, encourage participation, and capture everything. There's untapped wisdom already in the organization.
  • Accept blame fully but share credit widely
Relinquish "ownership"
  • (not that the project was ever yours in the first place)
  • Prepare the team to take over the work after you go
  • Prepare yourself that what you’ve let behind was a starting point for development.
    • If they refine it, that’s success.
    • If they replace it with something else because it pointed toward an even better solution, that’s success.
    • If it remains unchecked, undeveloped, unchallenged… it’s not failure, but the innovative spirit didn’t rub off. Reflect on why that might be.