5 Ingredients to Make a Great Change Agent + Recognizing the Not-So-Great Ones
"Change Agent" is so overused lately it has come to mean anyone willing to change out the toner cartridge in the printer. Half the resumes I come across all have the same claim; "Change agent with a track record of success". Less than ten percent of those resumes have any examples of real change they have created and led (and by the way, if you were so successful leading change, why are you sending out resumes? Just sayin'...)

Recognizing the Not-So-Great Change Agents

Bad change agents change jobs -- People who come into an organization with specific ideas of what to change often trumpet how the "change" they will bring will save the company. They're usually brought in as a result of a volatile marketplace or during a business downturn and then proceed to denigrate the ideas and efforts of others under the guises of "passion" and "urgency". Within three years, people get tired of the bluster and the "change huckster" is sent packing. Not only did they not deliver any substantive change, I would argue that they have calcified the organization against new efforts for change. You can best recognize this person when they say: "They weren't ready to change." 

Mediocre change agents change what people do -- People who come into an organization and preach the value of efficiency and first look for suboptimal processes. They're usually brought in to specifically make people and teams more efficient and they have varying degrees of success by driving evolutionary improvement. This practice has value (especially when paired with complementary people and approaches) and could deliver infinite sustainable value if the outside world would only have the patience to remain still. Within three to five years, either people get tired of the uninspiring tedium of squeezing blood from a stone, or the core value proposition of the group undergoing evolutionary change is eroded to the point where efficiency cannot keep pace with effectiveness. You can best recognize this person from the six-sigma certificate on their profile.

Recognizing the Good Change Agents

Good change agents change what people believe  -- People who come into an organization and preach the value of effectiveness, when complemented with efficiency, and first look for opportunities to inspire individuals and teams. They are usually brought in by people who have come to value their insight and approach through having first-hand experience working with them.

Good change agents have a form of "x-ray vision" where they can see through statements, practices and policies into the base assumptions that lie underneath them. Within one to three years, good change agents begin to accelerate the value they are able to derive by combining their x-ray vision with a compelling narrative to change the underlying assumptions within their sphere of influence. You can best recognize this person by both their willingness to question conventional thinking and their ability to drive results with unconventional methods.

Great change agents change what organizations believe -- People who come into an organization and preach the value of complementary skill-sets and first look for "ripeness". Great change agents aren't brought in at all; they emerge. Like good change agents, great change agents have the same "x-ray vision" and ability to create compelling narratives to change the underlying assumptions. 

What separates great change agents, is where they choose to ply their skills; Great change agents choose to believe that their sphere of influence is only limited by where they draw the "horizon line" and how much time and effort they are willing to expend. 

Great change agents don't look at a particular context or a dynamic and think "I can't change that because I have no authority or influence." Great change agents look at a particular context or a dynamic and think: "What would I have to do to create the influence necessary to change that?". If the value of the change they are trying to make is important enough, they make some rough guesses on the amount of time necessary and then start advancing. You can only recognize this person in hindsight because the change they make is generally considered impossible until they have shown it to be otherwise, and once done, the nay-sayers call it obvious (the "egg of columbus" is emblematic of this phenomena).

Do You Have What it Takes?

Despite what other articles and books might tell you, there is no finite list or sure-fire path to greatness in any endeavor. There are, however, some basic ingredients to get you on your way:

  1. The Courage to Look Foolish -- There is a lot of risk in being a harbinger of change and you will have to get used to the idea that "good ideas" emerge from "failed ideas" that provide insight.
  2. Perseverance -- Nothing of any substantive value was created without time and effort.
  3. X-ray Vision into Buried Assumptions -- Real change requires unwinding past decisions and assumptions. You must not only "think deeply", you must "look deeply".
  4. Cognitive Science / Empathy -- Sustainable change requires an understanding of the environment within the boundaries of the change and how the inside participants required to make the change will embrace or reject the change.
  5. Systems Thinking -- Sustainable change requires an understanding of the environment beyond the boundaries of the change and how the outside environment will embrace or reject the change.

While each one of these aspects is necessary, you can "get by" without being a master at each one. Don't forget, good change agents know how to complement themselves with others and great change agents are willing to take the time necessary to let things develop.

Image Courtesy of  Raywoo (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Another good piece from Stephen: Innovation Is Neither a Process nor a Department