[Updated: Sep 30, 2019]
Change agents have to be fearless!
When change management first came about, especially in the Malaysian context in the early to mid 1990s, part of the checklist of getting the change agenda off successfully would include enlisting opinion leaders and positive influencers to become “Change Agents”.
To soften the connotation of the word “agent” which tends to have a bit of a “James Bond” spin on it, the role would also have other names such as Change Champion, Change Ambassadors, Change Leaders, “Juara” , etc.
Either way, there are several characteristics that cut across these chosen ones:
They are handpicked by the management
They cut across the hierarchy and geographical spread of the organisation
They are willing to take on the change related tasks such as cascading communications and supporting the change programme needs in general
Change agents are only human
The effectiveness of Change Agents will depend on why they are needed in the first place. Just because change management methodology stipulates that having a change agent network increases the chance of successful change it does not mean that in practical terms this would be the way to go.
A change agent network is something you build within your organisation as a means to enhance clarity through communication and it is a machinery that should be used for change related messages as well as non-change related messages. In essence having a sustainable network for involving, engaging and cascading should be the focus. Then, look at the content that is being poured in and pulled out from it.
So, the effectiveness of a Change Agent really depends on the infrastructure they fit into in order to undertake their roles. If it’s done as a one off exercise with the usual grand launch and fanfare, it’s more difficult to sustain.
This is not wrong, but such things should be done in consideration of the cultural context of the organisation:
For an organisation which is characterised by its Asian values, collectivism matters more than individualism; selecting a few to be the agents of change and glorifying them before anything is achieved may risk alienating them from the rest of the organisation.
Another Asian value which is the inherent respect for authority, means position power may get in the way of these Change Agents and subsequently undermine their role.
Additionally, with respect to the fanfare and big launches, it is better to under-promise and over-deliver, rather than over-promise and under-deliver.
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Building a meaningful change agent network
Take the most natural or organic way that this would happen in your organisation. For example, if you are faced with a change implementation and you know you will need the help of others to build momentum and deliver on the expected outcome, think back on the last time this happened in your organisation. How did people organise for this change, before the change management textbooks arrived?
Generally, the implementation of a change will start with a few leaders who are within the functional domain and they will pull in their inner circle. From there, more and more team members will be pulled in and by this stage there usually is a plan and structure to the change project.
The best way to enlist Change Agents is on a voluntary basis starting with those who truly believe in the business merits of the proposed change. Never mind if the numbers are not there, it is better to focus on quality of outcomes and work with genuine support.
Appoint someone to be the sounding board or coach to this group of “pioneer” Change Agents and let them decide how they ought to expand given the scope of work that they believe needs to be covered. If you set up the Change Agent community as a self-directed work team with the mandate of supporting the users through the change, it’s a good start.
Suggested reading: A Positive Force For Change
Eight useful tips for change agents
Given that the change agents need to wear different hats and sometimes the expectation can be really broad – one minute being able to work with others to help them through process maps and the next instance to stand in front of a town-hall meeting of people and sell the virtues of the change project.
It’s really a big task and it’s tough for these change agents. The trick to effectiveness is to increase one’s versatility or understand one’s shortcomings so that as a change agent you can leverage on your fellow change agents to help deliver some of the tasks that need to be done. In addition to this some tips to bear in mind:
1. Information and data overload is your friend not foe
Accept that you will be lost in most of the initial meetings and allow your mind to just absorb new information. Just like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle, you will get to a certain point where you see the bigger picture and everything will fall into place nicely.
2. Be curious and network
You will have access to new people (other teams, vendors, access to different levels of management, etc) and where previously in your operational role hierarchy or expertise mattered, now the expectation is not as great on a Change Agent who is seen as a facilitator of change. So take advantage of the situation – if you are persistent there is no reason anyone should be reluctant to help.
3. Be a learning person yourself
Influencing others to learn new things and embrace new ways is best achieved through role modeling. Change Agents have to be in love with learning, and constantly learning new things themselves. Then they will find new ways to communicate those things to their target audience in everyday language (work situations) and not the language of “finance”, “technology”, and “process”. Treat everyday as a classroom ad if you’re lost – don’t be shy to ask for help.
4. Document your own learning
Given that this is a new role and you will be learning new things, the best way to keep track of your “ah-ha” moments or pitfalls, is to jot them down. Especially with regard to the connections you start to make in terms of the change project, the ideas you may have, and the people related issues that catch you off-guard. For example, Mr A is a useful resource, but he is retiring in eight months – he is keen to help in an informal way but is reluctant to be visibly associated with the project. If you document this nugget of information, chances are you’ll remember it when you need it.
5. No fear!
You’ve got to be fearless and not worry about keeping your job. Chances are something better is waiting for you if you are genuinely passionate about driving the change – people will notice your efforts. Given the accelerated pace of change in the workplace today, the skills you would have gained will be highly-valued.
6. Laugh when it hurts
The tasks that need to be done are not always glamorous – in fact at times it can be very discouraging work. You need a good sense of humour. It also helps when you have a group of change agents that are supportive so that you can get together and let off some steam as a group.
7. Know the business before you try to change anything
You can’t be an effective change agent if you are too theoretical and stay disconnected to business realities. Respect business pressures and work around them.
8. Finish what you start
Many change projects (especially the long haul ones) lose momentum along the way. Most of the time this is due to key team members leaving. Try not to add to this statistic. Being able to play the role of a Change Agent, especially in a large scale change is an opportunity not to be missed; it will put you through the grind but you will certainly come out of it with a better perspective and a renewed sense of professional confidence.
Former Big Four management consultant, Rupa strives to add business value through simplification of thoughts and actions, when it comes to planning and managing workplace change. To engage her for the benefit of your organisation, email firstname.lastname@example.org.