Followers Have the Critical Role in Change

Most change initiatives begin with and continue because champions, sponsors and project managers get the job done. Followers are informed, and if not enlisted, managed.

Or at least that was the popular wisdom. Now we are intrigued by the “wisdom of the crowd” as an accepted source for insight and innovation. Maybe we need followers not just for their good ideas but also for their wisdom in identifying the most implementable idea.  Too often we hear all the questions followers ask as resistance to change, when they really are only test driving the changes in their situation and trying to see how they might work.   If change champions can listen beyond these fears, they might uncover the most practical and sustainable change for everyone.

I had this aha moment last evening in a webinar to explore best practices that could become standards everyone in this particular field agrees to meet.  With fresh eyes, I reread a 2008 blog reflection on the five critical roles for change in organizations.  In the first webinar to explore two difficult change proposals, the followers sounded divided with deep reservations about these changes.  In the second webinar, the change champions flipped the order of examining these proposed changes to give more time to the change that got short shrift the  first time, and then clarified the common ground in both.  What then became more apparent is how much the followers agree about what is best for all stakeholders; most of their questions were aimed at getting enough information to be assured any substantive change will work.  

In 2008 I wrote followers “are the best source of the learning and feedback to adjust any strategies and activities to keep the change on course in the demanding world of daily operations.” Of course they are. I just needed this reminder of a simple truth.   

More than having a violent disagreement about good theory or best practices, this community is struggling with how to overcome the “demanding world of daily operations”.   In many successful change initiatives, champions secure the resources they need to make changes from sponsors.  In this particular situation, there are no obvious sponsors in a resource-strapped, regulation-constrained environment.  

It is a tougher change challenge when ultimately people must rely on themselves to play four of the five change roles to make a substantive change. Followers have to become champions. They have to generate the will and resources to sponsor a substantive challenge out of their own power and social capital. And they will need to be project managers to work through all the myriad details implementing new processes and practices. 

When these local program leaders gather this fall in a summit to develop standards they can all agree to follow, we will need to agree first on the guiding principles and desired outcomes the majority value. Then we will need to trust the followers to find a workable set of strategies to assure these outcomes. We might have to define and accept some tolerance for local approaches to the same outcome. We get into trouble in change initiatives when we confuse  implementation challenges with disagreement.   

At least if this group can come to agreement, there is one role these followers will not have to play when they go home and that is change agent.  Once the professional community agrees that a guiding principle or standard is best for the profession, this agreement can be the change agent these followers use to champion change, secure support from institutional and community sponsors, and then manage the myriad of details in project implementation.