Change can kill the change agent

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;

Or close the wall up with our English dead!

Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth, at the battlements of Agincourt

Fine leader, that Henry (Harry to his friends) was, and inspiring to his troops too, or so said the Bard:

And you, good yeoman…the game’s afoot:

Follow your spirit, and upon this charge

Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

Just fine, unless you, good yeoman, turn out to be one of the English dead that Harry refers to.

In the IT world, who does the senior management turn to when they need to “shake the organization up,” when they need a “huge cultural shift,” when they need to storm the French battlements, so to speak?

You guessed it: the lucky fellow they call the “change agent.”

You know what I’ve learned about being a change agent in an IT organization? I’ve learned that just like secret agents, change agents live in a dangerous and uncertain world. But when a change agent dies trying, he/she doesn’t get a star on the wall at CIA headquarters like those other agents do.

You know, I think I would have picked up on this connection quicker if the last time someone asked me to act as a change agent, they would have referred to me as a good yeoman instead.

Not that being a change agent is a bad thing in and of itself – it’s certainly exciting enough, it’s just that the dying in the effort thing is a bit of a bummer.

It’s a mistake I’ve made myself, in this case, as part of the ongoing wild swing from centralized to decentralized IT operations and back again.

Here’s a conversation from a few years back, if I remember correctly:

My boss, the manager of a big IT shop (MOBIS): “Hanley – the production division we support thinks we suck! They think we spend all our time playing with technology, and they don’t think that we’re responsive to their business needs!”

Me: “Sir, yes sir! Unresponsive to their business needs, yes sir!”

MOBIS: “I want you to take over management of the relationship between IT and production – I want to change our organization to be more responsive, I want to reinvent the relationship between IT and production, I want you to be the voice of the production division to IT management! I want you to shake things up! I want you to be our change agent!”

And so I became. I got close to the VP of production, came to understand his frustrations with what he saw as our glacial progress in rolling out systems his engineers said they needed. Heard from his teams about how our standards slowed down the adoption of new systems, about how our standard desktop severely constrained their ability to tune machines for optimal application performance – in short, the litany of typical complaints about a centralized IT shop.

And I took it back to my IT brethren with zeal: how we needed to change our thinking, how we needed to be customer-driven, how we needed to spend more time in the field with the business understanding real problems instead of fixating on the technology.

And the production division loved it – their message was getting across, IT was being harangued into changing, and there I was, right in the thick of the action, right where the battlements of “the old way of doing things” was being breached – I was, in short, the change agent I thought I was supposed to be.

But a funny thing happened on my way to change agent fame and fortune: I went native and couldn’t find my way back. I’d heard whispers of course, that Ken had “gone over to the users side,” that I was “in the pocket of the production VP,” that I’d “forgotten what it was like to be a real IT guy.”

So what did I care? I was a change agent and a fearless man.

And then things changed. Having helped to break down the walls of the old IT organization, having helped to recast the relationship between production and IT, having made the changes that needed to be made, there wasn’t a need for a change agent anymore.

No more Marines – time to bring in the peacekeepers.

So I tried to go back into IT, preferably in a more senior role, thank you very much, reflecting my status as a successful change agent.

But nobody really wanted me back in IT. I’d done such a good job harassing the IT organization into changing its ways (I got a good bonus and an excellent performance review that year, if I recall), that I’d burned most of the bridges I’d built in the years before.

The GM of IT and I talked about a few management roles for me back in IT, but it was clear that it wasn’t going to work. Change agent I was, friend to the IT folks in the trenches I wasn’t any more.

And I couldn’t go to work in the production division I’d been advocating for either. I was a good spokesperson on their behalf, but I wasn’t qualified to be a real engineer in their division.

And so I effectively killed myself off, didn’t I?

There’s no shame in being a change agent, in fact it can be a hell of a lot of fun.

But just maybe you have to be like Mary Poppins (the ultimate change agent – didn’t the wind shift every time she blew in and out of London?), and know that, as a change agent, there’s a time when you’ll have to say “my work here is done” and move on to something else, likely somewhere else – no problem being a change agent, as long as you know what you’re doing, and as long as you know that when you’ve broken down the wall, you’ll likely have to go somewhere else.