The Perils of Declaring: "I'm a Change Agent."

joy research Jun 18, 2020

Written by Ed Cook

Joy Research
Since the start of 2020, we have engaged in a fascinating project: Joy Research.  This plays into informing the mission of The Change Decision - to bring Joy at Work.  We have been interviewing CEOs and senior leaders about how leading teams, managing change, and group decision-making impact Joy at Work.  There are so many enlightening elements of this research that we are going to do a free Webinar.  If you’d like to hear the full story, please sign up here. This post is a taste of what we have found. One discovery is that the phrase,  “I’m a
Change Agent” is an indicator, a canary in the coal mine, for the organization’s culture.

Before describing why that is so, some background in what we have found through the Joy Research will be helpful.  First, there is some difference between managing change and managing a project.  In our Joy Research interviews, leaders tell us it is possible to distinguish a successfully managed project from a successfully managed change.  Maybe not with precise language, but they know project success is separate from change success.  The distinction is one of our core findings.

Research Finding #1
This research finding implies that it is possible to have project success but a change failure.  An example would be an Information Technology project that lands inside the constraints of scope, schedule, and budget, but fails as a change initiative because people don’t know how to use the technology to get the value.  The IT system “works,” but the project value is not realized.

Change Management often is a nebulous term for leaders.  They understand change is important and might even have an idea of the value of a particular change landing well, but when asked to define change management they typically don’t have a ready answer.  Here is one definition: 

“Change Management is the practice of applying a structured approach to transition an organization from a current state to a future state to achieve expected benefits.”
    The Standard for Change Management, 2014
    Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP)

The importance of this definition is that it helps set up a distinction related to the next research finding.  The next level of this parallel between a project and a change is to distinguish a successfully led project from a successfully led change.  This distinction is also a core finding.

Research Finding #2
The distinction here seems to be well beyond just a semantic quibble.  CEOs and senior leaders have bottom-line impact if they can go beyond project and change management and achieve project and change leadership.

Change Agent
An indicator phrase for the distinction between managing change and leading change is “I’m a change agent.”  In the Joy Research interview, this phrase is usually in response to the question: “How do you balance the need for change with the need for the status quo?”  If part of the immediate response is “I’m a change agent, ” then what follows is often a description of how they as leaders push for change against the resistance of the others in the organization.  The leaders will go on to describe how much organizational effort they have to extract to make the change happen.  They have ensured both that the project completed (project management) and the people engaged as desired (change management), but they miss the damage to their culture.

That cultural impact is almost always negative.  So far, every organization we have encountered has had a bad change leadership experience,  meaning they got the value out of the effort but damaged their culture.  This situation reminds us of a consultant that claimed “Change management is ground warfare!”  In this consultant’s framing, the battle has been won but the war is lost.  

As the Joy Research interview continues, we ask about the relationship between culture and values.  It is here that a third finding is revealed. 

Research Finding #3
We did not find it surprising that organizations that stated the value of respect but didn’t act upon it were less likely to engage in Change Leadership activities.  We were surprised at how little positive impact merely statingvalues had for achieving change leadership outcomes.  The value was all in the actions taken.  So literally writing the values on the wall, on a website, or on a desk stand card did not have more than a negligible impact.  Actions by leadership were what mattered.  We did, however, see a negative impact when values were stated but not acted upon.  So putting the value of respect on the wall and then NOT treating people with respect was worse than just not doing it without the wall art. 

The Opportunity
These findings point to an opportunity for CEOs and senior leaders.  If the goal is to build a company that becomes stronger with every effort it undertakes (an outcome, we believe, of achieving Joy at Work), then change initiatives must not only be managed...but robustly led.  “Robustly led” is no easy task, but we tackle exactly that in the Savvy Change Leader Series which you can learn more about here

It is through change leadership that the organization’s culture is strengthened.   As a result, the organization can take on the next change with even more likelihood of success.  And again from there,  a virtuous cycle that goes well beyond achieving project success.  The result of Joy at Work is a culture that is designed for long term success.

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