The “who” in change

Most books on change management focus on what change management is and how it should be done, rather than who does the work

From a management point of view, the ideal scenario may be that the work can be carried out by a project team that defines and deploys various implementation activities. However, there are a number of reasons why a classical “project” model is insufficient to lead change.

First of all, in a reality where time and resources are increasingly scarce, project teams will not be able do everything on their own. Second, with a project team operating semi-detached from the organization in which it is supposed to implement, effective stakeholder management is in most cases very challenging as the project manager may not have the required influence to effectively drive change. Third, the project may not be the only one with impact on a department and / or individuals which leads to a situation in which project teams are “competing” about the attention of stakeholders.

In fact, one of the biggest mistakes we can make as a project or change manager is to believe that we personally can or should “manage” all stakeholders in the project. Such an effort will not only fail, it can potentially negatively impact the “natural” change leadership capability of the organization, as some managers may lean back and let the project manager / change managerĀ  do the job.

The terms “change leaders” and “change agents” are often used interchangeably, although there are subtle differences in the meaning of the terms. The term “Change Agent” origins from the school of Organizational Development (OD). Early definitions of Change Agents emphasized that the “change agent” as an “outside helper”, based on the assumption that some one external to the organization would find it more easy to bring in something new to an organization. Later definitions contradicted this by stating that the capability of a change agent was not so much based on whether the change agent was internal or external, but rather on the extent to which the individual mastered the OD techniques.

The term “change leadership” on the other hand origins from general leadership research. The concept of change leadership is inspired by Burns (1978) and later Bass (1985) who introduced the term “transformational leadership” as distinctive to the transactional leadership of managing day to day business. According to Burns, the term transformational leadership refers to the ability to “inspire followers to change expectations, perceptions, and motivations“.

How is “change leadership” then different from” change management”? As opposed to change management, change leadership is not so much a set of tools and planned activities, rather it “concerns the driving forces, visions and processes that fuel large-scale transformation” as John Kotter explains echoing the definition of transformational leadership as defined by Burns and Bass.

Change leadership is process of doing as well as non-doing. It is first and foremost seeing the needs of the individual, providing empathy and support. Explaining what the change means to the team, and what individuals can do to prepare for transition. It is acknowledging reactions to change while staying firm about the vision. At the level of non-doing, it is observing and reflecting, resisting the temptation to give in to impatience and over-management.

Returning to the original question of the “who” in change – it is key to think about what you can do (and what you can’t do) as an “outside helper”. The “outside helper” has the advantage of focus and abstraction – as she is not bound by the day to day responsibilities, culture or politics of the organization. This means that she can be objective, bring in lessons learned from other companies and introduce various innovations. However, as mentioned above, she neither could nor should seek to become a change leader, as this is the responsibility of leading members of the organization.

The importance of “who” cannot be overemphasized. A vision may be ground breaking and inspiring – but if not clearly expressed by top management, who will bother? The ambition to delegate responsibility and involve local teams is honorable, but if not expressed by local team managers, who will participate?

So what can appointed change managers do? They can support management in understanding the impact of change, understand their role as change leaders and how they can support the transition process, facilitate the discussion of various change related challenges and issues.

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