Well into the 20th century, coal miners brought canaries into coal mines as an early-warning signal for toxic gases, primarily carbon monoxide. The birds, being more sensitive, would become sick before the miners, who would then have a chance to escape or put on protective respirators. (Wikipedia — Sentinel Species)
At a conference last fall, I chatted with some other attendees, and realized that I wasn’t alone in experiencing a certain pattern. Granted these folks were self selected — they signed up for a conference on product development (Agile and Lean focused to be specific)— but I found the similarities interesting nonetheless.
So…getting personal. I am what you might call “sensitive”. Sometimes others call it out as “systems thinking” or “being perceptive”, but let’s use sensitive for now.
It has taken a couple decades to come to better terms with what that means (and with what it doesn’t mean, and with ways I was probably mistaken). Hopefully me sharing this will help other folks who experience the same pattern(s) in their work lives.
A common dynamic with me and work goes something like:
- Arrive somewhere.
- “Pick up” on some underlying core tension/conflict very quickly. Connect with people experiencing that issue quickly.
- Simultaneously, advocate for the things I typically advocate for (e.g. continuous improvement, cross-functional teams, transparency, systems thinking, evidence-based approaches, limiting WIP etc.) This resonates with some % of the team/organization. There’s an appetite for what I’m pitching, at least with some people. People actively seek me out.
- Importantly, #2 and #3 often dovetail, but they are unrelated. As in…I would still be doing #3 if the core tension/conflict did not exist. That I advocate for continuous improvement to address root cause problems is tangential.
- I attempt to help people resolve the underlying tension/conflict (#2) — serving as some kind of more vocal spokesperson, but caring deeply about inclusivity and co-designing the change.
- The status quo pushes back — often blaming me for sowing discontent and fanning the flames. There’s a general confusion about my agenda. Is it a need to dictate or “own” #5 ? What is the difference between #2, #3, and #5 ? Is #2 “that bad” ? Importantly…there is confusion about whether this is MY problem, or a broader problem.
- Management/leadership wants to 1) control the narrative around #2 — the core conflict, 2) keep me doing #3 — because it is valuable — but without ruffling feathers, 3) stop #5, because it is getting people riled up.
- A cycle of tension results in me getting burnt out and leaving on my own volition. Management doesn’t “know what to do!” They seem to want me to stay, but I seem stressed out and unhappy, and they’re not happy about #5 and #7 (meaning they might not want me to stay, but I’ve created too much momentum with the advocacy and good work to make firing me attractive).
- This has repeated itself a couple times, and each time with fairly predictable results. I remain very close friends with some coworkers. I always get referrals for new work. Sometimes the change I was advocating for happens, but on a different timelines.
OK, that was stressful just explaining (but kind of liberating). There’s a ton to dig into here. Before I do that, however, I want to make it clear that I’m fully aware that I’ll fall victim to a million-and-one cognitive biases when trying to unravel this. That’s just how it works. I’ll do my fickle best not to.
With that, a couple realizations that might be helpful to others:
Change agents need to remember self-care, and cultivating an identify beyond whether a particular situation goes the way you’d like it to go. It is ok to just smile and watch things unravel sometimes. Assess your needs and move on.
It is easy to assume that you’re helping a cause by becoming a spokesperson for a cause. Not always true. In organizational settings, that often isn’t the case. You’ll perpetually leave people wondering whether this is YOUR cause, or a broader cause. This can be tough, because some people need advocacy. They are not listened to otherwise. But whenever possible try to advocate for conditions that will make individual advocacy safer and more effective vs. being a spokesperson.
You have to be OK with the long game. Change takes experimentation, time, influence, empathy, experimentation, relationship building, influence building, and tons of patience. The book Crucial Conversations is a greater reminder that some people learn how to do this effectively. You can too!
Talking in back-channels does not always equate to a willingness to advocate in public. If you’re pitching something attractive (or that resonates), you’ll typically attract people with similar views. But be careful about assuming 1) their views represent the views of everyone, and 2) that their passion about talking in private necessarily equates to a desire to “go to bat” in public.
There’s little debate on continuous improvement. Rather, there’s a debate on who should own it. Few people will argue for not fixing problems. The argument is around who “owns” that fixing — front-liners, management, or senior executives. In your change efforts, you have to keep this in mind. At any given time, most orgs are straining under the tension of multiple change agendas, and a battle over who owns change.
It isn’t simply about making people “aware” of the problem. Or “being right” or “logical”. I frequently make the mistake of believing that “if only people could see the impact and see the problem” that they would respond differently. In most cases, the problem is known…it simply isn’t viewed as the most important thing to address and/or solving that problem would clash with other agendas. Also…aggressively challenge whether your version of reality is the correct version of reality (there are typically multiple cohesive versions of reality). You may be missing something important.
Be crystal clear about your own needs. At least n=1, I often get caught up in advocacy to the point of losing sight of my own needs. The reality is the companies die and fade all the time. An issue can be staring everyone in the face — from CEO to front-liner — and the org can’t get out of its own way. You can view this as fucked up, or you can view it as an unfortunate aspect of the human condition, and of complex sociotechnical systems. But don’t forget about what you want/need. Also important…if you discuss your needs, people will feel more comfortable engaging/responding vs. discussing the needs of lots of “other” people simultaneously .
Meta is hard. Advocating for continuous improvement is kind of meta. You aren’t advocating for a specific solution, or advocating to fix a specific problem. Rather, you are providing an “operating system” to tackle what people sense/perceive as the most pressing proble, and exploit the most promising opportunity. Over the years I have had an extremely difficult time communicating this. It is possible, but you need a TON of patience, and super crisp messaging. This can be challenging if you are simultaneously advocating for approaches (see #3).
Maybe you’re just bored. At least consider that option.
That’s about it for now on this topic. I’m still mulling it over myself. But hopefully by sharing this, it might spark some ideas on being a “sensitive” change agent (of sorts).