The Agilist Network

Tales and Tips from Agile Software Projects

Change Agent – Brubaker Style

Posted by kenhoward on February 14, 2008

In a fictionalized account of the 1960’s Arkansas prison scandal, the 1980 film Brubraker depicted Robert Redford as a mole prisoner. In the film, Brubaker was imprisoned and subjected to abuse and corruption that had become de facto at the prison. After witnessing and experiencing the many problems at the prison, Brubaker eventually reveals himself as the new warden. His first hand experience with the problems at the prison provided Brubraker with insight to fix the problems that could have been impossible to discover if had taken over the prison more conventionally.

Around 15 years ago I was working on a large software development project at a major insurance company. A new employee named Bill was brought onto the team. We didn’t know much about his background, but he was hard working, productive and he seemed to study everything and everyone around him with great interest. We would learn later that he had recently retired from a distinguished career as a military officer and leader. On the day it was announced that he was promoted to Vice President of our 250 person project, it was evident that this had been the plan all along. Bill had the enviable opportunity to lead an organization that he understood from the inside out. This is very different from the typical “promote from within” strategy, where the new boss has a history of relationships, biases, and un-repaid favors that could constrain his leadership effectiveness.

In my career as a consultant, I’ve had many opportunities to perform as an invited change agent. In those situations, I was often challenged with discovering deficiencies that were well hidden by those who felt threatened by me. I’ve also worked in organizations where I was a member of a dysfunctional team in a dysfunctional organization. A decent change agent ought to still be able to implement change in that situation, but macro-level change from within the organization is very time consuming, frustrating, and often impossible. What a tremendous opportunity it would be to quietly study an organization from within, then step forward to not only recommend needed improvements to the organization, but to take responsibility and full accountability for making those changes happen.


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