The Basic Idea
Even the most successful companies can find themselves in a rut, unable to overcome an obstacle or to adapt to new trends. Even if a manager is skilled in identifying the problem and coming up with a solution, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the ability to facilitate and coordinate the change.
It is in these situations where a change agent can help turn things around. A change agent is a group or individual who is able to tackle an organization’s problem from a behavioral perspective and understand the nuances of how to mobilize change. The change agent can be someone internal or external to the company, who acts as a catalyst for change and gets the organization’s members on board and working towards change.1
Theory, meet practice
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Organizational development, which is any effort made to improve an organization’s performance, became popular in the mid 1950’s. It was during this time that people began to think about the health of an organization, and came the idea that it could be monitored and improved.3
With more focus beginning to be placed on studying organizations and how they can be better run and become healthier came a new idea: change agents. Wendell French and Cecil Bell, economists who wrote the first major textbook on organizational development, introduced change agents as an entity that could “facilitate visioning, organizational learning and problem solving in the interests of a collaborative management of the organization’s culture”.3
The recognition of change agents increased the value of behavioral scientists. Prior, behavioral scientists had been focused mostly on research, but now, they were being seen as potential change agents who could take on an action role. Knowing how people and society function, an increased liaison between social knowledge and action made behavioral scientists seem like ideal candidates for causing change.4 Part of the focus on change agents was due to the heavy emphasis on work in daily life. Change in the workplace was seen as the easiest way to enact societal change.
Applied behavioral and social science became referred to as “planned change”, with organizations actively recruiting individuals and companies to help them revamp their procedures and mission. Warren G. Bennis, an American organizational consultant who wrote extensively about the new and upcoming notion of change agents in the 1960s, defined planned change as “a deliberate and collaborative process involving a change agent and client systems. These systems are brought together to solve a problem or, more generally, to plan and attain an improved state of functioning in the client system by utilizing and applying valid knowledge.”4
Bennis outlined three different models of planned change: the equilibrium model, the organic model, and the developmental model.
The equilibrium model’s main focus is the reduction of tension as a method of change. It is based on the belief that productivity is interrupted by anxiety, role conflicts, or low self-esteem. The change agent’s primary purpose is to motivate, inspire, and increase the satisfaction of the employees. To be effective, the change agent needs to act like a role model.4
The organic model is based on the idea that an organization is not a mechanism, but an organism, shaped by the set of functions that make it up. Relationships are thus of most importance to enact change, as strong relationships between employees and their leaders is thought to encourage greater productivity (this idea is also supported by the Leader-Member Exchange Theory). Thus, the change agent’s focus is on individual employees and their relationships. 4
The development model is similar to the equilibrium model, as both are based on the belief that organizations are unsuccessful when they prioritize rationality and objectivity over emotions and values. It is the role of the change agent to ensure that individual values line up with the organization’s overall values. If the values match, an employee will feel affective commitment to their organization.4
Change is inescapable, whether we like it or not. In fact, Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, suggested change agents are an essential part of life – and that they can come in odd forms: “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” 2
While a change agent doesn’t have to be as drastic as death, they are still very important for an organization’s success and longevity. The success of organizations often depends on having an effective change agent that is able to motivate others, because even the best of solutions require people to put them into effect. Change agents have a unique ability to get people involved in solving their own problems.
Since change agents are critical to transitioning management, it is important to note what qualities make someone an ideal change agent. Oftentimes, leaders will mistakenly pick someone based on their knowledge or expertise about the company and its functions. However, having a vast amount of knowledge does not necessarily mean that an individual has the ability to implement change or influence others.5
There is a unique skill set that a change agent needs to be successful. As Canadian journalist Malcom Gladwell writes in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” 6 The skill set matches closely those of a charismatic leader, which is a form of leadership based on confidence, clear communication, and an attuned emotional capacity.
Here are some of the skills that make up the ideal change agent:
- Clarity: It is important that the change agent has a clear vision, and that they can communicate this vision with others. They must be able to translate the vision from higher-ups to employees as well as the other way around. They must be able to prioritize what is most important and focus on that change, rather than switch between competing visions.6
- Patience: Change doesn’t occur overnight. People are hesitant to move towards change because they are comfortable in their habits and routines at work. It is therefore important that a change agent is patient, does not push people too quickly or hard, or get frustrated that there is only small, incremental change.6
- Strong Relationships: Although Bennis divides planned change into three different models, most of them rely on the idea that relationships matter and strong relationships between leaders and subordinates contribute to an organization’s success. If relationships are at the crux of an organization’s processes, then the change agent must have good relationships with individuals in the organization. They must gain employee’s trust that they will do what’s best for the organization.6
- Lead By Example: For change to be made possible, employees need to first see the change modelled. Change agents need to appear like they know what they are talking about, which means that their actions need to match their words. Leading by example also demonstrates that the change agent is committed to what they are claiming will benefit the organization, which builds trust.6 It is recommended that change agents are visible and available to achieve leading by example.7
Although there is no denying that organizations can benefit from change, exactly how that change is best achieved is debated. Some people claim that an external change agent is better than an internal change agent.
External change agents are not emotionally invested in the way the organization currently operates, which allows them to clearly see how changes can benefit the organization. Using an external change agent also doesn’t create any sense of competition between existing employees. However, an internal change agent might be biased because they have preexisting relationships and are a part of the work culture.8 On the other hand, a stranger might not be able to successfully influence employees, nor do they always have extensive knowledge about a company’s processes and technologies.7
The fact that a suitable candidate for a change agent tends to also be one of the company’s best employees also raises the question of whether making them focus on change rather than their tasks will benefit or hinder the company. Hiring outside solves this issue, however, it can be very expensive, as hiring individuals specifically dedicated to change can cost a lot. Managers must determine whether those costs will be recovered by increased productivity in the long run.7 Moreover, hiring external change agents might allow employees to focus on their own responsibilities, but means that the change agent will eventually leave, and with that comes the risk that the change they implemented will not last.8
Positive Deviance Approach:
Internal or external? Deciding whether to find a change agent within or external to an organization is probably the greatest debate when it comes to change management. Change management doesn’t have to be reserved for individual organizations — it can be used to effect change to solve societal problems as well. According to management theorists Richard T. Pascale and Jerry Sternin, the best change agents to combat socioeconomic issues are people, who operating against the same kind of obstacles as all employees of an organization, are somehow still able to succeed.9 Think about those people who against all odds, have a happy smile on their face and manage to be innovative with limited resources — these are the people that Pascale and Sternin identify as ingenious sources of change.9
Pascale and Sternin suggest that looking for existing success within an organization, instead of looking for external change agents that can bring success into an organization, is more likely to mobilize change as members of the organization are involved in their own process of change. Pascale and Sternin call these anomalies, who thrive even when an organization is failing, “positive deviants”: people who go against the grain and deviate from a company’s usual processes and structures, but in a way that contributes to the company’s overall success. As their change management theory is based on positive deviants, it would follow that they call it the positive deviance approach.9
Over 14 years, Pascale and Sternin studied some of the biggest problems occurring worldwide: malnutrition in Mali and Vietnam, high dropout rates in rural schools in Argentina, trafficking of young girls in East Java, the spread of AIDS in Myanmar, and the unfortunately widely practiced female circumcision in Egypt. They examined what people and what groups prevailed against these issues. Based on their inductive research, they came up with a six-step model for change:9
1. Make the group the guru
While leaders are important in mobilizing change, Pascale and Sternin found that the voices of the group need to be heard and need to be involved in change management. Otherwise, they are absolved from responsibility and do not connect their own behaviors to the overall success of their organization.
2. Reframe through facts
When emotions get involved, people can get defensive as they feel as though they are being blamed for the failure of an organization. Moreover, when you continue to look at a problem through the same language and frame of mind, it is harder to come up with new, innovative solutions.
3. Make it safe to learn
We are creatures of habit and feel a sense of familiarity when maintaining the status quo. Change agents therefore need to create a space where individuals feel comfortable adapting and changing their behavior, even if they aren’t successful to begin with.
4. Make the problem concrete
Communication is key. Individuals need to clearly understand the problem at hand before they can begin to tackle it.
5. Leverage social proof
People want reassurance by seeing evidence that the new way of doing something will actually lead to success. Hearing about others’ positive experience with change can make people feel more open to the idea.
6. Confound the immune defense response
Every action has a reaction — so agents of change should anticipate and prepare for that. Since people often react negatively to outside change, finding people within an organization or a geographic location that do things differently can make change an easier pill for people to swallow.
Essentially, Pascale and Sternin hypothesize that for societal change to occur, role reversals are vital: “experts become learners, teachers become students, and leaders become followers.”9
Related TDL Content
It is difficult to deny the existence of climate change, or the awful ways that rising temperatures are affecting our planet. But, even now that it is widely accepted that climate change is real, our behaviors have not changed. Organizations and individuals continue to use high amounts of electricity and carbon. In this article, Arash Sharma examines whether behavioral nudges, like comparing an individuals’ electricity use to that of their neighbors, or adjudges, like carbon taxes, are more effective in combating climate change.
In this podcast episode of The Decision Corner, we sit down with Faisal Naru, the CEO of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. We discuss how the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated that experts — like scientists — can no longer rely on the idea that people will willingly follow their advice. Naru explains that expertise is no longer sufficient and that better organizational change strategies, that involve the general public’s engagement with the change that is being affected, are necessary.
- Lunenburg, F. C. (2010). Managing Change:The Role of the Change Agent. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT, BUSINESS, AND ADMINISTRATION, 13(1), 1-6. https://naaee.org/sites/default/files/lunenburg_fred_c._managing_change_the_role_of_change_agent_ijmba_v13_n1_2010.pdf
- Change Agent Quotes. (n.d.). A-Z Quotes. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from https://www.azquotes.com/quotes/topics/change-agent.html
- Grieves, J. (200). Introduction: the origins of organizational development. Journal of Management Development, 19(5), 345-447. https://doi.org/10.1108/02621710010371865
- Bennis, W. G. (1963). A new role for the behavioral sciences: Effecting organizational change. Administrative Science Quarterly, 8(2), 125. https://doi.org/10.2307/2390897
- Alsher, P. (2016, February 11). Change agents: The who, what, where, when, why and how. IMA Change Management. https://www.imaworldwide.com/blog/change-agents-the-who-what-where-when-why-and-how
- Couros, G. (2017, April 30). 5 Characteristics of a Change Agent. George Couros. https://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/3615
- Hammer, M. (2017, March 28). The change agent challenge. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/operations/our-insights/the-change-agent-challenge
- Towler, A. (2020, July 23). Change agents: The driving force behind change or just another management fad? CQ Net. https://www.ckju.net/en/dossier/change-agents-driving-force-behind-change-or-just-another-management-fad
- Pascale, R. T., & Sternin, J. (2005, May 1). Your Company’s Secret Change Agents. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2005/05/your-companys-secret-change-agents