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Eight essential practices of change-agents

Change-Agent's Compass

Leading breakthrough change is hard. Whether small scale or large, pioneering is difficult and messy. There are many balls to juggle, and the environment is constantly changing. And there’s the problem: it can be hard to focus on the right thing to do at the right time.

Enter the Change-Agent's Compass. It's a simple but effective productivity and effectiveness tool that acknowledges the need for adaptability and course correction. It's designed to help you focus on the one thing you need to attend to at any given moment to reach your objectives.

How does the Change-Agent's Compass work?

Leading change is more akin to navigating turbulent seas than driving down a highway. Both the seafarer and the change leader – you! – need to adapt to their environment and take action to successfully arrive at their destination. Following the compass metaphor, here are the four steps you need to take:

1) Regularly course-correct. At regular intervals, the leader needs to step back from the immediate activities in order to course-correct. For many, this is probably a weekly checkpoint.

2) Observe your environment. The environment is simply that set of internal and external circumstances in which you find yourself. For the seafarer, this includes the ship, the crew, the landmarks, the waves and the weather. For you, it is likely to include your own state, your team, opportunities and struggles.

3) Consult the compass. The seafarers' compass has eight ordinal directions (N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, NW). The Change-Agent's Compass mirrors these, with eight leadership practices. The uniqueness of the compass is both the memorability of the practices (they align to the ordinal directions – so NW is for NetWork, for example), but also the link between the current environment and the necessary practice to follow.

4) Move decisively. Once you have your compass reading, the final step is to change course and move decisively in the new direction.

The eight leadership practices

So what about the leadership practices themselves? We'll outline them below. Remember, however, that the power of the tool is not so much in the uniqueness of the practices but the simple way that the most appropriate one can be identified at any time.

Nourish (refresh yourself)

Leadership can be tough, especially when you are engaged in pioneering activity. The journey is often hard, and it's easy to end up feeling exhausted, running out of ideas, and with other areas of our life way out of balance. The leadership practice of 'Nourish' reminds us to make time for the important things and to establish healthy patterns of rest and renewal. At a pinch, take a break – but more importantly, schedule your diary to include the right mix of rest and family time.

Next-Level (forge ahead)

Sometimes a project seems to be bogged down, progress is not where it needs to be, and momentum is eroding. Results are stagnating, and suddenly the goals we set ourselves seem increasingly difficult to attain.

In this case, a singular focus to 'Next-Level' can help. The goal is to make significant and rapid progress on the initiative and overcome the immediate barriers that are slowing everyone up. There are two approaches:

  • 'Heads down' – block out a chunk of time, individually or in a 'war room' style environment, to do what needs to done; or
  • ‘Growth hack' – think laterally and find a creative way of leaping ahead. For example, establishing a partnership with a major influencer in your space may result in more leads than doubling down on your existing marketing.

Envision (think big)

There comes a time in most organisations, projects or initiatives where the momentum drops and overall venture starts to drift somewhat.

This drift is a sure sign of a lack of a shared compelling vision. The original goal has either been forgotten or a new shared vision needs to be established.

I would recommend following the advice of management coach Michael Nichols in his book Building Your Business Vision. Articulate the core convictions that underpin the organisation, and develop a concrete but daunting 'Mount Everest' goal for the next five to ten years. Describe that as vividly as possible, and then focus on attaining the 'first summit' on the way to that bigger goal.

Select (choose wisely)

Let's face it: almost all of us are doing too much and keeping too many projects running. We also have too many difficult decisions to make as we try to prioritise our limited resources.

The discipline of 'Select' relates to our priorities and decision-making process. We need to do fewer things, better. As Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism, says: "It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential."

Prune back on the fluff and double-down on the few essential issues. Many of the practices here are well known but underutilised: use the 80/20 rule, systematise and automate, radically prioritise and maintain focus on three goals maximum.

Solidify (mind your team)

Most leaders would say that their team is essential to achieving their vision. In reality, however, the health of the team is often ignored for various reasons, including delegation by abdication, micromanagement or failure to prioritise.

The leadership practice of 'Solidify' reminds task-oriented leaders to attend to the personal dimension and build their team.

The full Change-Agent's Compass guide (available here) focuses on two particular practices: matching leadership style to team maturity; and balancing challenge and support in your personal leadership style.

Switch (engage habits)

If you are constantly in firefighting mode or if progress towards your goal is inconsistent, then it could be time to switch on your execution engine of repeatable habits and systematic practices.

Entrepreneur and author Ramit Sethi explains that high-performing individuals and teams differ from mediocre performers through their application of a system by which to achieve their goals. The benefit of such an 'execution engine' of habits and practices is that it becomes possible to learn from experience and progressively tune the system to maximise results.

Why (get motivated)

Every leader has times of lethargy and demotivation during the ‘messy middle’ between the excitement of conceiving the idea and the thrill of achieving the goal.

Katherine Keller writes: "If you are not feeling motivated or if you find yourself feeling 'stuck', it is most likely because your 'why' is not strong enough to pull you through the rough spots and make you push yourself to do things when you don’t want to do them.”

The practice of ‘Why’ reminds us to tap into our motivation and articulate the purpose behind the enterprise. What is at stake here? What happens if we succeed? What happens if we fail? Why does that matter?

Network (assemble tribe)

As a leader and pioneer, you are probably captured by your vision of what could be, and you want to get there as fast as possible. But one day, you realise you are overworked and under-supported.

I understand. The combination of a pioneering spirit, commitment to excellence, and the sense of ownership over a project can make it hard for leaders to delegate and decentralise.

The Network discipline prompts us to grow our team, promote the cause, and strategically interconnect with other related entities and organisations.

Making the compass work for you

Leaders have reported this simple approach forces them to break out of the routine and reprioritise effectively. It can work for you too.

To get started with this agile approach to leadership, set up a regular 'compass check' in your diary – ten minutes per week should get you on track.

To make things simple, the full bundle of Change-Agent's Compass resources is currently available for free download. This includes a one-page summary of which practice is needed in which context, a free online test to get a quick read of your situation and the associated practice, and a detailed ebook for practice advice on each leadership discipline.

Richard Medcalf is a strategy consultant, corporate business development executive, non-profit pioneer and founder of Purposeful People.