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In conversation with change agents

· English

One of my favourite assignments in 2018 was to mentor change agents: project managers and agile experts who lead company-wide transformation initiatives. The mentoring focused on helping them to move their projects forward: to analyze the situation and brainstorm solutions to challenges.

Change agents often carry out their responsibilities in the relatively inflexible environments of traditional corporations. While their backgrounds and experiences vary, they share a common objective: to help the rest of the business first understand change – such as a sudden shift in consumer preferences or the need to adapt to a particular digital solution that a competitor is already using – and respond faster to it.

Change agents endure intense exposure to the products of a company’s culture; they are at the receiving end of ‘how the work works’ in an organization. As result, the people who promote change have a unique insight about the strengths and weaknesses of the corporate ecosystems in which they work. The mentoring sessions revealed some of these insights, which I share below.

Resilience is the key strength of change agents

When asked what their key strength is, over 55% of change makers cite resilience. Other skills that come up, albeit less frequently, include communication, listening and creativity.

I am aware that organizations generally do not go out of their way to help change agents implement change. Complexity, inefficient processes, communication loopholes and inconsistent leadership practices often get in the way. However, the conversations helped me to understand some of the key ways in which organizations exhaust change agents’ natural reserves of resilience.

Change agents rely on collaboration

One frustration of change agents is a lack of collaboration between functions in the business. In organizations that succeed at transformations, IT, HR and other functions work seamlessly with change agents, preparing the company for the next turn ahead and supporting their respective roadmaps.

On the opposite end of that spectrum is an organization where, despite official guidelines, functions sometimes operate in a black box, with an invisible roadmap and lack of communication. Even when efforts are made to improve collaboration, change agents may feel they are trespassing on another function’s territory.

In such situations, it is essential for management to emphasise the overall purpose of the company, and facilitate understanding about who is the internal provider to an internal customer.

Effective communication is key

Change makers will achieve their goal faster when they are supported by company-wide communication about the successes of initiatives they work on. The communication is most effective when it focuses on people: on the change agent and the team they work with.

In conversations I’ve had with change makers, they mention ‘hitting a wall’ – a stakeholder who was initially willing to cooperate, suddenly does not respond anymore, or a team that has just had training on Lean principles refuses to apply them in their area.

Change agents need positive communication to recharge batteries and summon fresh energy. A company-wide newsletter, with highlights about projects and recent successes, an interview with a customer, pictures from recent events and the like, helps create an atmosphere of positive curiosity about change in the company. This atmosphere contributes to breaking initial ice and facilitates the work of the change agent.

Change makers are curious about their career and learning plans

Change agents know they are building valuable skills and experience. They project themselves into the future and think about how these skills can help them in their next role. They look forward to discussion with their managers about their interests and the available opportunities, as well as the potential timing of such moves.

They seek information about training opportunities in the areas of influencing skills, stakeholder management, effective communication or excellence in project management. It is important for their leaders to be able to detect learning needs and be ready to have conversations about further personal growth.

Change agents need space to innovate

Change agents need to be able to innovate in change management, beyond Kotter’s famous Eight Step Change Model or the PDCA framework. Two questions I often heard were: How do I find arguments to convince my internal clients about the solution? What other tools are available to persuade a department head to cooperate?

Management can help change agents adopt an entrepreneurial posture and encourage them to involve stakeholders in change experiments, set up for a limited time and with a selected group of participants. Also, the practice of discussing challenges and solutions in a structured manner with colleagues, managers and mentors will help change teams excel at driving transformation.

Thank you for your attention, dear reader. I will be back when I have more to share.
In the meantime, have a great start to 2019!