David Harkins

David Harkins

Dr. David L. Harkins is a social scientist researching the human experience in systems and culture. He is an experienced executive coach and consultant, passionate educator, and keynote speaker. Through his teachings, inspiration, and guidance, he helps individuals and organizations identify and connect with their potential to make a meaningful difference in their communities.

A radical’s approach to change and innovation

Most people think “change” in an organization means doing something different just for the sake of doing something different.

They are wrong, of course, but their thinking is not unfounded. They’re just victims of “bad change initiatives.” Too many organizations try to drive change through elaborate processes and procedures, often structured by large consulting firms that never have to carry out their plans. Consequently, these firms rarely take the time to understand what is being done, let alone why it might need changing.

Their view is strategic, and often take the built on the goal to align the organization with a “best practice.” However, best practices need to be adapted for every organizational culture, and this is almost never done. It’s no wonder, “The more things change, the more things stay the same,” becomes a favorite mantra.

I could tell you everything in this post that a top-tier consulting firm would advise you to do, including, “get top management support,” if you want to facilitate change and innovation within your organization. I’m not going to do this not because it doesn’t work—sometimes it does.

My experience, though, is that the most successful change and innovation initiatives within an organization do not begin at the top; those at that level only see symptoms, not the cause of a problem. Change and innovation are most effective if they’re driven from bottom-up, not from the top-down. Those closest to the issues are the ones who can best overcome them and begin the change necessary for innovation. Unfortunately, these individuals rarely feel empowered to do so.

Empowerment, though is not often given to those who desire change. Instead, it must be taken when the opportunity to do so arises. So, let this serve as an inspiration to drive change within your organization: Be radical. Change and innovation in the organization begin with you. Right now. Today. Here’s how to get the ball rolling:

  • Look for things to “blow up.” Approach everything with the mindset that it needs to be fixed. This doesn’t mean it needs fixing, or that you need to be the one to fix it, but it forces you to look for the flaws. When the flaws outnumber the benefits, destroy it. The hard reality is that sometimes the only way make change is to blow it up and start over from scratch. Don’t be afraid to push the red button when you need to do so. This is often the origin of real innovation.
  • Start with things you can control. It’s easier to start small and change the things that are within your control. Look around. Many, many things are in you do every day that could benefit from improvements. Make those improvements. This kind of change and innovation is infectious and will flow throughout your organization faster than you might imagine.
  • Stretch the chain. Every day you should stretch “the chain” (people, processes, technology, etc.) until you find the weak links. Break them, put the chain back together, and stretch again tomorrow. When you see you are unable to break a link, take a break and look back on your accomplishment. These successes will help you build your credibility as a change agent. However, don’t forget to come back and stretch the chain again later. No link is failsafe for very long.
  • Cross the cultural minefield. Every organization has some approaches or things that are sacred. Before you start, know if the change you are attempting is going to put you at odds with the culture. You should know the dangers going in, but it’s likely you will still need to trip a few mines, purposefully. Trip the landmines when it is the right thing to do without regard to fallout, but know that you may sustain injuries. Tripping the mines and slaughtering sacred cows is a messy job.
  • Grow a thick skin. If you want to be a successful change agent, you cannot worry about making friends while driving change and innovation. This is not to say you have to be mean or insensitive. Most people hate change, not you, and will not hesitate to share their feelings. Some may even try to retaliate with political sabotage. Don’t take it personally. You’ll know you’re on the right track when people begin to complain about what you’re doing. Be prepared for the fall-out.

Understand, though, that this is an individual approach and not a “team approach” to driving innovation. I have never believed that teams are successful leading change or innovation. “Innovation team” seems like an oxymoron to me. Even team of radicals will fail if they are forced to work too closely together.

In my experience, the most successful innovation happens when individuals are motivated to make things better. An organization’s success with change and innovation is rooted in the personal initiatives of individual radicals who desire to make a difference.

To innovate and change an organization, find the radicals who strive to make a difference. Then turn them loose to do what they do best—stir things up.


Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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