“Whenever anything is being accomplished, it is being done, I have learned, by a monomaniac with a mission.” — Peter Drucker, Adventures of a Bystander
When we look back at the successful team or organization changes we’ve been involved in, most — and certainly all major ones — were driven by “monomaniacs with a mission.” Sometimes the champion, a passionate person pushing hard for a change or improvement, had a powerful organizational sponsor and someone running interference for him or her. 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 product or service, telephone answering procedure, training program, or work process. Sometimes it was to the organization structure, marketing strategy, or the very business the company was in. 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. We need 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 Context and Focus (vision, values, and purpose), strategic imperatives, 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 harness or manage champions. Often we’re best to 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…