Change Agent

The more things change…

While it’s safe to say the label “change agent” isn’t a sexy as it once was, it’s still very prevalent in the HR and indeed, broader business community. In fact, an anecdotal (and unscientific) perusal of my LinkedIn network shows quite a few people still using the appellation.

So, if this is quite common today, why is it so few of us know change agents who could be described as succesful? In other words, why is change so very hard?

Turns out there really are a few simple points that separate succesful agents from wanna-be’s.

  • Inertia. You’ve heard it before; it’s hard to get people to do something different because it requires them to “do” something. It takes action and energy. Most of us have far more on our plates than we can really handle, and while this is in a way an indictment of modern society, it’s where we’re at. Due in part to this we all look for ways to manage our time, and responding to the pleas and demands of change agents often doesn’t rise to the level of necessity. It isn’t that change is bad, it’s that it takes more energy: absent a compelling and rational argument for expending this energy, reasonable adults won’t do this. Which brings us to the second point.
  • Why? So many well-intended change projects wind up in the dustbin of unfinished work not because they didn’t have value, but because agents couldn’t link organizational value and personal need. Make no mistake: the human animal takes care of themself first. I’ve sat through innumerable change initiatives that were positioned as being good for the company yet the link to me as an individual was tenuous to non-existent. People want to know what’s in it for them, and a global “better for the company” response isn’t sufficient motivation. Want to enage people in change? Show them why it’s beneficial for them.
  • People not Process. Whether through clumsiness or inexperience unsuccessful agents often wind up perceived as attacking people not process when launching change efforts. This will not work. The key to succesful change then in part is to ensure that it is system, process and practice we take on – not people. All of us know at some level we can be more personally productive and effective yet in many cases we’re hampered by environment. Inadvertently attacking individuals becuase we’re not clear on this distinction is a non-starter. People don’t normally try and do poor work: be clear on what you’re trying to remake so they feel this subtle yet important diffence.

That we need the role of change agents for our organizations to be successful in an ever more competitive world is a given, yet we all know people who have struggled mightily here. Perhaps a little less boasting about our change agent prowess would help as well as the above points.

And maybe one other thing would help as well.

Recognize that we’re all change-capable: the next time you launch a change initiative try to enroll others to work with you on the frontend. This feels a lot better than being herded into change on the assumption that only the agent can drive this.

Working together may be the biggest change agents have to make.


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