7 ways to encourage continuous improvement

Sweeping transformations aren't the only area where you need change agents. Here's how to find and nurture people who are eager to make incremental, daily changes
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Employees get bogged down with the day-to-day details of their workday. As a leader, how can you get them to break away from the avalanche of emails, meetings, and sprint-level tasks to think about making changes with strategic impact? How do you find the change agents who can help transform your organization? More importantly, how do you inspire change?

When we talk about organizational change, people think of sweeping, transformative change involving a whole new division or a new company-wide initiative. These sorts of “big bang” changes are sometimes necessary, but they are risky and require years of effort. But there is another sort of change, involving small, incremental changes to everyday tasks. This sort of sustained, continuous improvement will often have a bigger effect on an organization over the long run than occasional big bang projects. Supporting both types of change requires leadership from the top.

My firm was rolling out a new innovation program. My team’s reaction? It wasn’t going to make a difference.

My own experience in leading change bears this out. Like many companies, my firm was rolling out a ”90/10 program,” where employees were provided a benefit to spend 10 percent of their time, or four hours a week, working on something of their choice, innovative and groundbreaking. My team’s reaction was that a mere four hours a week wasn’t going to make a difference, especially given that there is no “40 hour” work week in technology.

[ Read also: How, why, and when to build a network of change agents. ]

Instead, a group of my architects and project leads later came to me and outlined ideas they were already working to prototype on their personal time, motivated by self-growth and ambition. They wanted management’s time to hear out their ideas, provide feedback and sponsor an idea that seem worthwhile productizing. The inspiration was already there, and they longed for management guidance, recognition and sponsorship.

Two types of change agents you need

There are some change agents who self-identify, the extroverts of change. These people take control of their own careers, and they will not wait for anyone’s permission to drive change. They learn something new in their industry or in technology and wonder, “Why can’t we do that here?” As a leader, you can either choose to curb those ideas or encourage methodical questioning of the status quo. The latter will inspire the change agents in your organization to redouble their efforts.

In seeking change agents, don’t forget the quiet ones, the introverts. They silently toil to make things better.

But in seeking change agents, we shouldn’t forget the quiet ones, the introverts. They silently toil to make things better. Sometimes they succeed, but more often their ideas are curbed by futile debates and processes. These change agents are the ones who need a nudge, who need support structure and enablement to flourish and not be silenced.

[ Can introverts shine at times of great change ? Read 5 big myths about introverts in IT. ]

This group represents a huge untapped potential in organizations of all sizes, which can only be unlocked by leadership engagement and proper empowerment of employees. In organizations I have worked in, I routinely practiced floor rounds early mornings and late evenings, discovering many of these introvert change agents hard at work.

Irrespective of the type of change agents, it is critical to foster and champion “out of the box” thinking. Risk averseness, fearing that new ideas may be rejected or not work out, is a recipe for extinction. One technique that I have found useful is to create time for people to attend a conference or participate in meetings with peers in the industry. Many people come back from these events rejuvenated and full of ideas on what can and should be done differently.

The trick as a leader is to tap that energy and channel it for the advancement of the organization. If done right, it has a compounding effect, creating a hyper-growth organization and inspiring a happy workforce.

7 ways to nurture change agents

How can you find and nurture the change agents in your organization?

  • Encourage difficult questions. Good change agents are inquisitive and want to know why things can’t be made better.
  • Reward passion. Encourage an environment of change and recognize those that drive it.
  • Celebrate success. Give those that embrace and advocate meaningful change a voice in the organization.
  • Embrace failure. Recognize that some risks will not pay off. Seek lessons that can be applied to future projects.
  • Share your vision. Articulate your vision and create a North Star to guide others. That helps to focus and channel the energy.
  • Walk the talk. Act as a change agent yourself, leading by example. It’s not enough to talk about change.
  • Listen. Welcome constructive feedback, listen to critics, and tweak your approach when needed.

IT teams can be change agents for the entire organization. We have the capability to transform all aspects of the business, but this begins with inspiring change at the grass roots level. Create opportunities for each and every employee to enact change through big ideas or incremental progress, and you will be amazed with the results.

[ Are you leading culture change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst. ]

As Altimetrik's Chief Transformation Officer, US West, Anil Somani is responsible for expanding existing customer relationships and exploring new partnerships in the US West region. His focus is to drive digital and talent transformation both internally and externally for Altimetrik’s customers.