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Explaining the importance of change agents in an organization
A change agent is a person from inside or outside an organization who helps an organization, or part of an organization, to transform how it operates. They can be thought of as a catalyst for change, a person who can make changes happen by inspiring and influencing others. A change agent will promote, champion, enable, and support changes to be made in an organization. Change agents focus on people and the interactions between them. A change agent inspires and influences individuals to make the changes necessary for the transformation, including changes to their desires, attitudes and behaviors. A change agent can also be involved in initially influencing key individuals in an organization so that they want to make a transformation. Change agents fulfil one of the critical roles in the discipline of organizational change management (OCM), which is important to ensure the success of any business change. The terms ‘agent of change’ and ‘change advocate’ are synonymous with the term ‘change agent’. A ‘change champion’ has a similar role to a change agent. However, a change champion can be just a figurehead whereas a change agent often works ‘behind the scenes’ to achieve success. Change agents are not directly involved in the IT service management (ITSM) change management process, as this process focuses on specific changes to systems and services.
There are many roles involved in making changes within an organization, a change agent is just one of the required roles. Here are some contrasts with other key roles in OCM:
Thought leaders portray a vision of what the future could look like, which is also an activity undertaken by change agents. The principle difference between a thought leader and a change agent, is that a thought leader will inspire others with their ideas but not necessarily follow through with actions to turn the ideas into reality. A change agent also has a role to play in inspiring others, but then will continually influence and persuade others to take the ideas forward. If necessary, a change agent will change their approach, even modifying the idea to overcome resistance and maintain progress towards the transformational goal.
A line manager has direct control over the individuals who work for them. Whilst they have an important role to play in acting as agents to make changes happen, they typically achieve this using command and control approaches such as assigning tasks to their staff and setting targets for achievement. Change agents typically do not have line management authority over individuals, and use persuasive techniques to influence the required changes in attitudes, behavior, and culture. These techniques used by change agents are often more successful in transformational changes than the command and control techniques typically used by line management, as they change the hearts and minds of individuals to support the change.
The OCM lead role is responsible for the success of the full OCM process. This is a management role, with ownership of the OCM process, and other OCM roles reporting into them. The change agents for the transformation will report into the OCM lead. The OCM lead will set the strategy for organizational change management, which the change agents would then follow. Change agents can exist in isolation in an organization without a formal OCM approach and hence without any OCM lead.
OCM practitioners execute the OCM strategy as set by the OCM lead. A change agent can be one be an OCM practitioner, working principally on change agent activities. Other OCM practitioners may act as supporting agents of change, but their activities are likely to be primarily focused in other areas such as education and stakeholder management.
Having an OCM sponsor is key to successful change. This role should be actively involved with the transformation, regularly communicating positive messages about it, gaining feedback, and ensuring understanding. This is also true of a change agent, and in some ways, an OCM sponsor is also acting as one of the agents of change. The roles can sometimes be combined, however, an OCM sponsor is often held by a senior figure in the affected organization, whereas a change agent does not require that level of authority. Combining the roles of change agent and OCM sponsor can be problematic, as individuals might to the outside seem compliant to the changes because of the level of authority of the change agent/OCM sponsor, whilst in reality, they are resistant to the changes.
Agents of change can help to reduce resistance to change by those affected by it and involved with it. A change agent takes a particular role within a transformational initiative by acting as a support of the change, and a trusted conduit between leadership and the rest of the organization. A good change agent will help to ‘sell’ the idea to them for why the transformational change is required. Getting buy-in to what is wrong with the current situation, and painting the vision of what the future following the change could look like, are the first two critical stages of any transformation where the use of change agents is vital. In any project, there will always be some people who don’t agree with the need for change, but the transformation will be difficult to achieve and sustain unless a significant majority support the change.
Engaging change agents early in any transformation is essential, as they can help to avoid and address any issues well before they affect implementation. Use of change agents can create a ‘snowball’ effect: as a change agent successfully influences an individual to support the transformation, that individual can in turn help to influence their colleagues, effectively acting as a change agent themselves. This can rapidly increase the number of people acting as agents for change, helping to ensure the success of the transformation. Good leaders can also be change agents, but the best leaders also inspire, encourage and empower others to be change agents, thereby building a culture of leadership and learning. As an example of this in practice, consider the rapid growth and spread of the world’s major religions. Each religion started with one leader that was also a change agent, successfully inspiring and influencing a small number of others to support their particular transformational objectives by becoming change agents themselves. They then influenced more individuals, who themselves became change agents, and so on.
The activities performed by a change agent can be very varied. A change agent needs to perform whatever activities they believe can help to deliver the required outcome of getting people aligned with the change. These should align with the personalities and drivers of the individuals that need to be inspired and influenced, and can change according to many factors including what’s happening with the individual outside of the work environment, what’s just happened to them in the work environment, and what’s happening with their colleagues. A good change agent has to realize that every individual is different, take the time to understand their needs, desires, and drivers, and tailor their change agent activities to suit. Activities undertaken by change agents can, however, be placed into these high-level topics:
Visibly and actively communicating why the transformation is a good idea for both the organization and individuals
Enthusing about and supporting the transformation
Actively engaging with individuals
Listening to others, gaining and acting on feedback
Understanding how different people may react and developing appropriate approaches
Dealing with specific individuals who don’t seem supportive
Encouraging and supporting others
Answering questions about the transformation
Identifying and leading other change agents
Providing feedback and reporting issues to the OCM lead
The responsibilities of a change agent are closely related to the activities that they need to carry out. It is important to ensure that a change agent has sufficient capacity to enable them to carry out their role. Expecting change agents to also have responsibilities associated with other roles, either within the transformation or as part of the normal running of the business, can give challenges when prioritizing change agent related activities. It can be difficult to estimate the time and effort required for fulfilling the responsibilities of a change agent. This is because of the need for change agents to interact with and influence people, each of whom will have different views and opinions, requiring different approaches and effort. Change agents should be allocated general responsibilities related to their role, focusing on the desired outcomes. While it is important for transformation management to be kept apprised of a change agent’s activities and progress, the associated reporting is a lesser responsibility than ensuring that the individuals in the scope of the change agents influence actively embrace the changes necessary for successful transformation. Typical responsibilities of a change agent include:
Understanding the needs of the staff in their scope of responsibility
Understanding the aims of the transformation
Understanding how their area of the business operates and contributes to the overall organization
Explaining the reason for the transformation and the expected benefits
Visibly advocating the changes required for the transformation
Determining appropriate influencing strategies
Influencing and persuading staff in the change agents’ scope of responsibility
Identifying and coaching new change agents
Liaising with other change agents
Anticipating and dealing with areas of potential dispute or disruption
Obtaining feedback to share with leadership and management
Advising stakeholders and impacted individuals
Acting as a mediator
Reporting on progress and issues
Change agents need to use a variety of techniques from organizational change management. These alone will not give any guarantee of success, as a change agent’s personality, common sense, skills and experience are more important than mechanically using techniques. A good change agent will have developed experience using several of these, and use them in combination to suit particular circumstances. Useful techniques for change agents include:
Transactional analysis is one of the most important techniques that a change agent can use. This is because success in being a change agent requires a full understanding of human behaviors, and why people say and do things. The technique is derived from a combination of concepts from psychology and psychotherapy. It can be used by change agents to help to understand the mental perspective of both themselves and another person, and is especially useful when negotiating. Transactional analysis has been used successfully by change agents for many years in a wide variety of situations. It uses a concept that there are four life positions that a person can hold in any conversation or exchange. Each position determines how an individual behaves and responds. A change agent needs to understand what each position is, and be able to determine, using language and body language, which one they and the other person are taking at any time. Positions will change during most exchanges, and should be analyzed from the perspective of both the change agent and the other person in the exchange so that the change agent can take the most appropriate approach. Sometimes the positions are mapped to adult and child relationships.
Stakeholder analysis is a project management technique that analyzes and categorizes all types of stakeholder involved in or likely to be affected by the transformation. A change agent can use the analysis to assess how they can ensure that they address the interests of the stakeholders, keeping them on-board with the transformation and avoiding any disruption by them. The change agent or another OCM practitioner should create a matrix of all stakeholders, and assess and record their expected attitudes to the transformation. Stakeholder analysis should be done early in the transformation, but may need to be regularly reviewed and updated as stakeholder attitudes can change over time. A change agent needs to know the different stakeholder attitudes so that they can appropriately tailor their approach to them. Change agents need to be able to identify what are known as ‘silent assassins’. These are stakeholders that publicly seem to support the transformation, but in fact do anything they can to disrupt what the change agent is trying to do.
MoSCoW analysis is a prioritization technique that change agents can use to gain common understanding with stakeholders on the importance they place on the delivery of each requirement. The term MoSCoW is an acronym derived from the first letter of each of four prioritization categories (Must have, Should have, Could have, and Won't have). The change owner should build a matrix with these categories on one access and each stakeholder on the other axis. There will be multiple matrices, one for each requirement identified in the transformation strategy. A change agent should use the output from a MoSCoW analysis to tailor their influencing strategy for different stakeholders, giving priority to anything marked as a Must have.
A change agent must be able to construct a persuasive argument to help influence and convince people about the need for and benefits of a transformation and the associated activities required to deliver it. The precise construct used by the change agent will vary according to the activities and the person that needs to be persuaded. Some techniques can be usefully deployed by a change agent:
Presentations are a useful way for a change agent to get ideas across. However, they must be succinct, and the change agent must ensure that the content is relevant to the audience. Change agents should use presentations to complement the other tools and techniques. Using presentations alone is unlikely to be a successful approach for any change agent.
Influencing is a two-way approach. As well as providing information, a change agent must be a good listener. This includes what is known as ‘active listening’, where the body language and words used by the change agent make it clear to the other person that the change agent is not just listening to what someone else is saying but is also understanding and considering the contents. A change agent must also mentally record the conversation, supported by notes, but use listening skills supported by visual signals to understand the true meaning of what is being said. People who are affected by a transformation often say one thing to a change agent but mean something different.
WIIFM stands for ‘What’s in it for me?’. This is one of the most valuable techniques for any change agent. The idea is that the change agent thinks from the perspective of the person that they want to influence. The change agent has to think about what the effect of the transformation will be on that particular person, including positive and negative effects. To do this the change agent has to consider the personality, needs, and role of the person as well as what tangible effect the transformation will have on them. The change agent must be able to answer the question ‘What’s in it for me?’ before they develop their influencing approach as if the person had asked them directly. This technique helps to prepare a strategy and approach that is more likely to lead to success than adopting the same method for everybody. As well as using it during preparation, a change agent can also use it during one-to-one conversations to formulate appropriate answers to questions.
All good change agents have the following personal characteristics, qualities, and skills:
Enthusiastic and passionate
Leads by example
Easy to get on with
Patient but persistent
Good at getting ideas over
Well respected by those who know them
People that identify with these are likely to make good change agents but may require training on influencing, persuading, and negotiating skills.
It is important to recognize that, good change agents are born, not made. In some organizations, senior managers are expected to be change agents but, unless they have the appropriate personal qualities required of a change agent, they are unlikely to be effective. Senior managers can also struggle to relinquish the command and control nature of their management role and instead use the influence and persuasion approaches associated with good change agents. The activities to implement any transformation will take place at a local level, hence success is more likely if there are change agents at every level. Staff should be identified in each area who have the right mix of skills, knowledge, and respect from their colleagues to be used as change agents in their area of the organization. Stakeholder analysis can be useful to help with this identification. It is good practice to use a network of change agents, identifying one or more in each area of the business. Change agents in the network should come from various positions within the organization, their precise role in the organization’s management hierarchy is not important provided that each change agent is well-respected by the individuals in the area of the organization that they are expected to influence. Each change agent should also understand their area of the business and where it fits in the organization, and have strong working relationships with their colleagues.
Change agents can be existing staff in an organization (internal), or brought in from outside (external). In organizations that have no staff with the skills and experience required to be a change agent, then using an external change agent is often the only option. If this approach is used, it is important to assign someone internal to learn from the external change agent so that they themselves can become a change agent. Long term it is more beneficial for change agents to be internal. Internal change agents can be more effective, as they will have in-depth knowledge about the organization and its people, and have the time to build long lasting and trusted relationships with staff. Internal change agents are also always available for use within the organization, whereas with external change agents there is always a lead time to procure and onboard them. There is a risk when using external change agents that the organizations own staff will see the change agents as a threat and unconnected with the organization. External change agents are unlikely to be there to deal with any issues that arise after the transformation has completed. Many transformations take a year or more to complete, the costs of employing external change agents for long periods can be expensive.
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