The few & the many

Large corporations are challenged sustaining & retaining change agents.  A handful of change agents can make an enormous difference to any organisation.  Change agents are at the heart of the ability to innovate, to adapt and to remain externally focused.  Change agents are often the gateway for new partners, explore the edges and conduit for new ideas into organisations because of their willingness to consider the new, to experiment and to get stuff done.

The ideal model is that leaders everywhere have the capability and the authority to drive change.  Like many ideal models, this oft stated ambition is harder to find in practice.  This difficulty is no excuse for not trying.  However, many corporates deliberately, or unwittingly, adopt a 21st century demarcation between traditional managers who keep the wheels of business as usual turning and their contingent of change agents who transform the business.

The best outcome for corporates is to have a spread of change agents across their business.  That way each function and division can be exposed to change.  For major initiatives, change agents from different silos can collaborate to bring the business together in key initiatives.  Sadly, this model is often the most dangerous for the change agents.  Change agents must operate in the midst of large groups of more traditionally oriented managers, dependent on a tolerance for diversity and ongoing support for their efforts and occasional failures. As one change agent put it to me, this model means that they have to deliver 110% of the contribution of a traditional manager in the organisation & then deliver change just to make their position safe.  The slightest slip creates an opportunity for backlash.

Commonly change agents will exist in clusters drawn to other similar individuals who are interested in new ideas and making change happen.  Some change agents explicitly recruit and develop teams who support their change agenda.  While this model can provide a safe haven to nurture change and change leaders, it creates a risk that the entire cluster can be lost at once with a change of leadership or a mass defection. Increasing fragility is not a sustainable solution.

So what can be done to foster the growth of change agents across an organisation?  Here are 6 actions to help.

  • Know who they are, what they are working on and show interest.  Who are your ‘go to’ people if it is new, difficult or demanding?  A simple cup of coffee or a phone call can do wonders in retaining and encouraging people to push for change.  Clearly, if you run talent processes you can be more deliberate in investing in their development and careers.
  • Value project work as much as line management.  Change agents will be drawn to projects, but if it is a ghetto you will lose their impact in the rest of the business.
  • Encourage diversity of individuals, allow diverse management styles and make openness to the new & different a key value in your organisation.  Remember not all change agents are charismatic leaders and many will be far from traditional homes in edgy technology, creative or strategic business opportunities.  The effective styles are as diverse as human nature.  Some of the most effective individuals may be working in surprising parts of the organisation.
  • Network your change agents so that they do not feel isolated, can share lessons, can collaborate and even use their collective power.  Encourage change agents to share their skills and develop teams of others who can drive change. An enterprise social network will help if your culture allows it.  Also encourage your change agents to network externally and to learn from others.  
  • Ensure your performance management systems reward people for driving change and do not fatally punish a single setback.  Peer measurement and forced rank systems can exaggerate the impact of setbacks & can be vulnerable to politics if not well managed.  If you only value delivery of business as usual results in performance and find comparisons to change agents hard, your change agents will get the message quickly.
  • Foster a culture of working aloud & sharing of ideas.  Working aloud provides protection for change agents. More importantly, it enables the change agents to role model their behaviours to inspire others across the organisation to embrace & lead change.

A little investment in change agents goes a long way.  Too many organisations have missed their opportunity.  They are the ones left wondering why change is suddenly so hard.

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