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Where do you fit on the 'amoeba map'?

amoeba
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This is an excerpt from the book "Parachuting Cats into Borneo: And Other Lessons from the Change Café."

We have some good news and some bad news. 

Let’s take the bad news first. When you approach a change process, you can be sure that some people are going to be less helpful to you than others.

Some will want to slow you down. Some won’t care. Some might believe that change is too difficult, or even impossible, and not worth the effort. And of course, some people might actively oppose you. They might work hard — visibly or behind the scenes — to try to make your initiative fail. 

It’s best not to ignore these uncomfortable facts. 

But here’s the good news, and it has two parts. First, social systems usually balance themselves out to stay stable. So if you find people who are likely to be against your change initiative, then you’re also likely to find people who are for it, and who might even have waited for quite some time to have a chance to be involved in such a process. (These people are usually great fun to work with!) 

The second part of the good news is that there is a model for thinking about change that can help you prepare for these dynamics, and it also offers some possibilities for dealing with them. This model can also help you plan your approach so you maximize the chances for success, and minimize the amount of time and energy you might otherwise waste by working with the wrong people, in the wrong way. 

We call this model "Amoeba."

The Amoeba model was developed by Alan [AtKisson] many years ago, and you can read about it in detail in his books "Believing Cassandra" and "The Sustainability Transformation." The model has a number of parts, including a simulation role-playing game that we use to train change agents. But in this chapter we’re just going to give you a short, simple introduction, so that you can start using this model immediately to map your social environment. 

Why "Amoeba"? Because the model takes the single-celled creature called amoeba as its metaphor. The model imagines organizations, groups, networks and whole cultures of people as Amoebas that take in new ideas from their surrounding environment, like food. 

Within each Amoeba, there are different people playing different roles, and those roles might change in relation to any new idea or change that comes into their system. They might promote the change, and help it to spread further. They might passively observe the change, only participating in it or adopting it themselves when others around them are doing so (or when they’re given no choice). They might actively oppose the idea, or even see it as threatening.

For a change agent, understanding the Amoeba can be very empowering. Once you can visualize these relationships, you can make conscious choices about how to approach them. You are less likely to be surprised, and more likely to be strategic. 

Above, you’ll see a small Amoeba "map." This is a general map of the roles in the Amoeba model. Once you understand these roles, you can make your own map, noting the specific people or functions or departments or cultural roles that you expect will be playing different roles in your Amoeba. Then you can plan your strategy accordingly. 

One note of caution: the Amoeba map is never a fixed thing. People change. They might like your idea one day and dislike it the next. They might start off working against you but later have a change of heart and start trying to help you. Use the Amoeba map wisely, to help you get oriented and to get started, and to help you navigate your way through the social environment. But as always, be prepared for unexpected changes, as well as surprises: people sometimes end up in roles you don’t expect. The map, as they say, is not the territory.

Now let’s take a look at each role in turn.

Innovators

Innovators are the ones who first identify the specific idea to introduce, or the change that should occur: the innovation.

Are you an Innovator? Do you invent — or just get very excited about — new tools, methods, projects or processes? If so, you might have a harder time promoting them effectively.

Innovators typically are very attached to the ideas they champion. They are "in love" with the ideas, and often they are less flexible about how things should be communicated and implemented. To use sales language, they tend to focus on the features and forget to tell people about the benefits. And they often have a difficult time thinking strategically about how to introduce the change they seek and steer it toward success.

Change agents

Change Agents are just the opposite. They understand new ideas and feel strongly about promoting them. But they also understand people, communication and strategies for change.

If you are reading this book [excerpt], you probably are (or aspire to be) a Change Agent in many ways. This means you are (or aspire to be) flexible and thoughtful about how you go about introducing change, helping people understand the benefits and seeing the process of adoption and implementation through to completion. 

Note: Some Innovators can be good Change Agents, too, but it requires a great deal of self-knowledge and discipline to move from one role to the other. Change Agents have to learn to see the change through other people’s eyes, and adjust their communications accordingly.

Transformers

Sometimes known as "opinion leaders," "gatekeepers" or "early adopters." They hold a position of respect or authority within the social environment, though they may not be at the top of the power hierarchy. If they endorse and adopt an idea, others will follow their lead. They understand that introducing new ideas and change processes often brings bigger change than anticipated — even transformation. They also value their role in the Amoeba. So they are careful about what they endorse.

Here’s the first key strategic tip: Change Agents need to find Transformers and convince them to endorse the change.

Mainstreamers

Mainstreamers follow the Transformers’ lead, as well as each other. They "go with the flow." If you are a Change Agent, talking with a Mainstreamer can be frustrating: they might appear vaguely interested, but they tend not to commit unless they see others around them doing the same.

amoeba map

Reactionaries

Reactionaries oppose the change: they "react" strongly against it.

There can be different reasons for their opposition: Maybe they truly believe the change is a bad idea that will hurt the organization (or social environment generally). Or maybe they have something to lose if the change succeeds. They might be principled opponents, with good intentions, but they might also be clever, underhanded foes who will use any means at their disposal to stop your idea in its tracks. 

Here’s the second strategic tip: Change Agents need to avoid Reactionaries, at least at the beginning of a change process, and make a plan for how they are going to deal with the inevitable opposition and resistance that Reactionaries put up. 

Activists

The critics and protesters. To describe the Activists, we sometimes use the word "iconoclast," which means someone who "breaks the icons" or challenges the prevailing beliefs. Activists call attention to the problems and criticize the people whom they see as creating the problems. Typical examples are nongovernmental organizations such as Greenpeace or journalists who point fingers at what’s wrong. 

A third tip: Activists can help Change Agents by criticizing the Reactionaries and keeping them busy. But Activists can sometimes point their critical fingers at the Change Agents, too, if they think the proposed change doesn’t go far enough in addressing the problems they see.

These are the key "active" roles in the Amoeba. Then there are a few special roles as well:

Curmudgeons

The committed pessimists and complainers. They don’t believe the change will succeed — or even if it succeeds, it will not make anything fundamentally better.

The secret to Curmudgeons is that most of them were once Innovators or Change Agents who did not succeed. Sometimes you can "rehabilitate" them and turn them into Change Agents again, but often they will simply drain the energy from a change process.

Laggards

Laggards are people who simply like things the way they are. They are reluctant to adopt a change or a new idea, because they are comfortable with what they already know. You can think of them as very slow Mainstreamers. They will change eventually, but trying to convince them to change is like pushing on a big rock.

Recluses 

Recluses simply hold themselves out of the process. They have other interests and priorities. They might be very wise — think of researchers or spiritual leaders — but they tend not to get involved in the messy business of trying to implement change. If you can get them engaged, they can sometimes be very helpful. But they are also a little unpredictable.

Controllers

Last but not least are the Controllers. They are the DNA of the Amoeba, the people who make the ultimate decisions about what will happen inside it. In an organization they might be the CEO or the board of directors. Controllers can certainly help a change process to accelerate. But they can also stop it dead if they see risks, costs or other impacts that they don’t like. 

One more tip to Change Agents: If the change you are trying to make doesn’t originate with the Controllers (which is most often the case), it is usually better to stay out of their sight for a while — at least until you have built up some momentum with the Transformers. Then if the Controllers need to be informed, let the Transformers introduce the idea to them. Going to the Controllers as a Change Agent before you’re really ready is often a big risk to the success of your initiative.

That’s the Amoeba in a nutshell. So how should you use it? 

First, draw yourself a little amoeba outline.

Then think about the change that you’re promoting. Start making a map: write down names, and draw arrows to show which role, in your Amoeba, different people (or functions or departments) are likely to play. 

As you build your Amoeba Map, ask yourself these questions:

  • As someone involved in initiating this change process, are you a Change Agent? Or are you an Innovator? 
  • If you’re an Innovator, do you have the skill and discipline to play the Change Agent role? (Note that the Change Agent role often requires making improvements, compromises or other adjustments to the original idea or change process, to get the endorsement of the Transformers.)
  • Who are the Transformers, and what will convince them to endorse your idea or change program?
  • Who are the Reactionaries, and how are they likely to oppose you? What can you do to reduce their impact? (Note that trying to "convert" a Reactionary is often a risky strategy. You might be able to do it, but you might also simply alert the Reactionary to your plans.)

For each role in the Amoeba, make a little plan for how to communicate with them, or how to avoid them. 

The Amoeba model was first invented in 1990. Since then, it has traveled far and wide and been translated into many languages. While of course there are differences in how different cultures express these things — whether we’re talking about national cultures, community cultures or organizational cultures — the basic roles seem to be universal. 

We believe that reflecting on your social environment in this way can strongly improve your chances for success. It has certainly helped us, as well as many other people, to be more strategic in how we plan our change processes.

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