How good is it when you find a new ‘go to’ blog? Recently I stumbled onto “Once more unto the change’ (aka ‘Bring out your dead!). It’s the work of Joe Gergen. Joe’s based in the US and has worked in process re-engineering for fifteen years. I’m really loving it — it’s a great combination of humanity, humility, learning and change.  I think the tricky thing for many of us who blog on business topics is mastering voice and writing style. Joe’s got that one in the bag — mainly because he *is* a writer. If you have time make your way over to his other non-business blog “Fortress of Dissolitude”

Anyway I asked Joe if he’d mind if I re-posted one of his pieces and the original is here, I’m pleased he said yes and said I could use this one. It was developed in collaboration with Megan O’Neal. Enjoy!


Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a change agent?

The Secret in Secret Change Agent

Is a change agent a job or is it a role? Do we approach change management as a project or is a project endowed with change management?

A true secret change agent has a secret mission.  Except that it’s not a secret.  Anyone can manage a project that will change the organization.  The change may be as small as verbiage on a letter template or as sweeping as shutting down a department.  But without a secret mission, it’s just another disruption to the team members. The role of a secret change agent is to transform every project into something greater by becoming part of the team, by building trust with them so you can promote change from the inside. You are doing the project with them, not to them.

So what is your mission, should you choose to accept it?   

The key difference between a Secret Change Agent and your run-of-the-mill process engineer is the mission.  And the mission is to change the culture.  It doesn’t need to start as radical change – we’re not talking “smash the state” kind of culture change.  Think of it more along the lines of “gradual enlightenment”.   With every problem identified, the organization has an opportunity to grow.   Our reflex may be to slap a band-aid on the problem and desperately hope the blemish never shows its ugly face again.  But the opportunity presented is one of learning.  It’s not just about solving the problem, but rather about furthering a problem-solving culture.

I love it when a plan comes together

Every secret mission needs a good plan. Your job is to look at the project and the secret mission and figure out what lessons can be learned about problem-solving. It could be one simple process method. It could be a set of tools to use. It could be feedback loops. You could even be planting seeds for future learning. And as always assess the current capabilities and understanding of the team members. Your job is to set them up to succeed in the learning because that feels good, creates a sense of achievement that they’ll want to repeat.

So bring the people in 

By involving the people who live the problem, hopefully the people who identified the problem in the first place, you are taking the first step toward an inclusive learning culture.  People are always sensitive about projects and change so it’s your job to bring the right attitude. It’s your job to guide them not drag them. Take time to understand both the people and the process. Then make an effort to let them know you understand. They’ll appreciate that and you’ll build the trust necessary to move farther and farther ahead.


So what did you think? Enjoy it? Looks like I’ll need to update the 15 Change Management Blogs to follow …


Dr Jen Frahm – Author of Conversations of Change: A guide to implementing workplace change.


  1. Jay says:

    This was a great post, with fantastic ideas. I have a couple of questions…
    1. In my industry, change happens frequently and quickly, so it has become part of the culture of the industry and our company. On a daily basis, change management is quite simple. However, a few key managers were recently brought into the “inner-circle” on a major secret that will put the company on the leading edge of what will most likely begin happening industry wide – however, if the timetable we were given holds true, the organization I’m with will most likely be a few years ahead of the trend. This “secret change” is innovative, makes strategic sense, and very bold. Once it is announced, there will naturally be a lot of uncertainty not only within the walls of our organization, but industry wide… there will be a lot of people who will wonder whether the company will survive. This “change”, if it happens according to plan, will happen in a little over a year from now, and will have to be confidential, even to a bulk of the staff, for another eight months, due to contractual obligations, confidentiality agreements, as well as various competitive reasons. No matter how you slice it, this is going to catch a lot of people off guard and will, almost instantly, catapult the company into a new age, requiring a very different way of thinking. So how do you manage “secret change”, especially in a company that has traditionally not kept secrets from the staff of about 500?

    2. What are your thoughts on designating a change agent from inside the organization? Can someone who is already part of the culture and “family” be objective enough to reach an unbiased diagnosis of organizational problems? My thought is there will automatically be some built-in bias, and based on the types of change the organization faces in a few months, an independent agent would be more effective.

  2. mm Jen says:

    Hi Jay — that’s definitely going to e a tricky one for you, but not unprecedented. The nature of IR and public trading legislation means that many companies have to violate the culture of transparency when it comes to major transformation.

    The good thing is you have a company of 500, not 40,000 which will permit an immediate “roadshow” – where the leadership have frank and authentic conversations with the employees about the rationale for the change, the rationale for the secrecy and implications of the announcement.

    The best line that managers can be equipped with in response to queries about rumours is “I understand where that rumour would come from, confidentiality agreements mean I can’t discuss until “x” date”. It’s a bit weak, but better than refuting or avoiding the discussions. In the meantime line managers can help teams with uncertainity by actively taking them through scenarios — it takes the potency out of the wondering ‘what if?’

    One of the bigger issues though is the cultural shift required — this has the potential to be very difficult with the employees as it seems like it is a quantum shift for them. Cultures are not changed over night, they typically take 4-5 years assuming all the current staff stay.

    With regards to the internal v external. You are correct in that there are risks. The benefits of an internal change agent is deep expertise and usually high trust. The downside is they are already captured by the old way, and have many relationships at risk. And external can ask the questions that the company forgot many years ago, and has less to lose with ongoing relationships if unpopular decisions are made. It’s a great opportunity for the internal though — so perhaps partnering with an external consultant as mentor?

    Good luck!

  3. Joe Gergen says:

    Hello Jay,

    A very intriguing scenario. I have a couple thoughts on how you could approach this. Since it sounds like you are in the inner circle and actually know what the changes will be, you have some opportunity to take advantage of that.

    I would start by assessing this change and trying to specifically identify the top types of behavioral change that may be required. For example, this process will no longer be available and we’ll have to accommodate this new one. What does that mean not just from a process change but from an attitude change or an expectation change? Or perhaps it might affect incentives. What motivators will change? Or perhaps it will affect how people work together. Will they work more together or less?

    So now you have a list of behavioral changes you need to prepare for. Jen is right on when she says cultural and behavioral change can take years. I also think her idea about an external change agent or mentor is a great idea.

    So since you can’t change the culture fast enough the thing to do might be at least to start putting in place a structure to help it along and be there when the quantum shift occurs.

    Since you can’t talk about the change I would look at bringing in a change agent/mentor and tell them here are the 5 types of behavioral change we want to prepare for as well as just improving our overall change capabilities. Hook mentor up with an internal leader leader and create an action plan.

    Again, since you can’t talk about the impending change you position your activities as organizational development to make the company more agile and nimble, which is a great thing to do no matter what change is coming,

    Doesn’t sound like you have much time, so ready, set, go. And good luck.


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