To manage change effectively give it time and be flexible. An interview with Whitney Thoren - Change Agent.
Fuse IQ engages in often-times disruptive technology projects for our clients. Positively disruptive as it will undoubtedly change the patterns of behaviour, business process and workflows for the better. Yet this does require pulling people out of their old habits and adopting new habits.
We recognize change is always challenging even when welcomed with open arms. Change can be difficult and intimidating and to help our clients, we explain new processes we are implementing relative to their website, back-office data input and more. While we recognize these aspects of adopting new technologies, we are not change experts. We typically leave that to the culture and management of our clients.
In order to help our clients I am very pleased to be able to interview Whitney Thoren: Change Agent who helps organizations understand and deal positively with change. Below is a transcript of our interview and you can also visit Whitney’s website at www.whitnums.com.
FIQ: First off, thank you so much, Whitney, for taking the time for this interview. I am very excited to be able to chat and share your experience with our clients.
W: Thank you for asking me and setting us up. I appreciate the opportunity to connect with a new audience too - very cool!
FIQ: Tell me a little about who you are and what you do?
WT: I am an organizational design and development consultant in Seattle, WA. I often refer to myself as a Change Agent because I am inspired to help organizations use human-centered approaches in their work to become more employee-focused, creative, and adaptable. I focus on building greater empathy for different perspectives company-wide, developing leadership skills for people at all pay grades, and applying innovations tools when creating plans that address organizational challenges.
FIQ: Why did you decide to become a “Change Agent”?
WT: Honestly, it had everything to do with patterns that I was both observing and experiencing in the workplace. I saw too many people in leadership positions misusing their authority and undervaluing the people who make up an organization.
I have always been drawn to speaking out and mobilizing around change. From a young age I have participated in different social justice movements, went into a human services profession, which has lead me to where I am now, organizational design and development.
My development lens is all about fostering leadership at every level in an organization. It’s common to hear how disempowered people feel at work. So my mission is to help reframe some of that attitude and help employees to build their personal leadership capacity - understanding your agency. You might not always be the top decision maker, but you always have agency to act and respond. Anyone can to a change agent.
FIQ: What are a couple examples where a client has identified the need for your services and how did you respond to their need?
WT: Typically, I am brought in when things aren’t feeling or functioning their best. There could be high levels of organizational tension, communication breakdowns, or a program/service just isn’t working as it should. My function is to help uncover what is really going on and then design a plan(s) for moving forward.
Related to the work you provide clients, I see my role as the coach. The coach helps to get everyone ready for the race. Who do we need on the team? Who have we left out? How much energy will it take to cross the finish line? At what point do we need to check-in and assess how we are measuring up? When it comes to technology changes, I think people tend to underestimate the impact that it can have on an organization. Even a technical fix needs to have an adaptive change lens put on it.
This question had me think back to your opening statement about positively disrupting your clients with technology projects, I think about how that disruption often happens both in the midst of a project and post-implementation. If your clients were to bring someone like myself in to start addressing the behaviour and process shifts as a culture warm up, it could really help out.
FIQ: Are there some basic principles about Change (with a capital C) that everyone should know?
WT: Three things come to mind. One, it’s hard. Two, you can’t control it. And three, it’s happening all the time. For those reasons it is good practice to acknowledge there will be challenges, and that is ok!
If your organization is undergoing some change effort, give it time. More time than you think it will take. Spacious time. This flies in the face of most business practices, but humans are creatures of habit, and we love to slide back into old habits. The most common pitfall I see is that an organization feels like everything is different ahead of schedule and cuts their timeline short. It doesn’t take long for things to shift back to how they were before or fall apart.
Lastly, remain flexible. Create a plan that you can iterate on. Since we truly do not have control, it’s best to be flexible.
FIQ: Why are habits so hard to break and what are a few ideas you can share about breaking old habits and adopting new ones?
WT: Think about the last time you tried to make some change in your life? A change in diet, exercise, smoking, or a new bedtime. Was it easy to make that change? Probably not and that was just you! Now contrast that to a whole company. The more people in the mix the harder it can be. Organizations are made up of many individuals who have their own personal stake in whatever is going on for the larger whole. Change can leave people feeling vulnerable and unsure for what’s to come, even if they want and need those changes. That is why it can be a game changer when organizations slow down to consider what it takes to mobilize people around whatever change is needed so they can create a plan that casts a larger net.
FIQ: Have you found when a client hires you for a specific reason, that there are other reasons, unseen underlying factors, that really are at play?
WT: I do think it is fairly common that clients see an issue through their lens only. Which makes total sense. They may have too many blind spots in their way, which is why they need help. It is commonly said in my line of work, that if the problem was truly known the solutions tried would have fixed it. As a consultant, one of the greatest things I can offer is an outsider’s perspective. To hear what is going on with new ears and ask different questions. This usually surfaces a deeper issue, one below the symptoms the organization is experiencing.
FIQ: Do you feel there needs to be one or more change evangelists, or agents, amongst the staff of an organization and if so why?
WT: Absolutely. We often have people at work that are, “our people.” Finding the natural company leaders and leveraging their influence and relationships could greatly support the change efforts' success.
I also believe that the more people who are part of the conversation, the better. No matter what the change effort is, people have opinions, so creating structured opportunities for people to engage, share perspectives, and to be an active part of the shift that is already happening is a bonus. Additionally, the benefit to staff inclusion and engagement is huge.
FIQ: Should these staff as change agents be leadership, support or board members, and why?
WT: For sure leadership, but I think it’s best to get more people at the bottom of an org chart engaged. If you are talking about technology adoption, get the people who are most impacted by the new tool into the conversation, get them excited, and leverage their connection to others to support that change going forward.
FIQ: Do you think it is most effective to engage a change agent, such as yourself, before a project starts, or after, once some of the challenges start surfacing?
WT: I think bringing someone in, or creating a plan around a change effort, should start before any rollout. By starting out ahead of whatever is going on, it will create an atmosphere of participation. Once you have moved into implementation you have a lot of helpful momentum behind you. Plus it’s easier to do the work upfront rather than waiting till there is a meltdown..
FIQ: What are some methods (without giving away your entire proprietary process) that you engage with clients to help them manage change?
WT: I use process-based consulting. I often start by talking with or gathering information from people throughout the organizational system. Gaining a diverse perspective is important to uncovering the blocks or barriers. I take that analysis and work with my clients to co-create a path forward. Since I am an outsider, I want the people who will carry the work forward to own it and therefore have a role in creating it.
I also use Human-Centered Design in creating solutions. This is a framework that, like the name implies, focuses on the customer (whoever that might be). It’s about understanding who is going to be interacting with the service or program and designing a solution from that research. This flips the traditional approach of program design where the solution is implemented without knowing how it will affect the customer. Using Human-Centered Design puts the user up front in the process and delivers more usable solutions.
FIQ: Are there any outstanding online resources or books that people who are about to engage on a significantly disruptive project should study?
FIQ: One final question: if someone were interested in your services, what is the best way for them to reach you?
FIQ: Thank you so much! This is great stuff and I know it will be invaluable for our clients, and anyone who is going through a challenging evolution within their organization.
WT: Thank you! It was pleasure to connect over this topic. I hope it helps your readers to think about organizational change a little differently?!