Here's What Viruses Have to Do With Organizational Change banner image

Here's What Viruses Have to Do With Organizational Change

If anyone ever refers to you as a “change agent,” run. Run as fast and as far as you can.


It’s unlikely that you’ll hear the term “change agent” at a startup or at any rapidly growing organization. In both environments, change is life. Startups evolve. They can shift target industries and product makeup when seeking product/market fit. This can bring about a ton of internal discussion, debate, and change. As startups evolve and seek to uncover their next growth opportunity, similar patterns repeat. In companies like these, change is constant and inevitable.

So being a change agent at a startup isn’t needed. It is something that will occur no matter what.

Where will you find a change agent? When a large, established organization thinks it’s time to freshen things up. This can happen for many reasons: average tenure surpasses the average age of a college graduate, the staff is complacent, another department is unhappy with output, etc.

In short, the company is aging - and it feels it. It wants to be like the startups that are acquiring its market share. It wants to bring out-of-house knowledge in. It wants to do better. It’s then that a change agent is brought in.


Change agents can come to an organization through a direct hire that’s made for this purpose, through acquisition of a startup, or through consultants whose job it is to vet out inefficiencies and fix them.

As a startuper, here’s why you should be extremely wary of the change agent term if it is ever applied to you: change agents are (almost) never successful.

As my mentor Rick Mace says, an organization is like an immune system. There are many pieces that keep it functioning well, and as long as that system is at homeostasis, it’s happy. Now enter a change agent. Change is an attack. It’s a virus to the immune system. Change disrupts, knocking the system out of homeostasis.

The initial reaction of the system is to attack the virus - the change - as it has upset the balance. This fight may continue for some time, but homeostasis will be restored. That is, unless a new homeostatic point can be defined.


The only real way to bring about change in a large organization - i.e. to be a change agent - is to understand the culture and the processes of the organization as well as or better than everyone else.

If you understand these pieces, you can gradually make small changes that are almost imperceptible. They’re not changes, really, they’re just efficiencies to be gained by making small tweaks. At least that’s how you’ll sell them.

Making these small changes successfully, influencing the processes and people while being culturally sensitive along the way, will help build momentum and garner buy-in. As people adapt, they won’t perceive these new processes as changes. After all, you likely just made small process tweaks.

Continue to do this successfully and over time you’ll build a new process. Navigate this part well and eventually people desiring change will come to you. Then you’re a change agent. Warning: this may take 15 years.

Oh, and by the way. Leadership really, really needs to support your initiatives. They need to want to change. Without this support, you’re rogue. And a rogue entity attacking an immune system will almost always meet an undesirable end.

And that’s the point here.

The only way for a change agent to succeed in a larger organization is to spent a lot of time there and gain as much knowledge about its workings as possible. The agent must then approach change slowly but diligently, focusing on what can be affected while ignoring the noise created and the advocacy of some for even more change. In doing this, small changes must be taken as big wins, because these will indeed build momentum, but the next change may still take a while.

Remember, too, that the only way a change agent succeeds and thrives over the long-term is adapt a little - just like a virus. This could mean slowing way down, especially when coming from a startup, or changing your approach, or more. But a successful change agent will have to adapt, as will the organization. When both adapt, each is better off. Homeostasis is then restored, at least until the next time.


Shawn LaVana is passionate about helping marketers market better and has lead teams at high growth companies including Virgin Pulse, Postwire, and ShapeUp. Follow him on Twitter: @shawnlavana

Image via Unsplash