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Guerilla Warfare: How to Create Change When You Are Not in Charge

Friday, May 1st, 2009

guerilla-warfareNearly every management theory — and all the accompanying books, consultants and seminars — starts with the same assumption: You need great leadership to pull “this” off, whatever “this” is this time. Whether it’s performance management, strategic planning, process improvement, customer service or some other strategy du jour, they all start by saying you need “buy-in from the top.”

That’s one of the main reasons conference attendees often leave more discouraged than excited. They recognize that while they “get it,” the people leading the organization will never reach enlightenment.

In the workshops I lead, I get three very predictable reactions. Senior managers always say, “This is great, but I don’t think we can get buy-in from the front line.” Front-line workers always say, “This is great, but senior management will never go for it.” And the middle managers just say, “Tell us what you want, and we’ll do it.” Everyone is waiting for Godot.

So how do you create change when you’re not in charge? That’s probably the question I get asked the most after addressing an audience. When top leadership is not supportive of a change initiative, you have only one recourse left — go underground. Here’s how:

1. Find a supportive manager. Guerrilla warfare starts with two people — a brave change agent and an enlightened manager. No matter how backward your organization may be, there is at least one manager who “gets it,” who wants to make her unit the best it can be. Find this person and indoctrinate her. Attend a seminar or conference together. Take her to lunch. Give her an article, a book, a Web site — just do something to pique her interest. Discuss how the proposed change initiative (its concepts and methods) will impact the things she cares about.

Often, this enlightened manager will be you. In that case, you play both roles. Be the change agent you want to see elsewhere. That is, you may not be able to impact the whole (more…)