The Change Agent’s Challenge

February 22, 2008 at 8:56 am 1 comment

While there are other ways to define the role of a Change Agent (CA), the CA’s most commonly assigned and practiced mandate is to bring about a pre-determined Change within a community. A CA is typically assigned the task, “Make this happen!” and it is their responsibility to force/cajole/steer/entice/motivate etc. etc. the community to move towards a specific destination. The CA fails in their task if ‘this’ doesn’t happen exactly as envisioned by those who assigned them to their role of CA. In the real world, the CA typically does not have a lot of wiggle room in their assignment.Regardless of the specific task assigned to a CA, all CAs, without exception, must function within the context of how people respond to Change in general. It is this fact (obvious observation?) which spawns the Change Agent’s unavoidable handicap.

How do people respond to “Change in General”? The most honest and accurate answer is that we don’t, or rather we can’t, respond to Change “in general”. We can, and do, respond to specific Changes. We evaluate each Change according to its individual degree of necessity and then, and only then, respond accordingly.

This observation doesn’t stop us from making generalized statements about Change, here’s one, “The only constant is Change”. While this is cutely true (if I’d meant ‘acutely’ I’d have typed it) and ancient in origin, a more useful and more recent observation is that “People don’t resist Change, they resist being changed.”

If presented with the statement uttered by a CA, “I’m here to Change how you do things.” no rational person will gleefully respond “Okay! Do what you have to do!” Instead we immediately try to get specific and respond (retaliate?) with a simple question, “Why should we change?” This in turn, is immediately tagged as resistance, and even as a mild form of insubordination.

If the statement, “People resist Change” is true, then it is true in the same sense that Newton’s 1st law of Motion, The Law of Inertia is true.

Newton’s First Law of Motion:
The Law of Inertia.

An object at rest tends to stay at rest,
and an object in motion tends to stay
in motion with the same speed and
in the same direction unless acted
upon by an unbalanced force.

Like a stone unconsciously (literally) following Newton’s Law, we continue doing what we’re doing, until we’re presented with a reason to do something else.

When we ask “Why should we Change”, we’re not trying to annoy or frustrate anyone, we’re merely following a fundamental law of the universe. We’re just seeking the reason necessary to do something different from what we’re already doing.

The CA’s handicap is not only that they’re here to Change us, for reasons as yet unexplained, but they’re here to Change us regardless of how we feel about it. Remember, the task of the CA is to “Make this Happen” if they don’t, they fail.

So, the CA must Change us, otherwise they fail. This flies in the face of how we decide whether or not a Change is necessary. Even worse, it ignores our earlier observation, “People don’t resist Change, they resist being changed.”

Allow me to introduce you to Bill, he’s a Change Agent, he’s here to Change you.

When a Change Agent is appointed, the decision to Change is fait accompli. Nothing anyone has to say has any bearing on the matter.

There’s an alternative approach to this problem, even if there’s no generally accepted term for the role. Perhaps the term, “Change Coordinator” would work better? It suggests that at worst the person is assigned the task of coordinating the efforts, decisions and the Changes of others, rather than inflicting them with a predetermined Change?

Our desire for Change arises either from the need to respond to a threat, “We must do something about this!”, where “this” is a visible problem, or a perception that there is a better way of doing things, “We could do this in order to achieve a specific additional benefit!”.

The term “Change Agent” has accumulated far too much negative baggage, and isn’t conducive to the notion that real Change is not mandated, but instead grows out of a common understanding that it is necessary, for specific reasons, to respond to a growing threat, or to seize upon a potential future opportunity.


The Change Agent

You can see (and order) a better version of this 20×30 poster here


Entry filed under: Change, Change Management, Communicating, Communications, Leaders, Leadership, Life, Management, Managing, People Sklls, Problem Solving, Project Management, Soft Skills.

Project Management by GPS The Predictor’s Paradox

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. takeda  |  February 25, 2008 at 11:41 am

    Interesting… especially because I am about to play such a role in the next 12 months 🙂

    I may accept that most of the “mission agenda” that a CA is serving is based on what books suggests or on what the CA believes.

    However, I consider that chage is good not because at one stage somebody declares it, but because it is part of evolving and adaptation. Market asks it! Ordinary life asks for changes!

    I believe that change should be an atypical project: forget about scope, forget about boundaries, forget about project team… forget about (even!) timeline! Focus on evolution and learn people to appreciate persistance.


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