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The Role of Change Agents in Change Management

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All too often, change management is thought of as a few communications to announce a change, and the accompanying training to selected end users.  This is not what change management is about.  While communications and training are critical parts of change management, the organization’s ability to create behavioral change in the group of end users is not secured by a few communications and training sessions that don’t have measurable impact on attitude and behavior.

The role of the change agent is simple: to be a leader and role model for change.  McKinsey states it this way:

Change agents are leaders who cut across the organization and its business units without regard to the traditional hierarchy. Often these men and women are freed from day-to-day tasks in order to focus solely on leading and driving change. Directly or indirectly, they implement new processes, train employees on new procedures, and act as role models to demonstrate new and better ways to work. For example, change agents might spend more than 50 percent of their time visiting areas undergoing change, auditing progress, or advising managers on how to improve performance.  ((Arrata, Philippe, Despierre, Arnaud and Kumra, Gautam.  2007.  “Building an effective change agent team.”  McKinsey Quarterly, 2007, Number 4.))

I’m sure there are many philosophies to identifying change agents, but I like McKinsey’s:

Identify credible candidates

A useful litmus test when considering possible change agents is to anticipate the reaction from other staff members when an appointment to the new position is announced. Selecting high-performing people who are already well respected within the company sends a clear signal that management takes the program seriously. Moreover, a credible set of team members will be better able to drive change and implement recommendations.  ((Ibid))

Change agents usually need to come from the end user community.  It’s hard for end users to trust someone they don’t know who is outside their organization.  Therefore, a well respected and senior person within the end user community is usually a good bet.

Develop a compelling case for team members

Potential change agents need to understand the explicit benefits and career opportunities that will be open to them as a result of joining the change effort. The best employees often hesitate to take an assignment that may last only 18 months—which is usually the minimum amount of time required for a transformation—fearing that it will damage their careers in the long run.  ((Ibid))

Once the change agents are selected, it’s equally important that you have their full buy-in.  Change agents can destroy adoption as much as they can build it.  Having a change agent who isn’t completely on board can domino their doubts into all the other end users.  There will absolutely be some challenges, but your change agents need to be willing to put up a good front to everyone else and come to the project team with the concerns, collaborating about the right answer before bringing it back to the end user population.

As the authors say, “change leaders discover that an “80 percent right” solution embraced and implemented by line managers beats the “100 percent right” solution that fails to win their acceptance. This buy-in rate is a critical indicator of success for a change program.”

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2 responses to “The Role of Change Agents in Change Management”

  1. Rob Robson Avatar

    Change agents are clearly important in Change Management. However, I would question a couple of the points made here, and also raise another.

    First, my view would be that change agents come from anywhere. Change is too often viewed as a ‘top-down’ approach. The most effective change agents may be those people who ‘buy in’ to the change and take it upon themselves to champion it.

    Second, and related. The notion that change agents should be “selected” is also very top-down. Indeed, why select people that have not already bought into the change?

    My third point is a qualification on my second. Don’t just go for the people that get really excited about the change. This sort of person is unlikely to see it through, rather they will jump on the next “exciting” change that comes along. These people, who are often the early adopters, are also not necessarily respected enough by people in the business and are often seen as being slightly “off-beat”. Choose people who are prepared to ask “what’s the benefit of doing this?” but that do buy in to the answer. The majority of employees are more likely to take this group as a point of reference.

  2. Mark Wilcox Avatar

    I think the comments are valid. If you think about influence in organizations it comes from many sources, and the natural leaders ( informal influencers) have a role to play. They are not always easy to get involved, but when you do, in my experience they are great doers. Having credible change agents is really important, and credibility comes from either clear expertise that is relevant, or the respect that the person holds in the community, constituency that the change is taking place in. Finding and engaging these people is a route to success in execution of change.