Are You Change Agent Material?

Change is necessary for success and growth.

For organizations, change means taking on new challenges, growing for the future and developing more effective strategies. Without it, organizations would never grow or adjust to developing needs. However, change can be difficult to implement. Routine, entrenched policies and office politics can all stand in the way of affecting change.

That’s why organizations need change agents to lead them to positive and effective change. Learning leaders can develop the skills of a change agent to lead successful change initiatives and keep their organizations moving forward.

As author James H. Dallas, author of Mastering the Challenges of Leading Change: Inspire the People and Succeed Where Others Fail, puts it, “As the years passed, I developed a comprehensive set of techniques and came to see successful change management being driven by four things: priorities, politics, people, and perseverance. Not coincidentally, these are the four sections of this book. You’ll find my focus is a little different from what you might have learned in a typical change management course. I took all those courses, too, and what they cover is important. But this is what I’ve learned as a practitioner, and it’s not covered in the three Ts of project management: tasks, timing, and technologies. I’ve found that without these additional skills, everything else you learned is useless."

What is a change agent? Too often, change initiatives fail because people think being a change agent is the same thing as being a project leader. In reality, acting as a change agent requires a different set of skills and strategies. A change agent is not only someone who leads a new project, it’s someone who helps an organization transform itself for the better.

Change agents should think about how to improve an organization’s efficiency, effectiveness, and profitability. All of their actions should be geared towards making the organization better able to meet future challenges. Often, that means thinking outside of the box and trying new ideas. It also means placing projects within the context of broader change.

What challenges does a change agent face? There are a number of obstacles that often stand in the way of change. One of the biggest is simple but effective resistance. As a rule, humans tend to be wary of change. It’s disrupting and difficult, which is what makes it worthwhile — it also makes many people nervous and distrustful. Within an organization, that natural hesitance is strengthened by entrenched routines. Progress might mean changing structures and policies that have been in place for years. That change can be uncomfortable and require hard work. A change agent will have to overcome that resistance. That usually means convincing others the outcome will be worth the inconvenience and uncertainty.

If you are a change agent or you’re developing them, organizational politics will be another big challenge. In most organizations, the spread of power is something change agents have to consider if they want to accomplish anything. Early on, try to include powerful figures in your plan for change. This way you’ll have their political influence on your side, instead of against it. You may also need to make compromises along the way to placate important figures within the organization. Balancing compromise with goal setting is a key skill for change agents.  

What skills does a change agent need to succeed? Being a successful change agent is not always easy, and you need to have certain skills in your toolbox. One of these skills is perspective. To effect change, you’ll first need to have a vision of what needs to be changed. You can develop this perspective by paying attention to your organization, to the voices within it, and to the outside industry. Once you have developed your vision, you need to be able to share it with others. Strong communication and relationship skills will help you to involve others in your goals and to build a strong team.

You’ll also need persistence. Change doesn’t happen overnight. Stay patient and stay committed to see your goals through to the end.

This article originally appeared in Diversity Executive's sister publication, Chief Learning Officer.