As the pressure on organisations to change increases, many are turning to internal change agents to lead change initiatives and engage employees in the change process.
Internal change agents often come from a range of specialist departments, such as OD, Organisation Effectiveness or Quality Improvement – or support functions, such as HR. However, we often hear from these individuals that they feel like a ‘prophet in one’s own land’. No matter what their levels of expertise or experience, they feel they are not listened to or taken seriously. This is despite some of the clear advantages that internals have over externals, such as their understanding of the organisation, its culture and what has been tried and not worked in the past.
Over the years, we have worked closely with internals to develop their expertise and help them to influence how change happens in their organization. We have also published research as to how they influence change and establish credibility. Our fundamental, and most basic, observation is that internals who are able to influence change and enable something different to happen have earned a ‘license to operate’. They do this by establishing trust and credibility with influential individuals and groups in their organisations. As a result, they are valued for their expertise and insight and people listen to them.
The top tips we would offer internal change agents who want to develop their credibility and influence are:
1. Start by working with the ‘early adopters’ or those individuals who are willing to try something different and believe that change needs to be approached in a different way.
2. Work below the radar until a change starts to take off and then encourage those involved to share positive stories and successes. This inevitably starts to attract attention from others who then become curious about what is happening.
3. Find those issues that people really care about and want to work on together to improve their lives and their products or services. Too often internals can pursue changes or ideals that they believe should happen but others do not care about.
4. Focus on small but significant projects and make them a success. In contrast to conventional wisdom, large scale change is rarely brought about through grand visions and plans. Often small and symbolic changes trigger others to act and change starts to spread like a virus rather than as a result of a ‘grand plan’.
5. Many years ago, the renowned OD practitioner, Roger Harrison, advised internal consultants to work with the forces that are supportive of change, rather than against defensiveness and resistance. Equally, he advised internals to work with the relatively healthy parts of the organisation and avoid ‘lost causes’. Effective internal change agents in our experience from the beginning focus on where they see potential to make a difference.
6. Find and develop sponsorship at senior levels of the organisation. Contrary to what is widely advocated by many change practitioners, active sponsorship is not necessary for all change initiatives. The minimum level that is required is permission for changes to be initiated. The next level, which is more desirable, is support and encouragement for change. Ideally, senior leaders would actively participate. However, this is not always necessary and change agents often push too hard against the resistance of senior individuals to getting involved.
7. Work with leaders and sponsors to mobilise a ‘critical mass’ of activists for each change project from across all parts and levels of the organisation. These are the individuals who are going to act, role model change and challenge others to change.
8. Work collaboratively with other functions, such as HR, comms and strategy, to develop their capability and develop supporters and allies. Equally, avoid creating enemies and adversaries who feel threatened by your existence. This requires a sensitivity to tribal politics and territorial boundaries.
9. Act as a connector. Use your knowledge and networks to connect individuals and change projects from across the organisation. Putting individuals in contact with others not only helps change happen but it also builds your credibility as a networker and someone who can see systemic connections and opportunities.
10. Be pragmatic and flexible. Beware of trying to follow a set methodology because this is how things ‘should’ happen. In the real world, change is messy and improvised. In our research, those individuals who had credibility were prepared to roll up their sleeves and get involved. They pushed the boundaries as far as they believed was possible and challenged when they believed they would be heard.
In summary, effective change agents influence through their relationships, expertise and ability to help rather than through formal authority and control. This requires them to be trusted and to have credibility in their organisations.