Do You Have a MAC?
No, this isn’t another installment in the PC/MAC wars. What we want to know is whether you, the plucky change agent at work, know your Minimum Acceptable Change, that first step—or perhaps just a half-step—that you believe will put your organization on the path to progress. I was introduced to this idea just a few weeks ago at a leadership seminar for civil servants in the Federal Government.
We put considerable emphasis on the tactics Rebels at Work need to use in meetings to be successful. For example, rebels should be parsimonious in the time they take to lay out their change ideas, and generous in the time they allot to discussion. The primary purpose of the meeting is not for the rebel to hear himself talk but rather for the rebel to listen to what others have to say. And that’s why obsessing over a “perfect” presentation may not be such a good idea; less perfect presentations provide more openings through which others can contribute. The worst aspect of wonky presentations is how closed they are to other people’s suggestions. When confronted with a slide chock full of bullet points, you have a hard time justifying adding one more.
By the way, on the topic of slide decks, have you all caught the clever commercial where a “Bond villain” tortures his prisoner with a slide presentation on his plans for world domination?
But I digress.
Another excellent preparatory step you can take before you present your change ideas is to have in mind your Minimum Acceptable Change. The MAC is that action, or series of actions, that you believe moves your group in the direction of improvement, toward goodness. The MAC will be different for each organization. In a sclerotic bureaucracy, the MAC may simply be an agreement to present your idea to the next bureaucratic layer. Because often in bureaucracies, climbing the hierarchy is a type of progress.
Knowing your MAC is useful in a couple of ways. First, it forces you to be realistic in considering what type of change your organization is likely to accept. It is rare indeed for a Rebel at Work to part the waters at her first meeting. But often that’s the only contingency she’s planned for so when the audience is not blinded by her brilliance, she has no alternative to offer. With a MAC in her back pocket, the Rebel at Work has a better chance of directing the discussion toward a viable interim step. A rebel I talked to last year told me that she’s all about Tiny Pivots, one quarter-step after another that eventually add up to change
Also, having a MAC allows you to avoid unsatisfying compromises. Indeed, your Minimum Acceptable Change can be quite different from a compromise. In passive-aggressive organizations, compromise is often a type of off-ramp—a way to get the rebel off the road where he can do less harm. So, for example, the clever bureaucratic black belt in the meeting might suggest that you go talk to the Talent staff about your idea, calculating that it will be months before he’ll hear from you again. But if you’ve thought about your MAC, you might be ready instead to suggest a small change in HR practices that could test your new idea.
The MAC strategy works best when everyone can agree that “We need to do something!” Often, we can all see that the status quo is unsatisfactory, but we can’t agree on how to fix it. A MAC proposal should have several characteristics:
· The change advocate should believe it would be a useful first step.
· At least one or two individuals who oppose dramatic change should be willing to support it. (This requires some discussions and prework before the meeting.)
· It should not require significant changes in regulations or large amounts of new funding.
· Its potential impact should be apparent early on, and the Rebel at Work should have an idea for how to observe/measure it.
During my CIA career, I pushed for the Agency to embrace digital publication methods and move away from the once-a-day “newspaper” format. But that was not my MAC. My initial starting point was a database that we populated with intelligence articles as soon as they were deemed ready. A small number of individuals had access to the database, but they soon testified to its utility. An unanticipated but essential benefit of the MAC was that it revealed many of the other issues that would need resolving before we could embrace digital media.
So before your next meeting, decide for yourself what the best small step forward looks likes. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up someplace else!