I spoke about The Year Without Pants last week at Seattle Town Hall. I talked about some of the fascinating things that go on at work at WordPress.com. One of the questions was “this all sounds great, but how do you change an old, bureaucratic company to switch to new or better ideas?”
The best answer is you can’t. Not all at once. You can’t change the world all at once either. Even people who changed the world didn’t start out by trying to change the whole thing. That’d be silly.
Here’s the steps to consider:
- What power do you have? Don’t worry about the company (or the world) yet. Instead set your ambition based on the authority you have. If you’re a manager, start by changing your team. If you’re an executive, start by changing your division. If you’re just a worker, start by changing a meeting you run or a decision you make. Pick something you can have enough influence over to have a fighting chance.
- Do a pilot. Use the new idea on a small, well understood project. Apply the new method to it. If needed ask your boss, or coworkers, for time to try out working differently. Try to control the other variables, so your new idea is the primary difference between the pilot and other projects. Set a clear expectation for how things will be better and communicate it before the pilot begins. Do everything you can to make it work.
- Show better results. Your hypothesis in trying a new method is that it’s better, right? Think about how you can prove this to people who weren’t on the project. When the pilot ends if you can show your boss or coworkers than the new way is better than the old, they’ll keep using it. Pitching skills are as important as the results themselves. If the results were poor, that’s ok. Figure out why and do another pilot (repeat #2). Also consider piloting a different idea, or a variant of it, rather than the first one you had in mind.
- Show peers and leaders the results. If you truly found better results, good leaders should be interested in how you did it. Teach them. Help them do pilots of their own and help them to be able to genuinely show better results.
- Ask for more resources and repeat. As you find more supporters, go back to #1. You should have more power now. With a handful of leaders supporting the new idea, you can run an event or pitch an executive on widening the adoption of your proven idea.
If you’re fortunate someone with executive power will see the potential and turn the tides towards progress by making the new idea that’s growing in popularity a concept officially endorsed by their station.
But keep in mind there are natural limits to change. Maybe the best that can be done is to change one team or one division. Perhaps those are the systems where the change is most effective anyway. That alone is a huge accomplishment in this world. Even CEOs of corporations find change difficult. Generally people defend the status quo on matter what they say and even a powerful leader needs to find ways to convince the powerful people who work for them to try, much less endorse, something new.