Change is inevitable. In organizations today, particularly in healthcare, change is occurring at an exceptionally fast pace. Healthcare reform legislation has created, and will continue to create, lasting change, and the changes we face are affecting us on multiple fronts. Each of these changes creates ripple effects throughout our organizations. And so it is imperative that organizations learn to better manage the changes they face with structure and leadership.
“Organizations face tremendous challenges every day,” says Gary Gronewold, master black belt and extended enterprise deployment champion with Caterpillar Inc. “These challenges are created from within the organization and by external forces (stakeholders, competition, regulatory bodies, legislation, market demands). These groups have needs, and they expect their needs to be addressed. The question for leaders of the organization is ‘What will be our response, how will we meet these needs?’”
Leading change successfully means knowing and trusting your greatest resource: your people. Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter reminds us that “to lead change, you need to bring together a coalition, or team, of influential people whose power comes from a variety of sources, including job title, status, expertise and political importance.”
According to Kotter, this “coalition” need not be of a traditional nature. Rather, look to every part of your organization for employees who will best support your change efforts. These employees are your “change agents.” They will help embrace, manage and lead change. They must understand the need for change, be excited about change and communicate that to others within the organization.
Building a Bridge to Change
Why are change agents so important? Commitment to change by your employees is the only way successful and lasting change will occur. Often, there are barriers to change that must be overcome, such as the effect of unexpected changes in external conditions, a lack of commitment in implementation, or even skepticism and resistance of people you are asking to change (targets).
The role of the change agent is not easy. Change agents may encounter limited resources, internal and external pressures, demanding deadlines, resistance from targets, and at times, conflicting messages from change sponsors. The change agent’s most important role is likely that of “translator” between employees and management. And because communication is vital to successful change, that is an important skill set.
Within that communication skill set is one attribute that may be the most important for your change agents to possess—listening. Employees often feel as though no one is listening to their concerns. With questions unanswered, and without a vehicle for their concerns, ideas or feelings, employees will feel less engaged, and are unlikely to be as supportive of change initiatives. Listening builds a bridge to employees and management/sponsors alike. Listening sends a valuable message to employees, reminding them that they are an important part of the organization and its success. Listening builds trust.
Whether your change agents are officially selected, or are individuals within the organization that simply pick up the change banner—they must be capable of the following:
- Listening! Be patient, and listen, listen, listen…
- Understanding the change
- Communicating the change effectively to both sponsors and employees
- Managing the change
- Being comfortable working with both sponsors and employees
- Being capable of building teams that include both sponsors and targets
- Building organization and structure when the work gets tough, whenever and wherever possible
- Being willing to take risks.
Always make certain to provide change agents training, tools and resources. In fact, why not loosen the reigns and allow them the opportunity to be creative, take risks and find ways to build bridges and create channels of communication? Be supportive by being clear, honest and transparent with your change agents.
As organizational leaders and sponsors, you too must listen and observe—and know when a change agent isn’t working out. Having change agents who possess all of the necessary skills is imperative to implement successful and lasting change. However, allowing a change agent to continue in that role when they do not embrace the change or clearly see the “desired state” is a road map for failure. Nothing creates more skepticism than unsuccessful change.
Assessing the Gap
A quick assessment tool I discovered in Master Change, Maximize Success by Rebecca Potts and Jeanenne LaMarsh may be helpful in determining which employees are best suited as change agents. You may create one easily with just a piece of paper and a pen. The tool will provide you with a “gap” rating (the gap between the current level of change agent responsibility and the level where you want them to be).
Creating the tool is simple. Create three columns, each with a headline. The first (left) headline is: change agent responsibilities; the second column (middle) heading is current position; and the third is your gap rating.
Under the heading of change agent responsibilities, create your expectations of the agent—what do you want them to do? Under current position, simply assess what you believe the agent’s current thinking is. Then, in the right column, gauge the “gap.” Using a scale of one to 10 may be easiest, with one as a small gap and 10 a large gap. This tool will allow a quick assessment of an employee as a change agent.
Make certain your change agents understand their roles and responsibilities, because they are also usually impacted by the change. So as a leader and sponsor of change, take the time to help them understand the why, what and how of the change and communicate clearly, transparently and often. In return, they’ll provide you the inspiration, enthusiasm and support necessary for successful and lasting change. iBi