By Jim Clemmer
Professional Services | Bookstore | Practical Leadership Blog
Peter Drucker once said, "whenever anything is being accomplished, it is being done, I have learned, by a monomaniac with a mission." That sure squares with my own consulting experience. When I look back at the hundreds of team or organization changes I've been involved in during the last three decades, most successful – and certainly all major ones – were driven by "monomaniacs with a mission." Sometimes the champion had a powerful organizational sponsor running interference for the passionate person who was pushing hard for a change or improvement. Other times, he or she was on their own at first and built a strong change coalition or team of change champions.
The change could have been in an accounting or human resource system. It could be a clinical service, record keeping procedure, training program, or work process. Sometimes it was to the organization structure, key process, or decisions on the core services the organization was providing. Research into the nature of innovation and organization change, clearly shows the key role change champions play in team and organization change. They are needed to overcome the bureaucratic response of "we've always done it this way" (which almost guarantees it's no longer relevant today). Champions push against the inertia, passive resistance, or outright opposition that resists most changes – even if they're for the better.
A good champion is passionate about their cause or change. He or she is a staunch, zealous, fanatic. A great champion is emotional, irrational, irreverent, impatient, and unreasonable. He or she wants the change – no matter how big – to happen this week, this month, or certainly by the end of this quarter. To an impassioned change champion, the sky is often falling and the situation is desperately urgent.
The improvement opportunity the change champion is advocating, is often presented as the one and only key to the organization's future. Highly effective change champions don't just rock the boat, they sometimes capsize it. They want to disrupt and demolish the status quo. Many of the best champions don't just want change; they want a revolution.
With their focus on ordered, controlled, and planned "change management", many managers suppress or drive out champions. In an oppressive environment, numerous would-be champions become good little bureaucrats conforming to the official plans and obediently following "the system." Others subversively continue to make changes out of sight of management or the bureaucracy. Some leave to start their own businesses, or join a less stifling, more entrepreneurial organization.
Change champions are vital learning leaders for an organization. But many are not in formal leadership roles. We need to harness their energy, ideas, and creativity today more than ever. But we have to learn how to coordinate their unbounded and disruptive zeal. Their energy needs to be gently directed toward our larger goals and improvement process. Change champions have great strengths, but many also have glaring weaknesses. For example, they may refuse to see or try to understand the need for a delicate balance between change and stability.
We can't manage change (a true oxymoron) or champions. Sometimes the best we can do is point them in the right direction and get out of the way. Then sponsor and protect them from the bureaucracy when they need it (servant-leadership). Once change champions have found the new trail, we can pave it over and make it official. Then we can set the relevant teams or parts of our organization on this new road to higher performance. Meanwhile – if we have a healthy culture of innovation and organizational learning – more change champions are getting ready to move us off this track. Today's solutions are already creating tomorrow's problems.
Following, are a few approaches that have proven successful in nurturing, harnessing, and leading change champions to move the organization forward:
If you're not a senior manager, your organization change and improvement choices are: