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By Ruth Tearle


Many organizations set up a system of internal change agents to communicate and manage large scale organizational changes. Whether the change involves changing a culture, implementing a new strategy, or introducing a new system, structure or process, change agents play a crucial role in implementing an organizational change within their particular areas or function.

Change agents often receive training and toolkits to enable them to lead a change successfully. After their training they go off into the organization brimming with new skills and confidence. They are ready to change the world - or at least their own SBU, department or branch.

And then they come face to face with a brick wall of politics and the organizational culture.

1. What the organization expects from change agents.

A change agent works with people in his own department or area.resist-change He helps get people in his area excited about the change being made in the organization, and helps them develop new skills, behaviours or attitudes needed for the change to work in their areas.

To do this successfully he will need to facilitate workshops, coach individuals, and project manage the logistics needed to ensure everyone in his area is excited, prepared and confident about working within a new system, process, strategy or culture.

But this is not something that a change agent can do alone. Politics, the status quo, the organizational culture and existing systems and processes often frustrate the efforts of change agents.

2. How politics prevents change agents from doing their jobs.

Often organizations set up a change agent network, train their change agents and then expect them to perform miracles within the existing culture and political system - without providing their change agents with any other support.

But even the most motivated and empowered change agents lose their sense of purpose and confidence when:
    When faced with resistance from their colleagues, their managers, and the organizational culture itself - it is small wonder that change agents become demotivated and lose their confidence.
  • Their managers discount the project that the change agent is working on. This may be because the manager is concerned that the change may affect his own power base, or he may not see the benefits of the change, or believe that the change will ever be achieved.
  • Their managers don't allow their employees time off to attend the workshops the change agents are running.
  • Their managers make comments to their employees about how unimportant the change is that the change agents are working on. Their colleagues become resistant to the change being made, and to the change agent too.
  • There is no budget for the change agents to use. It becomes difficult for them to book a venue for a workshop, organize refreshments or symbolically show employees in their areas that the change they are working on is considered important by the organization.
  • The change agent's colleagues are jealous of the attention that the change agents are getting. They wonder why the change agent was chosen for a special role, and not them. They often try to belittle the change agent, or the work he/she is trying to do. Some change agents fuel that jealousy by acting superior.
  • Different power structures within the organization may focus on different priorities. The CEO or HR/OD department may be using the change agents to build a new culture such as customer focus or innovation. Other areas in the organization may be focused on operations, sales, or cost cutting. Some leaders may focus their energy on protecting their own power base or the status quo. The change agent may become a pawn in a greater battle for political power between different executives in different areas of the organization.
  • Employees in the company receive mixed messages from their bosses, the change agent, and how they are measured. They get confused. For example, their immediate boss may tell them to focus on costs or sales. The change agents may ask them them to master a new system, or behave in a customer focused or innovative way. The employees may be measured and rewarded on achieving certain targets. To deal with their confusion, employees often ignore what the change agent is asking them to do, in favor of what their boss actually measures them on.
When change agents are expected to handle politics on their own, they often fail. They lose confidence in themselves, and often become cynical.

When faced with resistance from their colleagues, their managers, and the organizational culture itself - it is small wonder that change agents become demotivated and lose their confidence.

Change agents do not have positional power or political power. So even if you equip them with skills to deal skillfully with their managers, and build their confidence and resilience - they can still get crushed and destroyed by people with greater political power.

3. How to set up a structure that provides political support to your change agents.

One of the most important roles that the person who is setting up a change agent or champion system has, is to ensure that the change agents are supported - by their managers, and the managers of their managers. This means you will need to set up a change management infrastructure consisting of a number of role players. These could include:

3.1 A co-ordinating team

  • In small organizations, a steering committee coordinates all the role players involved in a change project. They develop and implement a change strategy, provide tool kits and materials to managers and change agents so as to ensure consistency throughout the organization.
  • In large organizations this role could be played by a department such as a change management department, an organizational development department, a human resources department, an innovation department, or a center of excellence.

3.2 A powerful sponsor as head of the co-ordinating team

  • You need a powerful sponsor as chairman of the co-ordinating team. The sponsor should be a very senior executive or director. His role would be to act as a liaison between the co-ordinating team and the executive team of the organization. The executive sponsor could be part of the formal organizational structure. Or he could be someone who is enthusiastic about your project - and is willing to sell it to the executive team, and get them to play the roles they need to play in order to support the change agent network. In my experience, a sponsor who really made the change agent system work included a powerful HR director in an insurance company who was on the executive committee, a powerful project manager in a bank, and the finance director and CEO in smaller companies. They saw their main role as dealing with, and removing political problems to implementing their change.

3.3 Senior managers and general managers

  • In the best run change agent networks, the co-ordinating team has often presented their plans to the bosses of the middle managers - and have asked them to get the support of their middle managers.

3.4 A network of middle managers

  • In addition to setting up a network of change agents, you need to set up a network of middle managers - who are the bosses of the change agents.
  • Before asking them to select change agents in their area, you need to :
    • Sell the change agent system to them.
    • Explain how it will work.
    • Explain the roles that will be played.
    • Ensure they are not jealous of the attention their change agents are getting.
    • Let them know that they remain in control of their areas and the change agents are there to support them, not to usurp their power.
    • Let them choose their own change agents so they feel in control! But give them criteria to use when selecting change agents for their areas.
  • Once the change agents have been selected, and before you train them, you will need to train the managers in the role they need to play to support their change agents. This includes:
    • Provide them with an important role - one of symbolic leader!
    • Let them come up with practical ways that they can demonstrate symbolic leadership, and work together with their change agents.
    • Make them feel special. Give them gifts and tools so they also feel they are developing and benefiting too.
    • Show them how to manage resistance to change, and how to create heroes out of people who master the change first.
    • Look at the contents of our change management training course for managers and leaders - as an example of the type of training you should provide to your middle managers - before you train their change agents.

3.5 Change agents

  • When you select change agents - you want credible people that relate easily to others. Those people who will easily get the support of managers and employees alike.
  • When you train your change agents - also include the following aspects in their training.
    • What you have trained their managers. How they can work with their managers - so that they encourage their managers to support them. How they can provide recognition to their managers - and create heroes out of their managers too.
    • How to work with other employees. Warn them against acting in a way that causes jealousy.
    • The skills they need to manage any change, facilitate well, coach well, motivate people and manage resistance to change.
  • Tell your change agents how you have trained their managers, and the type of symbolic support they can ask their managers for.

4. How to ensure the main role players support one another.

As part of your training for middle managers, change agents, and other role players in your change process, ensure you include a practical section where each role player comes up with innovative ways to support other role players. You can even award prizes to:

    When you inspire everyone that can make or break your change, and encourage them to support and recognize one another - then magic replaces politics.

  • Managers for the most creative practical idea they have for showing symbolic leadership and supporting their change agents.
  • Change agents for the most creative idea they have for helping their managers achieve their goals, and for recognizing the way their manager has helped them.

Then, as the system rolls out, encourage every role player to share:

  • Success stories.
  • What has worked for them.
  • Heroes - other role players that have done special things that they'd like to recognize

The key to helping the change agent to be successful, is to set up a system where:

  • Each role player understands their important contribution they can make, and is excited about making it.
  • Each role player knows what they need to do to support other role players.
  • Each role player is encouraged to recognize others who support them

See the slide presentation in our member zone on how to develop a comprehensive change infrastructure to support change agents. Use this presentation to get support and sponsorship at the highest level possible.

Use our change management dashboard to measure the current state of change management in your organization, or on your project. See where a lack of political support may derail your change. Determine the extent to which the role players in your change are supporting or contradicting one another. Get advice on what you need to do, to ensure the success of change management in your organization.

You may also like:

Tools to use to develop a change strategy.

  • change-puzzle-kitThe change puzzle kit A systems thinking and organizational development diagnostics tool. Diagnose an organization. Understand the impact of your change on every element of your organization. Identify what needs to be in place to support your change. Understand culture. Identify core changes.
  • change-strategy-toolkitWinning the game of change Develop a change management or organizational development strategy for your organization or project. Use the 64 cards to choose practical interventions for your strategy.

Tools to use to implement a change strategy.

  • magic-change-toolkitMagic change toolkit An exciting change management toolkit for change agents. Filled with recipe cards or activities to manage any change, reduce resistance and build excitement.

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