Guerrilla Warfare

How to create change when you're not in charge
by | July 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM

Nearly 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 organization or even your whole division, but you can make a difference for your customers, your employees, your work processes. Start with your sphere of control and then move to your sphere of influence.

2. Implement the change initiative in one unit. Once you have found your comrade-in-arms, it's time to get to work. Together, draft a game plan for how to implement the change initiative in her unit. Involve others she trusts in the discussion. I would encourage you to follow a similar change strategy to the one I outline in Chapter 6 of We Don't Make Widgets . For the area being improved:

    • Define the priority results
    • Identify the key systems (the processes that produce results for customers)
    • Prioritize the key systems
    • Form project teams and improve the key systems

You will probably want to start with one project and one team. Focus on areas that will have high impact, high visibility and a high probability of success. Work on and dramatically improve a system that makes everybody take notice -- customers inside the organization and out, employees, upper management. The response you want is, "How did you do that?"

Don't make the mistake of piloting the concepts on low-hanging fruit. Think big. We're not talking about moving the coffee-maker closer to the break room. If nobody notices what you've done, you've missed the point of guerrilla warfare. And if everybody notices what you are doing before you're done, you have also missed the point.

3. Create a buzz. Ideally, the results of the project will be evident to everyone. That is, if you have selected a high-impact, high-visibility system, you won't need to broadcast the results -- people will notice.

The desired result you want from your guerrilla operation is a "buzz," a shot across the bow. You want to hear conversations at the water cooler that start with, "Did you hear what they pulled off in Mary's unit?"

Here are some strategies for creating that buzz or helping it grow.

o Celebrate the employees' accomplishments wildly. Celebrate in a way that everyone will notice. Make noise, trash the place, hang up a huge banner with the results on it. Have a party outside and invite others in the organization. You are trying to create interest -- "Why are they celebrating? What did they do? Why are they having so much fun?" Invite the Big Boss to the celebration. You want everyone to see the results and feel the energy. The Big Boss will have one of two reactions: (a) get back to work, or (b) where can I get more?

o Obtain external recognition for accomplishments. A government agency I was working with was one part of a much larger organization. It was clear that no direction was going to come from the mothership on performance improvement. So, the enlightened leader of the unit decided to go underground. With no fanfare and no pronouncements, he set about radically remaking the organization to the betterment of taxpayers, customers and employees. A year into the effort, the agency held a wild celebration of team accomplishments where everybody from upper management could see what was going on. The buzz began. A year later several of the organization's teams were recognized by professional organizations for their outstanding accomplishments. The buzz grew. At the end of the third year, the organization won a state quality award. All using guerrilla warfare. How did the story end? The enlightened unit leader was placed in charge of improving the entire organization.

One of the finest examples of guerrilla warfare I have seen came from the Suncoast Region of the Florida Department of Children and Families. Employees there were frustrated by customers' experiences at the department's public assistance offices. So they set about radically redesigning their service delivery system. With no money and no permission, they used employee teams to cut customer wait times by 45 minutes, save $11 million annually and reduce turnover from 30 percent to 5 percent.

These results created the buzz while external recognition -- the project won numerous awards from government and private-sector bodies -- accelerated the momentum. The team's changes were implemented statewide, and they eventually resulted in large-scale changes at the federal level. The location has now been benchmarked more than 200 times by agencies across the country.

The extraordinary results in Florida demonstrated two key principles. First, you don't have to wait for blessing from above. Second, radical improvements in your area can often highlight the need for reforms in other areas. For example, a team I worked with in one state grew tired of the cumbersome hiring process. It was taking over five months to fill a vacancy. Two of those five months were delayed by the state HR process and therefore were out of the team's control. But the agency focused on its part of the process and sped it up by 80 percent. They made a lot of noise about their success, created a buzz, and eventually the state HR department asked them for help revamping their process!

You don't have to be in charge or have full control to make great change. Stop waiting for the new computer system or executive enlightenment. They aren't coming. Change can begin with you, wherever you are. Good luck on your guerrilla mission, and remember the old maxim: "It is easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission."