My mum always, always commented on how I hated change growing up.
When I started secondary school I was miserable for six months. Same for college, and for university. For each of my new jobs, I would come home crying that I hated it and everyone hated me and thought me terribly pretentious and aloof because they found out from my CV that I got good grades on my GCSEs, and thought myself too good for them. Whenever a sibling would leave or we’d get a new one (we fostered) I would bawl like the universe was coming to an end, whether they’d been my sibling for two weeks or ten years. I simply could not abide change, that feeling of losing knowledge and control of my environment, of having to learn how to exist in this new universe all over again.
It’s a bit strange then, that I have a long history of driving change – especially when it comes to perceived injustices. I simply cannot sit by and let injustice pass. In primary school, we would all pick on and exclude a girl in my year for no discernible reason, until one day I decided to become her friend – a grand act in a countryside school of only 16 children. I’ve volunteered in South Africa and in El Salvador, seen what change can look like and how difficult a process it is (you can build a school as easy as anything, but it takes community backing and real, continued conviction to fill it with teachers and students year after year).
And at Fresh8, I’m known for asking awkward and annoying questions like “do you think the reason we aren’t measuring diversity is because we know we suck at it?”
So here is a post about the things I think you need for enacting change. This is kind of a terrifying topic to talk about, because there’s still that voice in my head that says I shouldn’t write about anything until I’m the best in the world at it. Well, I’m not the best in the world, but I still did it. So there! Cer i grafu, doubts!
This is the starting point. You have a belief, some conviction that the way things are now is wrong, or could be improved on. You might have been thinking for a while someone needs to fix that, probably someone more experienced and knowledgeable than yourself – and when no one does, you grudgingly decide that someone is probably you. Because you can’t sit by, you just have to say something..
You’re going to champion this cause, because you don’t simply passively believe this should be a thing while waiting for someone else to bring it up – you actively believe in it. You want to see it happen, you personally want it to succeed and to bring other people on board with the change.
For me, this was most recently the topic of Diversity and Inclusion. I was fed up of seeing myself presented as female in our PeopleHR reports, of not knowing what I should do if someone used transphobic language, and – the final straw – of seeing that two of the four colleagues made redundant while we were waiting on investment were non-British. This was through no conscious thought or malice, and they had skill overlap that made them slightly less necessary than everyone else. The problem was that no one even thought about diversity when choosing who would go. They didn’t stop to think “hey, we need to keep people from a range of backgrounds because it’s good to have voices unlike our own”. It felt like the hard skills mattered above all else, which means that’s probably the attitude for hiring too. (I’m not saying that it’s a bad place to work in terms of inclusion, because I’ve been treated very well, but I think there is a greater problem in the industry of not truly understanding the value of diversity.)
I don’t believe necessarily that I’m the right person to be pushing for diversity policies, because I’m also one of the people most affected by the cause. It is far more personally exhausting for me to have the arguments, the meetings, the conversations, the presentations and tasks related to this because it’s already something that affects me. In a workshop, if someone were to say “what’s the point, no one really cares about this stuff” then a facilitator not personally involved with the issue could brush that off and explain why people do care – calmly and without repurcussion to their health. For me though, that’s personal and hurtful and could ruin my entire week. I was totally and utterly gutted a couple of months ago just because my colleagues forgot that I was running a workshop on the topic during the engineering breakfast slot, and put another meeting over the top of it. I could barely function all day because I was emotionally paralysed, which makes it extra stressful trying to push forwards. The setbacks aren’t just setbacks, they’re personal setbacks.
So I guess it’s not always good to be the person who believes in something the most, but you do need belief in what you’re doing. You’re not going to get far pushing a heavy cart up hill unless you super duper want what’s at the top.
Now, even if you do desperately want to get to the top of that hill, and you’re willing to push the cart as hard and for as long as needed… You still can’t do it alone. If the only required change was in you, then you’d have had it sorted ages ago. You need a group who are there alongside you, moving obstacles out of the way and pulling your cart from the other end. You need help – and to get help, you need to get your team on side.
Our CTO sent me a couple of articles on Influencing, which I’ve been trying to keep in mind when I speak to people. Most of the advice is around building rapport and trust, but it doesn’t really say how to build those things. My advice is to be as friendly and authentic as you can be. Go up and talk to people, bring snacks into the office and speak up in meetings when you can. Always follow through with things you say you’re gunna do, and listen to others. If you’re going around talking people’s ears off about the thing you care about, without stopping and listening to what everyone else cares about then you’re not going to get anywhere. I mean, this is just sound advice in general though.
If you’re not super confident in groups, that’s okay. In fact it’s perfect, because you can get some good influencing done with individuals. Someone getting up to make a cup of tea? Oh look your mug is empty too, walk to the kitchen together, ask them if they’ve been feeling the slowness of xyz process. “Oh, I was thinking the other day we could do a workshop on abc, I’d really like to solve this problem but I’m not sure if people would be up for it. What do you think?” Find those 1-1 settings where you can talk to people about it conversationally. You’ll find out what barriers there are before taking it to a big meeting. Otherwise you could get to that big talk and 9/10 people agree – but they will be the silent majority, and you will be blocked by the 1/10 who is loudly disagreeing. No one else cares enough to argue because they haven’t been thinking about it, and they don’t know that you need support. Others might even find different solutions to the problem that you weren’t thinking of, which fuels conversations they have with each other.
On the note of advocacy, this is both something you want people to be doing for you and something you should do for others – but when making noise on the behalf of others, make sure they are actually comfortable with you doing it. There are many reasons they might not want to stir up trouble or draw attention to themselves. I once made this mistake while working at a cafe where we had an awful supervisor. She lied and manipulated staff to cover her shifts, came in hours late, and blamed staff for mistakes she made like breaking a new deep frier and leaving a box of frozen fish out of the freezer. Myself and the other baristas complained about it to each other for a while, until I offered to write an email documenting all of our grievences to the manager. It was two sides of A4 long, an unemotive documentation of various instances of poor supervision. Some of them were quite dangerous, including an incident that led to me getting a hot oil burn on my arm, so I was sure we were all on the same page about this. Then a few days later, I got a reply from the manager saying she’d spoken to the other staff members and they’d told her they had no problems with the supervisor whatsoever.
I learnt an important lesson that day. I’m not sure how to articulate it, but it’s something like this: if the actors of change don’t feel safe to talk about change, you can’t and shouldn’t force change on them. You have to make it safe to talk about change first. At the cafe, we were the lowest-tier workers in an oversaturated market, easily replaced – and besides, we’d all be off doing other things when the tourist season ended in a couple months, so it was hardly worth rocking the boat.
Linked to advocacy is the skill of persuasion. You need to be able to argue your case. I say argue, but arguing until you’re blue in the face probably won’t get you anywhere. That’s why you’ve been doing all this influencing malarkey, so that people will listen (and probably still argue back, but that’s okay because you also want to be listening to their point of view).
You need to be able to break down and make a case for the change you want to see, to help others understand that it’s in their best interests too. What does the ideal world look like? What are some steps you can make together to get things rolling, that will have an immediate impact? Who will have extra work to do, who will have pain points removed, what’s the business case and the personal case? Getting the value across to the higher-ups and the every-mans are two very different things because they don’t care about the same measures, but you still need to appeal to both with your argument.
It’s all well and good you knowing why xyz change is for the best, through the goodness of your heart, but you need to convince people who have the goodness in their heads or their feet as well.
Probably the most important of all is resilience. The ability to resist the dark days where nothing is happening, your idea is going to get shot down just like last time and no one really cares anyway. Do you care about it that much? You don’t even know any more, you’re just so tired of talking about it… Being able to get through those days without giving up is a skill in itself.
The best advice I ever heard around this was in Jim Holmes’ TestBash talk at Brighton, and it’s really simple. Celebrate your wins. When something goes well, when you finally manage to get something done after months of slogging… Celebrate. Let your company know, let your team know, give yourself and each other a pat on the back and have a round of applause. You did a thing! It might not be the end goal, and you might be behind schedule, but by the light you are going to make sure everyone knows it has been done and you’re blinking well proud.
Also, as I have mentioned before – tea breaks. 🙂
You don’t necessarily need all of those things in copious amounts, but you need enough of some to make up for the deficit in others, or have a team with mixed strengths.
For example: I’m great at belief in a cause, and I’m okay at persuasion. When it’s something I care about though, sometimes it’s just really hard to break it down to a business case because I think why are you so blind not to care about this the way I care about it, I shouldn’t need to convince you. And I’m absolutely abysmal at resilience. Imposter syndrome and intrusive thoughts are my norm most days – I think, “this change would have happened already with someone else driving it, people aren’t listening to me because they know I’m a big ol’ fakety fake.”
But this is ok because the strength of my belief draws others who might have those skills (I complain over and over again until someone eventually agrees to help). In our current team/committee pushing for inclusion, there are two other big players. James is awesome at resilience because he’s seen change through before and can see the bigger picture when it seems that no progress is being made. Dom and James are both pretty strong with advocacy and persuasion too, probably because of their experience in higher-ladder roles that necessitate that type of thinking and behaviour (and because they’re both awesome listeners). This means I don’t have to be super great at those things. I can just be great at caring a lot, and they take care of the rest.
Having a team is the best, basically.
Extra: Things you don’t need
You don’t need permission or an invitation. When I first tried talking about the problem of diversity at Fresh8, I was constantly waiting for someone higher up to give me a little green light or a card to say yes we care about this, you can do the thing. It would have been a monumental waste of time, if not for the fact that I was spreading the influence of the idea to everyone else simultaneously.
You don’t need to be the top number 1 expert on change or the subject undergoing change, a person who travels the globe consulting and speaking at countless conferences, a star or big-name in the industry. Seriously. You don’t need to be that person to enact change. When I moved to a team that did daily standups, I was gobsmacked by the useless process of taking it in turns to tell everyone “this is what I did yesterday, and this is what I am working on today”, when no one was listening to anything anyone else said – because it wasn’t really a team standup, just a check-in in disguise. So I stopped telling people what I was doing, and instead started telling them what they could do for me; which bug fixes were key to getting today’s release out the door, what parts of the design needed clarifying et cetera. People had been complaining about those standups for weeks, but everyone was waiting for someone else to make a change because they thought that decision had to come from higher up than themselves.
The best person for change is the one who is inside the situation, and who cares enough to try. The best person to do it is probably you – or the one who has been bringing it up in conversation with you and others suspiciously often. If you pay attention, you’ll probably find plenty of people around you trying to enact change, people who could really do with a bit of support.
Lastly, you don’t need to be the person making the change. I repeat: you don’t need to be the person making the change. Contradictorily to most of the above, it doesn’t have to be you sitting in the driving seat, going round talking to people and writing a business case, trying to bring the team on board and wearing yourself out. Just because you care the most, doesn’t mean it has to be you. But if you do care about the change, if you agree with it, then you should always look out for the person who is doing those things. Give them your time and thoughts, verbally agree with them when the topic comes up in meetings or group discussions. Give them the energy they need to make it happen, because they can’t do it alone.