The most successful change and innovation efforts are often accomplished by a change champion, a ‘mono-maniac with a mission,’ according to Jim Clemmer. Here are some strategies that will help you to support your organization’s change champions.

Peter Drucker once said, “whenever anything is being accomplished, it is being done, I have learned, by a monomaniac with a mission.” That sure squares with my own consulting experience. When I look back at the hundreds of team or organization changes I’ve been involved in during the last three decades, most successful – and certainly all major ones – were driven by “monomaniacs with a mission.” Sometimes the champion had a powerful organizational sponsor running interference for the passionate person who was pushing hard for a change or improvement. Other times, he or she was on their own at first and built a strong change coalition or team of change champions.

The change could have been in an accounting or human resource system. It could be a clinical service, record keeping procedure, training program, or work process. Sometimes it was to the organization structure, key process, or decisions on the core services the organization was providing. Research into the nature of innovation and organization change, clearly shows the key role change champions play in team and organization change. They are needed to overcome the bureaucratic response of “we’ve always done it this way” (which almost guarantees it’s no longer relevant today). Champions push against the inertia, passive resistance, or outright opposition that resists most changes – even if they’re for the better.

A good champion is passionate about their cause or change. He or she is a staunch, zealous, fanatic. A great champion is emotional, irrational, irreverent, impatient, and unreasonable. He or she wants the change – no matter how big – to happen this week, this month, or certainly by the end of this quarter. To an impassioned change champion, the sky is often falling and the situation is desperately urgent.

The improvement opportunity the change champion is advocating, is often presented as the one and only key to the organization’s future. Highly effective change champions don’t just rock the boat, they sometimes capsize it. They want to disrupt and demolish the status quo. Many of the best champions don’t just want change; they want a revolution.

With their focus on ordered, controlled, and planned “change management,” many managers suppress or drive out champions. In an oppressive environment, numerous would-be champions become good little bureaucrats conforming to the official plans and obediently following “the system.” Others subversively continue to make changes out of sight of management or the bureaucracy. Some leave to start their own businesses, or join a less stifling, more entrepreneurial organization.

Change champions are vital learning leaders for an organization. But many are not in formal leadership roles. We need to harness their energy, ideas, and creativity today more than ever. But we have to learn how to coordinate their unbounded and disruptive zeal. Their energy needs to be gently directed toward our larger goals and improvement process. Change champions have great strengths, but many also have glaring weaknesses. For example, they may refuse to see or try to understand the need for a delicate balance between change and stability.

We can’t manage change (a true oxymoron) or champions. Sometimes the best we can do is point them in the right direction and get out of the way. Then sponsor and protect them from the bureaucracy when they need it (servant-leadership). Once change champions have found the new trail, we can pave it over and make it official. Then we can set the relevant teams or parts of our organization on this new road to higher performance. Meanwhile – if we have a healthy culture of innovation and organizational learning – more change champions are getting ready to move us off this track. Today’s solutions are already creating tomorrow’s problems.

Let’s Get Practical

Following, are a few approaches that have proven successful in nurturing, harnessing, and leading change champions to move the organization forward:

You can’t encourage and support what you don’t know is happening. The most interesting and useful local change and improvement initiatives rarely make it into reports or formal channels. That may be because they’re “illegally” breaking corporate rules, deviating from the standard process, or failing to follow the official plan. It may be because local champions or teams (skunk works) don’t realize the significance of their innovation to the rest of the organization or a potential new market.

One non-negotiable is that all improvement activities focus outward. All changes either serve an external client or partner, or serve somebody who is. Changes that make internal life easier but reduce care, service, quality, or innovation aren’t improvements. Current and potential clients and/or the partners serving them should be at the center of, or key members on, the local learning teams. They need to be “mucking around” to find new and improved ways of producing, delivering, or supporting your products and services.

Demonstration or pilot projects are powerful learning, change, and improvement tools. These can be great opportunities to set up a “greenfield site.” This is where you can test new structures, tools, and techniques.

A highly effective leader can have twenty years of rich learning and experience. But many mediocre performers, have one year of experience multiplied twenty times. The same learning disability afflicts organizations that haven’t developed the systems and practices for transferring and communicating the rich learning that comes from local initiatives.

Institute an internal “best practices and good tries” system, clearinghouse, or network. You could have intranet sites, frequent meetings, voice or e-mail learning exchange systems, team visits, project fairs, or other share-and-compare forums. Measurement systems and feedback loops should make the results every team is getting, highly visible and widely available to everyone. Your education, training, and communication activities should continuously keep people throughout your organization in touch with what’s working and what isn’t.

Celebrate, publicize, recognize, honor, thank, applaud, and otherwise encourage champions and local teams who take initiative to change and improve their part of the world.

Look for the existing leaders and champions who are making improvements and changes. Shape your improvement plan and process by building on their energy and experience. Since change champions won’t be covering all areas as completely as possible, they are also the logical starting point for making the changes and improvements that will better round out and balance your long term effort.

Develop change and improvement momentum by building around the champions who are most likely to make the effort succeed. They will help to bring the others on side. They are also the ones you and everyone else can learn the most from. But don’t try to impose their successful approaches on others. Ownership and personalization are the keys to local adaptation of changes and improvements. Sell, persuade, educate, and communicate.

Don’t automatically label resistance to change as negative and something to be overcome or beaten back. The real enemy of organizational change, is apathy. “Just tell me what you want done, boss, so I can get out of this place and on with my real life”, is the attitude that kills change. Resistors often have strong passion and high energy. They resist because they care. Understand the roots of their resistance and re-channel it. Get them inside the circle of wagons, shooting out.

Discuss with your management team how your successful change champions (some of whom will be present), have emerged and been supported in the past. What can you learn from those experiences? How does your bureaucracy suppress or drive out emerging champions? How can you ensure that change champions get the mentoring, sponsorship, and management support they need to buck the system? What do your champions think?

The single biggest key to leading change and nurturing champions from the middle or lower levels of an organization, is to not disempower yourself. Don’t point your finger upward and say most of these points apply to “them.”

If you’re not a senior manager, your organization change and improvement choices are to do nothing but complain and hope “they” smarten up, quit, or make as many changes as you can in your own area. Help others to change and try to influence the system. In other words, act like a leader!

Jim Clemmer is a bestselling author and internationally acclaimed keynote speaker, workshop/retreat leader, and management team developer on leadership, change, customer focus, culture, teams, and personal growth. During the last 25 years he has delivered over two thousand customized keynote presentations, workshops, and retreats.