Whether it’s a new application or an enterprise-level digital transformation, progress cannot happen until people embrace and adopt the change. One of the best approaches to helping people embrace the new is through change agents and change agent networks.
Change agents are sometimes called “change influencers,” “change champions,” or even “ambassadors” of change – but the nomenclature is less important than their common characteristics. They are eager to lead the way forward. They volunteer themselves to be at the forefront of transformation. They want to help their co-workers understand what is actually going on and embrace the “new ways of working.” They are the people within the enterprise who help make change happen, sometimes without a formal role, and they play an outsized role in successful enterprise transformation.
In a report on “The people power of transformations” from McKinsey in 2017, the authors wrote:
Change agents…appear to have a notable impact on success. Less than half of respondents say their organizations select these employees, who dedicate a significant part of their time to work as facilitators or agents of the transformation. But those who do report overall success more often than other respondents—and are twice as likely to report success at transforming their organizational cultures.
Why are change agents so important? For a simple, almost obvious reason:
Because employees are more willing to accept change when they:
The most effective to ensure that these things happen is by identifying change agents and building change agent networks. In Wipro’s work with change management, change agents are an essential component of ensuring change happens and change endures.
The Power of Change Agents
Enterprises that are serious about evolution and improvement either are considering transformational journeys or have already launched one or more of them. They consider the financial and technological implications as a matter of course, but they should also consider this reality: people should be at the heart of the transformation journey. Change agents can play an enormous role in helping the broad employee population accept change and, most important, ensuring that change becomes embedded in the company culture.
Change agent is not an official job title (though perhaps it should be in today’s dynamic enterprise). But what makes a good one? According to the book “The Change Leader’s Roadmap: How to Navigate Your Organization’s Transformation” (Linda Ackerman Anderson & Dean Anderson, Pfeifer, 2010), good change agents share several characteristics: First and most important, they are very open to change; they are not rigid in their thinking or approach to work. Second, they appreciate the differences between current ways of working and how things might be in the future, and they are excited by the possibilities and opportunities that something new offers. Third, they are effective in both communicating and listening, able to empathize with their colleagues as well as take direction from above within the organization.
Change agents also have a growth mentality. Their positivity and willingness to embrace new ideas is great for them, personally, but those traits are also great for the dynamic enterprise. Their enthusiastic belief in the purpose and benefits of change can help lead other, perhaps more hesitant, colleagues to embrace transformational initiatives.
One change agent is good, but a network of them spanning the enterprise is phenomenal – if (and it’s a big if) that network is empowered to drive and deliver change at the local level. Often, the best change agents don’t need a formal mandate to work their magic, but change networks only work if they have the approval and the tools to actively effect change through educating, coaching, and supporting their colleagues in new ways of working.
That’s why change agent networks should work closely with project and program teams; that enables change agents to become early adopters of new ideas. Change agents serve as ambassadors and translators – the bridge between the inner circle of a project and the rest of the organization. They deliver information (what, why, and how), and they are the conduit for feedback from the rest of the organization. By doing so, they promote understanding and commitment to the change.
Effective Change Agent Networks
The effectiveness of a change agent network is driven by two ideas. First, the change agents must have a real understanding of the business area that is changing or transforming in terms of process, systems, or stakeholder perspectives. They must believe that the change is beneficial. This gives change agents the ability to make the case for change with conviction. Second, the rest of the organization should respect the network and have confidence and trust that the change agents are genuine. Change agents should have a kind of charisma and be seen as leaders by their peers – so choose them wisely.
The ideal change agent network is composed of people who have a high level of understanding of the business and change and have positions of authority (formal or informal) within the enterprise.
What Change Agent Networks Do
Enterprises undergoing change can put change agents and change agent networks to work in multiple ways:
Communication: Change agent networks help clarify and deliver messages around new initiatives to the people they influence. They can ensure communication is clear, concise and uses the right language to be easily understood by the intended audience. They typically understand the best channel, the best format, and the best opportunity to communicate. And they can collect feedback regarding how people feel about changes.
Creating change plans: The “one size fits all” approach generally does not work for organisational change management. Most enterprises create a framework that can be applied across a multitude of different scenarios, but for meaningful change to take place, a change plan needs to be adapted to address the intricacies and nuances of affected teams. Change agent networks are in a prime position to support the development of change plans for their areas, especially for organizations lucky enough to have employees who understand the change management and business transformation.
Stakeholder engagement: Change agents understand the rationale for change but also can empathise with the reasons for resistance to change – which helps address resistance. They can help change management teams build a targeted, persona-led approach to engage appropriately with different stakeholders and build commitment. Because change agents tend to be in the trenches of the business, they can help ensure people are receiving the change message from a source they respect and a source who understands their situation and concerns.
Change impact assessment: Changes involves risks; change management seeks to mitigate risks, and that’s where the change impact assessment (CIA) – an articulation of the magnitude and complexity of required changes – becomes so valuable. The change agent network can provide valuable, “real world” insights into potential organisational impacts of new initiatives. The CIA is essential for effectively planning and managing change.
Business readiness assessment: A key element of any change management effort is to know when to put the key in the ignition and go. A business readiness assessment helps determine the willingness and ability of the people within the organisation to adapt to change. The change agent network can help by encouraging participation in things like surveys and focus groups, which can create picture of how ready the business is to change. By engaging with affected groups, the enterprise gets a better understanding of root causes that can ultimately mean the difference between success and failure.
Organisations should approach the social architecture of change by ensuring that affected users and employees (and, through them, customers) are engaged from the outset of a project and are actively involved throughout the journey. They should strive to embed “change thinking” in everything they do, from design to build to deliver, to ensure that the initiative delivers the maximum business benefits. Wipro recognises that change agents are amplifiers of change, a bridge between the programme team and employees.
At Wipro, building and managing change agent networks has played a significant role in designing and implementing substantial change management initiatives. We know first-hand how to help our clients build and scale a network of change agents so that we can improve awareness at the grassroots level, reduce resistance to the change, support leadership engagement, and provide a two-way communication mechanism.