Thursday, January 4, 2007

So, you want to be a change agent

Most software developers would say that they're not interested in being a change agent, that all they want is to be left alone to do their own work. In one extreme case I had someone tell me that they actively didn't want anyone else to learn how they worked, because that was their individual competitive advantage!

The trouble with this model is that most of us work in teams, even if the team is virtual and distributed, and most teams agree that they need to have consistency or, oh the horror!, standards. That means that if you come up with a new idea, you'll frequently need to convince other people to go along with it, or at least not oppose it, so you need to be a change agent.

The first thing to realise as a change agent is that you can only achieve so much. I think of myself as having a limited amount of change capital, that I need to spend wisely. Some changes have relatively low benefit, but require so little investment that you can and should do them straight away. On the other hand, some changes will have enormous benefits but will be difficult to achieve and may make the team resistant to further changes - this is frequently the case when a manager forces a change on a reluctant team. You need to pay attention to the return on your change capital investment, and investment it appropriately. Another common mistake is to try to make many simultaneous changes, spreading change capital thin and putting all the initiatives at risk. Successful changes generally depend on some minimum investment, and if you're not willing to make that investment you're better off doing nothing at all. Also, although some people are more resistant to change than others, everyone has a limit to the number of changes they can deal with and at some point people are liable to say "enough!". Flexibility is important, but so is stability and predictability and we need to make sure that we have the right balance.

So regardless of the quality of your approach, which I'll talk about in another post, you also need to pay attention to the quantity of change.

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