This article is about viruses, but in a metaphorical sense. I want to talk about a good kind of virus – the virus of change and how change can be spread just like a virus.
The leaders, politicians, or executives of an organization (depending on the change we are talking about) are necessary because they are the ones who can make the big decisions to change and, of course, provide that change with necessary budget. However, the reality of a change working or not, whether it pulls an organization forward or if it is just one more failed attempt at change, is not up to them.
I wanted to talk in this article about the most important role in any change, the one that makes the change go viral: the role of change agent or, better yet, the Super Change Agent.
What is a Change Agent?
A change agent, according to Alan O’Neill, is anyone who acts intentionally, but without formal authority, to facilitate change in an organization. Peter Senge also calls him an “internal networker”, because his role is to create an internal network, beyond organizational charts and hierarchies, that enables change.
Change agents in an organization can be coaches or consultants (internal or external), but can also be anyone from HR to Marketing, trainers, support staff, or even Managers – why not?
The Change Agent Role
I like to summarize the essence of this role in the following way: the change agents are those people who facilitate change by being relatable, realistic, and empowering.
- Relatable: they are perceived as equals by people impacted by change. In the TED talk, “How to Start a Movement”, Derek Sivers talks about the “first followers”, that is, the equals that make the rest move: the true leaders.
- Realistic: they manage to ground the change in the reality their companions live in. A change agent understands the day-to-day difficulties, provides help and encouragement to overcome them, and offers solutions to achieve goals.
- Empowering: they spread the enthusiasm and confidence necessary to push change forward.
At this time of COVID-19, change agents are the health professionals who, while working marathon days in (often) not the best conditions, still take on the additional responsibility of advising, informing, and making recommendations.
Teachers who send videos to their students through WhatsApp with proposed activities and encouragement to get ahead are also change agents.
Change agents are the neighbors who scheduled balcony “parties” to applaud the efforts of essential workers. And they’re also a long list of people who, with their positive attitudes and daily actions, will get us all through this change in the hopes that #everythingwillbeok.
Super Change Agent Characteristics
The following are 8 characteristics that, for me, make a change agent super:
Helps to generate knowledge networks. Knows how to move around the organization and puts people in contact who can help each other. Helps information circulate and reach everyone, without distorting the message by adapting it to each environment. The “glue” that helps connect all the parts in any change.
Has no formal authority, cannot make decisions, but has opinions that are taken into account. Knows how to influence. Can speak in the most appropriate language for a given situation. Understands the difficulties the people undergoing the change are experiencing.
Works to make the rest of the people in the organization change agents. Knowledge or information isn’t retained but broadcasted to others. Actively seeks opportunities to explain, train, and share.
Has no formal authority, cannot make decisions, but is a team player. Does not have the answers for everything, but asks questions, helps people, and works collaboratively to get answers.
Facilitates change, in the sense of making it possible, and also of making it easy. This work is done with a constructive and playful attitude, using games, stories, and visual tools to achieve effective communication.
A change agent is in constant motion. They don’t like the status quo, because there is always room for improvement. Critical of own work and of the ways things are done in the organization. Always looking for ways to challenge people to go further, although always in balance with a realistic vision of what can be done.
Eternal apprentice, #alwayslearning. Looks for opportunities to learn. Through experimentation, seeks valuable feedback quickly to confirm or discard hypotheses and learn what works and what doesn’t.
Knows where the organization is going. Knows how to look at the big picture and see things at a very high level, but is also grounded in detail. Understands that everything is connected and knows how to see the relationships between each part, even if they are not evident (you can’t always see the forest through the trees). Thinks global and acts local.
Goes through change like everyone else. Rolls up his sleeves, does the job, is perceived as another team member. An equal and inspires others to follow the same path. Like the climber who wants to teach someone who has never climbed before, he doesn’t do it by staying on the ground and giving directions, but by climbing the mountain as well.
Organizations that are currently undergoing major transformations (Agile Transformation, Digital Transformation , etc.) have Agile coaches or transformation coaches in general, scrum masters, strategic consultants, business analysts, project managers, or program managers. All of them have their functions as change agents, and as such, they must also generate more change agents among the people who go through the change. Therefore, in addition to the specific functions of their role, they must take into account and work on each of these eight characteristics. The success of change may depend on it.
Leadership Role with Respect to Change Agents
Leaders must create the environment, the conditions for change to emerge, and the evolution. In addition, they must propose the mechanisms to guarantee correct development and to allow the change to be successful. They can contribute to the change by providing transparency, offering training and learning opportunities, and allowing the establishment of transversal knowledge networks, such as communities of practice.
As I said at the beginning, I wanted to talk about viruses. It’s the change agents who spread the virus of change.