change agent (agent of change)
What is a change agent?
A change agent, or agent of change, is someone who promotes and enables change to happen within any group or organization.
In business, a change agent is an individual who promotes and supports a new way of doing something within the company. This can be the use of a new process, the adoption of a new management structure or the transformation of an old business model to a new one.
A change agent is sometimes also called an agent of change or change advocate. Champion, change champion and change agent are often used interchangeably, as well; however, some see differences between the roles each one plays in supporting change. For example, a change agent is viewed as having more responsibilities and accountability than a champion for ensuring that change happens successfully.
Internal vs. external change agents
Managers and executives are often expected to be change agents within their organizations. However, internal change agents are not limited to high-ranking C-level employees. A change agent can be a lower-tier worker with the right mix of skills, characteristics and authority to shepherd others through the transformation. The fictional book The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim tells the story of an IT manager who guides upper management through a digital transformation.
A change agent can also be someone outside the organization, such as an external consultant hired to help with a change effort.
Although a change agent can come from various positions inside or outside an organization, a successful change agent is someone who is respected by the people the organizational change affects. They also tend to be individuals who are well-informed about the various facets of the project, the organization and the staff members involved.
What change agents do
Regardless of the actual position or job title a change agent holds, an individual who takes on the task of being an agent of change assumes responsibility for the following:
- promoting the value of the transformation;
- formulating how the transformation will happen;
- guiding and supporting others through the transformation; and
- ensuring that the new processes, procedures and organizational structures are implemented to deliver the value the organization expected.
Overall, a change agent serves as a liaison between an organization's leadership that sponsors a change initiative and the people affected by the change. The change agent helps articulate reasons for the change, answers questions and persuades others on the necessity of the initiative. They also raise concerns to the attention of leadership and decision-makers.
Change agents' roles and responsibilities
To achieve change management objectives, a change agent assumes responsibilities that start once leadership decides to undertake an initiative. That way, a change agent can contribute to the initiative's implementation strategy, action plan and decision-making process.
By assigning a change agent at the start of an initiative, their objectives, responsibilities and metrics for success can be incorporated into the project plan.
The specific change management tasks that fall to the change agent include the following:
- explaining why change is taking place and who will be affected;
- advocating for the change initiative;
- disseminating information;
- highlighting the potential benefits and drawbacks of the proposed initiative;
- anticipating and evaluating areas of potential dispute or disruption;
- developing strategies to counteract any potential areas of dispute or disruption;
- obtaining feedback to share with leadership and conveying responses;
- serving as a point person to hear others' concerns, ideas and questions;
- advising stakeholders, as well as the individuals the change affects;
- mediating points of contention; and
- tracking and managing objectives of the project.
Change agent characteristics
There are three main types of change agents:
- People-centric. These change agents help boost employee morale and motivation. They help employees through a change and assist with goal setting, training and upskilling.
- Structure-centric. These agents focus on changing an organization's infrastructure. They research and implement new technologies and perform systems analysis.
- Process-centric. These change agents focus on implementing new change processes and facilitating communication and cooperation among teams.
To ensure success, leadership should choose a change agent based on characteristics commonly identified as the most effective for positions such as chief transformation officers. Those characteristics include the following:
- diversified knowledge;
- experience in the business discipline impacted by the change effort;
- a willingness to ask tough questions;
- flexibility, creativity and an openness to new ideas;
- a strong network;
- trustworthiness and credibility;
- an understanding of the organization's corporate culture;
- the ability to tell a company narrative;
- excitement for new opportunities and potential; and
- comfort working through uncertainty.
Important change agent skills
A change agent must have the following skills to be successful:
- the ability to prioritize
- strong relationship building capabilities
- effective communication skills
- good people skills
A certain level of technical knowledge might also be important. Change agents should be familiar with common digital transformation tools.
Learn more about digital transformation
Why agents of change are important
An effective change agent serves a distinct role within a change initiative as a proponent of the change, as well as a conduit between leadership and the rest of the organization. A successful agent of change can help smooth resistance to change. Another role of a change agent is problem solving and addressing issues before they derail an initiative, ultimately ensuring the successful implementation and adoption of a new change project.
Change agents are important to organizations as facilitators of digital transformation. Learn the top 3 challenges individuals pushing for change face when implementing a digital transformation.