To answer this question, we first need to explore what it is that change agents do!
Increasingly organisations must adapt to survive, let alone thrive, which requires engaged leadership and effective change management. However, there are limits to what a change manager can achieve on their own. Larger organisations establish change agent networks to help roll out change across multiple departments and teams.
What is a change agent?
Sometimes called champions, fundamentally the role of change agent entails networking. Networking between those leading and managing an organizational change with middle managers, and those who will have to adopt the change (often referred to as targets). Generally, there are 2 different categories of change agent. Those recruited or seconded internally for their localised, even technical knowledge, and their existing relationships with colleagues; and external change agents brought in for their specialised change expertise. If the change is vital to the organisation and large enough it may warrant a mix of both internal and external change agents as there are different advantages to each category.
This article focuses on internal change agents which usually make up the majority of change agents in an organization’s network. Whilst occasionally line managers may be used as change agents, more often that is not the case. So, change agents usually act without authority over the organisation’s targets.
An advantage of using internal change agents is they understand ‘how things work’, making it possible for them to anticipate and observe problems with roll-out and therefore suggest improvements. They may be able to anticipate where there could be risks to the business-as-usual environment too, such as system outages or resourcing issues whilst targets get up to speed with the change. Change agents sign-post targets and line / middle managers to resources regarding the change initiative, and importantly feedback to change managers / senior leaders’ issues and any opportunities identified locally.
If change agents are brought in early on in an initiative, they may get involved in designing the solution, and often receive training ahead of their peers to then train peers or simply support the roll-out process.
So, what makes a change agent great?
First and foremost, change agents need to understand and buy-in to the vision for the change enabling them to reinforce locally why the initiative matters. Change agents should be advocates of the change, helping managers and targets keep attention focused on the change and ‘on track’ against the change timetable.
The role requires tactful communicators with the emotional intelligence to build good relationships at a time that maybe stressful to the targets. Some colleagues may have opposed priorities and a degree of resistance is often anticipated. Indeed Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s work on bereavement and the change curve is often applied to organisation change as it shows the emotional highs and lows people commonly go through when experiencing a change.
A good change agent will help mitigate resistance, such as where there maybe concerns about competence when people need to learn new skills and processes. To that regard change agents should themselves be trained in change best practice and understand that when people do need to learn new skills that a dip in productivity is to be expected. A responsible organization will make allowances for this and provide the psychological ‘safe space’ for people to learn the new skills required, adjust to the change, and even potentially experiment with different solutions.
An effective change agent will understand the concerns of line managers who will have an affinity with how things currently work. Line managers may feel threatened by the change, even feel it could undermine their authority. The change agent needs to be sensitive to this. Indeed, change management best practice talks about the process of ‘contracting’ between change agent and line managers so they can understand each other’s remit. Change agents therefore need to have good political awareness and be able to negotiate with others.
Change agent networks are in themselves a team. Therefore, being a good team player is another important aspect, not only as part of their local (business as usual) team, but as a member of the networking change team. An awareness of team development and what distinguishes an effective team from just a group of people working together is going to be helpful.
Really great change agents will have credibility with their peers, so they are not seen to be engaged in a temporary cult-like activity. Being a change agent can be exiting, it broadens people’s skills and can open doors to a whole different career path.