Tuesday, 15 March 2016

What Exactly Are Change Agents and Change Management?

I've spent a large proportion of the last thirty years involved in or running organisational, business and software process improvement initiatives. It was probably two or three years before I realised that I was actually managing change. Back in the late 1980's, business change was far from the talking point it is these days - at least not in my circles (and most definitely not in my manager's circles). When the penny dropped, my professional life changed completely.

One of the catalysts for me was a book called "Agents of Change: The Manager's Guide to Planning and Leading Change" by Hilary Maher and Pauline Hall. Although it's a long while since I last looked through it, a casual glance at it's condition shows how much use it received in the past.

Recently I've read a number of articles about "Change Agents" but none of them seem to resonate with my own perception of what a Change Agent is. And yesterday I read an article that even had me questioning what exactly Change Management is. Once again I find myself being frustrated by our use of terminology and how relatively common business terms are perceived so differently by so many people - and that perhaps our adoption of certain terminology actually feeds some of the problems that some of us are trying so hard to eliminate.

Change Management

As I inferred in my opening paragraph, Change Management (or Management of Change) is relatively new in the business world. I doubt that there is anyone who has ever worked someone else who has not been subjected to changes in their working environment without any input to or control over the change. Top down edicts from all levels of management have traditionally been the norm as the command and control culture has predominated across the world of work (and increasingly in government also - but that's a different story).

Because of that command and control system, managers felt it unnecessary to involve staff in the mechanism of change, which was largely achieved through sticks and occasional carrots. Staff reactions to change were considered irrelevant; The prevailing sentiments were "if they don't like it they can leave", or "we know what's best for the company (or shareholders)", and Fear Uncertainly and Doubt were often the chosen tools for affecting change.

As people started pushing back and resisting the big brother approach to change, a few enlightened people began to look at the psychology of change and the effects it was having on staff, especially in terms of productivity and staff retention. People began to understand that a chaotic, dictatorial approach to change was not the best way to implement change, and Change Management became one of the key buzzwords of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

In my view Change Management involves taking a holistic view to making sustainable change in a organisation, and looking at the change from a people perspective (whilst still understanding the technical and business requirements of the change) rather than simply as a push process whereby complying with the corporate diktat is the only criteria for success.

Many companies have proprietary 'methods' in place to help manage change - and they usually involve elements such as leadership, communication, collaboration, planning, monitoring and education. My own 5 Facets of  Change is a work in progress.

Even with the concept of Change Management firmly established in the business world, there are still a large number of managers and businesses that force change through the organisation by paying lip service to genuine change management - plans are written, teams established and change agents appointed to carry out the will of management and disregard the will of the people.

So why am I now coming to the conclusion that the term Change Management is not only wrong but may be harmful? It's down to that word 'management', which still has the connotation of someone managing someone else and an overarching implication that leaders define the change and the staff change.

What we're really talking about is the Facilitation or Realisation of Change - helping people at all levels of the organisation to shape change, buy in to change, and work collaboratively across the business to make change successful and sustainable. That last word is key - even force feeding change into the organisation can succeed to a certain extent, but it won't take long before people revert back to the previous status quo.

The Change Agent

I have written about change agents before in this blog (posts about Change Agents). But once again, the use of the phrase causes consternation from some readers. The implication is that as 'agents' they are management spies or puppets, only there to execute the will of the diktat. I recently used the word 'champions' in the context of change and was firmly rebuked by one reader, suggesting that if we needed people to champion change then"good luck with getting it to stick in the long term".

I think of the change agent as a layer of protection from misguided management and wayward change initiatives which are not undertaken without due diligence and planning - those ad hoc changes which do far more harm than good. I see these people as "champions" of doing change appropriately, and making sure that staff get to share their issues, ideas and solutions and get heard!

I see change agents operating at all levels of the organisation, and not all performing the same role. Some will be change process experts, others will be great at building relationships with stakeholders, others acting as devil's advocates, and still others acting as management foils, but collectively they have a single collective goal of making a change work and making the change sustainable.

The problem with terminology is that it doesn't take long for it to become adopted universally and popularised, by which time it's usually too late to realise that we words don't really reflect what we originally intended. What were perfectly good words at the time, become vilified - not because they are bad words, but because people have misunderstood what concepts were being represented and have manipulated things to serve their own purposes. You only have to think about how the term 'agile' has been misused, misinterpreted and misunderstood to appreciate how quickly we make a mockery of ideas that were full of good intentions but get hijacked to serve completely different agendas.

So Change Management and Change Agents have become enshrined into our vox populi. If I try and come up with alternatives it will only serve to further confuse and obfuscate the original intentions - so I'll keep away from talking about Change Stewards and Steering Change, and some of the other phrases that came to mind while I was writing this. Instead I'll focus on trying to make sure that we have a common and shared understanding about the terms we already have in place!

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