How to Choose the Right Change Agents

Sep 19, 2016
13 Min Read
How to Choose the Right Change Agents

How to Choose the Right Change Agents

When deciding which team member will be tapped as a change agent to help drive a new initiative, do you: a) select someone who has time to do it; b) has experience in the area; or c) draw names out of a hat and hope for the best.

While most leaders would likely not choose the third option, many do rely on experience and availability as important criteria to be a change agent. The problem with that strategy is that it doesn’t guarantee that those attributes will lead to a successful transformation – and may be just like drawing names out of a hat and hoping for the best.

In a paper by Tata Consultancy Services, researchers say that while change agents are critical and can “guide and motivate others to adopt the results of the change process,” the right starting point for choosing such people should be “what” not “who.”

“Keeping in mind what the change agents need to accomplish should be the first step in selecting the right people. This defines roles and responsibilities,” say researchers.

While experience and availability are key in selecting a change agent, “other qualities necessary to do the job might be overlooked,” such as being able to adapt and work effectively in a variety of situations. Further, strong communication and problem-solving skills are also important when selecting change agents, researchers say.

James Dallas, who has decades of experience leading change as an executive, is author of a new book, “Mastering the Challenges of Leading Change: Inspire the People and Succeed Where Others Fail.

He says he has learned through his own experiences that “creating impact requires a lot more than a good recommendation and the right job title. It requires you to be able to move other’s minds from point A, a known, comfortable place, to point B, the great and threatening unknown.”

He says he doesn’t believe that leaders grasp this concept, just as he didn’t in the beginning of his change management career. “I was more focused on the task, instead of choosing the right change agents,” he says.

Dallas says there often is a lack of training in change management and an understanding of how influence actually happens.

He says there are several ways that leaders can do a better job of leading change and finding the right people to make it happen. Among them:

  • Choose someone who has something to prove. “Change is always personal before it’s professional,” he says. “You don’t want someone who is just trying to earn another star. You want people who are taking it personally and will work through any obstacles.” He says the person who is considered a weak link by others may be the person who wants to prove something to himself and to others and so will work tirelessly to make a difference. “If that person has passion but not the reputation or the title, all the better,” he says.
  • Know who isn’t a good fit. Dallas suggests leaders forget about “mavericks,” or those employees who are passionate and creative, but work better when there isn’t a lot of structure. Another employee to avoid putting on the team is a “hub” – the employee who colleagues trust as “one of us,” he says. Putting such an employee on a change team “would make the hub ‘one of them,’ eroding what makes him or her so influential,” he says. That influence will be needed to keep abreast of what is concerning employees about the change, especially those watercooler comments that might otherwise be difficult to uncover. Further, avoid “tech zealots” who are “so interested in the new technology in play that they lose sight of the end goals.”
  • Ask two questions. Interviewing for change agents is like a first date, in that “they’re lying to you and you’re lying to them,” because no company is that great, and no employee is that good, he says. But he always pays attention to the answers to two key questions: “Tell me the worst mistake you have ever made,” and “Tell me about the worst time you’ve been scapegoated.” He says that he’s looking for people who don’t end their answers with what went wrong – but with what they learned and how they benefited from the situation.
  • Look for black-and-white thinkers. The overall change leader has too much on her plate to manage various projects within the initiative, so look for program leaders who can help set priorities, handle the politics and keep team members engaged and moving forward when things get tough. These leaders are “direct, straight shooters who want the same from others,” he says. When interviewing for program leaders, look for the people who try to pin you down on specifics, are very solution-focused and even have a rigid posture.
  • Don’t let data take over. The change process often has become more difficult because more organizations are relying on lots of data – and may not be using it the right way. “Data is objective,” Dallas say, “but interpretation is subjective and people will interpret it through their own filter.” In addition, just because data is presented does not mean others will accept it. “There should not be more than three pieces of data with any change initiative,” he says. “If you’re going to use it, make sure the data resonates with people and doesn’t put them to sleep.”
  • Prevent the silent killer. Unless someone is designated to check the pulse of a team from time to time, dysfunction can creep in. Dallas suggests someone in human resources or organizational behavior be asked to keep an eye on the team to make sure it’s functioning in a healthy way. Another key player is a communications person, who will help craft a message for “both you and your intended audience,” he says. “Over the course of the initiative, this person will save you more than once from sticking your foot in your mouth and slowing down the process.”
  • Forget widespread replacements. “Even if you’re brought in for a radical initiative – or to rescue one that has gone into the ditch – very rarely do you have to replace everybody,” he says. When a leader believes someone needs to be replaced, the key is to look at whether someone is being used in the right way, and whether you’re blowing things out of proportion. “It’s sort of like marriage – you have to decide whether you’re about to debate stuff that doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things,” he says.
  • Tap into diversity. Dallas says he once “fell on my rear end” when he didn’t make sure a key team was cross-functional. Groupthink had set in, and Dallas says he didn’t have people in place that would have pushed for new solutions – and that led to mistakes down the road. While homogenous teams are fine when you’re dealing with problems that have clear solutions, most change initiatives are dilemmas that may seem to have infinite answers. Diverse teams are better able to nail down the best answer, he says.
  • Make sure everyone has skin in the game. Don’t partner with third parties unless they are willing to share some risk. At the same time, look for vendors who are candid about engagements that didn’t go well – and what they learned from it and how they tried to fix it, he says. 

Dallas says it’s also critical to make a project “have a higher goal,” with leaders striving to ensure team members understand how the initiative is “going to make a difference.”

“There’s two things that people really care about: security and significance. They want to know what it’s going to do for them and for others,” he says.

Alastair Rylatt, director of Alastair Rylatt Consulting who did his doctorate thesis at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, studied 31 business people for a year. He found that some individuals are more successful than others in facilitating organizational or industry change. He says some questions that helped identify these better change agents include:

  • “Can you give me an example of how you might adapt your language and delivery to better communicate the benefits or reasons for change?”
  • “What do you consider when confronting resistance to change?”
  • “What have you learned in your life about the best way of engaging others in change?”
  • “When do you call on senior management for assistance? When would you avoid talking to senior management?”

Rylatt notes that the higher performing change agents in his study also had a high amount of collaboration, “not only within their business, but also externally” such as through participating in staff education and incorporating objectives in business planning processes.

Finally, Dallas cautions that too many organizations are “definitely rushing it” when it comes to change initiatives because they’re worried about the competition beating them if they don’t change fast enough.

“You can start and scale a change initiative pretty quickly, but sustaining it gets short-ended. As a result, change doesn’t really take root,” he says. “That will make people sick of change very fast.”

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