Change Agents in Organizational Change

Organizations and their managers must recognize that change, in itself, is not necessarily a problem. The problem often lies in an inability to effectively manage change : not only can the adopted process be wrong, but also the conceptual framework may lack vision and understanding. Why is this the case? Possibly, and many practicing managers would concur, the problem may be traced to the managers’ growing inability to approximately develop and reinforce their role and purpose within complex, dynamic and challenging organizations. Change is now a way of life; organizations, and more importantly their managers, must recognize the need to adopt strategic approaches when facing transformation situations. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s organizations, both national and international, strived to develop sustainable advantage in both volatile and competitive operating environments. Those that have survived, and/or developed, have often found that the creative and market driven management of their human resources can produce the much needed competitive ‘cushion’.

Change Agents in Organizational Change

Role of Change Agents in Organizational Change

This is not surprising : people manage change, and well-managed people manage change more effectively. Managing change is a multi-disciplinary activity. Those responsible, whatever their designation, must possess or have access to a wide range of skills, resources, support and knowledge. For example,

  • Communication skills are essential and must be applied for managing teams.
  • Maintaining motivation and providing leadership to all concerned is necessary.
  • The ability to facilitate and orchestrate group and individual activities is crucial.
  • Negotiation and influencing skills are invaluable.
  • It is essential that both planning and control procedures are employed.
  • The ability to manage on all planes, upward, downword and within the peer group, must be acquired.
  • Knowledge of, and the facility to influence, the rationale for change is essential.

There are many terms that have been used to denote those responsible for the effective implementation of change : for example, change agents, problem owners, facilitators, project managers or masters of change. The focal point of a change needs not to be an individual; a work group could quite easily be designated as a special task force responsible for managing the change.  However, generally within, or above, any work group there is still someone who ultimately is accountable and responsible. What are the essential attributes of a change agent/master and are there any guidelines for them?

The need to encourage participation and involvement in the management of the change by those who are to be affected has been suggested. The aim is to stimulate interest and commitment and minimize fears, thus reducing opposition. It may also be necessary to provide facilitating and support services. These could assist in promoting an individual’s awareness for the need for change, while counseling and therapy could be offered to help overcome fears. Management must engage in a process of negotiation, striving towards agreement. This is essential where those opposing have the power, and influence, to resist and ultimately block the change. If consensus fails then one has little alternative but to move on to explicit and implicit coercion. Somewhere in between the two extremes, the management may attempt to manipulate events in an effort to sidestep sources of resistance. For example, they may play interested parties off against each other or create galvanizing crisis to divert attention.

The techniques need not be employed in isolation. They may be most effective when utilized in combination. The core tasks facing a change agent or project manager are to reduce the uncertainty associated with the change situation and then encourage positive action. Some of the steps to assist are :

  1. Identify and manage stakeholders (Gains visible commitment).
  2. Work on objectives (Clear, concise and understandable)
  3. Set a full agenda (Take a hostile view and highlight potential difficulties)
  4. Build appropriate control systems (Communication is a two-way process, feedback is required).
  5. Plan the process of change (Pay attention to : establishing roles – clarity of purpose; build a team – do not leave it to choice; nurture coalitions of support – fight apathy and resistance; communicate relentlessly – manage the process; recognize power – make the best use of supporting power bases; handing over – ensure that the change is maintained).

The change agents exist throughout the organization (but are crucial at the top) and constitute in effect a latent force. They have ability to :

  • Question the past and challenge old assumptions and beliefs.
  • Leap from operational and process issues to the strategic picture.
  • Think creativity and avoid becoming bogged down in the ‘how-to’.
  • Manipulate and exploit triggers for change.

Further, some of the traits of change agents as business athletes are :

  1. Able to work independently without the power and sanction of the management hierarchy.
  2. Effective collaborators, able to compete in the ways that enhance rather than destroy cooperation.
  3. Able to develop high trust relations with high ethical standards.
  4. Possess self-confidence tempered with humility.
  5. Respectful of the process of change as well as the substance.
  6. Able to work across business functions and units – ‘multi-faceted and multi-dextrous’.
  7. Willing to take rewards on results and gain satisfaction from success.

To summarize, an effective change agent must be capable of orchestrating events; socializing within the network of stakeholders; and managing the communication process. There is a need for competent internal change agents to be assigned to the project so as to ensure cooperation, effective implementation and successful handover upon completion. The role envisaged for the external change agent includes : to assist in fully defining the problem; to help in determining the cause and suggesting potential solutions; to stimulate debate and broaden the horizons; and to encourage the client to learn from the experience and be ready to handle future situations internally; is complementary to that of the internal problem owner. It is the responsibility of the potential clients to establish the need for an objective outsider, by considering their own internal competencies and awareness of the external opportunities.

The principal problem with using internal change agents is that other members of the organization may perceive them as being politically involved in the changes and biased toward certain groups. External change agents, in contrast, are likely to be perceived as less influenced by internal polities. Another reason for employing external change agents is that as outsiders they have a detached view of the organization’s problems and can distinguish between the “forest and the trees”. Insiders can be so involved in what is going on that they cannot see the true source of the problems. Management consultants like Mckinsey and Co. are frequently brought in by large organizations to help the top-management team diagnose an organization’s problems and suggest solutions. Many consultants specialize in certain types of organizational change, such as restructuring, re-engineering or implementing total quality management.