Agents of Change

Robert Kennedy is quoted once as saying, “Some men see things as they are, and ask “why?”.  I see things as they could be, and ask “why not”? The people who seek to bridge the gap between how things are and how they could be are change agents . You might call them disrupters, transformers, modernizers, or innovators. The term may be somewhat passé, but I still call them change agents. Some are appointed to the role; some have it thrust upon them accidentally; some just assume the role naturally but change efforts of all types need one or more of these folks.

I haven’t thought about this much recently, but I was speaking with somebody just the other day about organizational change and realized that I have been on the front lines of at least four – and probably more – major organizational change initiatives. I never really set out to be a change agent, but I’ve certainly had some experience with it, and I think it comes from seeing what could be and always asking “why not?”.  

I used to tell my teams when I was a restaurant and retail manager that I wanted the store to run so well that the company could film a commercial there – they knew exactly what that meant. Sometimes there were days when that vision felt unachievable, but I just kept telling them to focus on what they coulddo that day and asked them to just make one thing better than how they found it every day, no matter how small. Over the course of two years, we went from being a “D” grade store to being a frequent “A” grade store. 

There are some common principles across other transformative changes that I have been part of – sometimes as the one bringing the change, sometimes as one who has embraced a change that was thrust upon me. There’s no one best way to be a change agent, but there are some behaviors that are common to successful agents of change.

  • Change agents either bring or embrace a clear vision – what does the future look like and why does it need to look like that? They are able to define what’s different in that vision from current conditions.
  • They communicate about change frequently and in a multitude of ways – everyone in the organization has to understand where they are going and why. Transparency is a key attribute.
  • Change agents create or embrace the plan that will take them from where they are now to where they want to be. That plan will have short term and long term elements and will change along the way – everything does! Change agents are flexible and able to adjust to changing conditions or new learning, keeping the vision and mission as lodestars to stay on track.
  • Change agents understand that change can happen in big leaps or in tiny day-to-day bits, but it has to keep moving toward the new vision, even in the face of what might appear to be insurmountable obstacles. Some things may take months or even years to implement fully, but change agents keep the ball moving forward.
  • Some elements may seem to be out of control (especially if you’ve ever worked with a  legislature!) Effective change agents bring a solutions-orientation to their work – keeping the vision in mind and always seeking ways to keep moving forward, regardless of obstacles, even in baby steps. They’re the ones always asking “why” or “why not”? every time they hit a barrier.

Organizations can create change without doing these things, but the long term sustainability and success of that effort may be undermined. In fact, I would posit that the frequent changes of leadership and the very long timelines associated with policy changes in the public sector are among the reasons that the public sector is perceived as so resistant to change. There’s inertia there that can take a very concerted effort to overcome. Change agents in government run the risk of being viewed as rebels, if not outright troublemakers, but government may need them more than any other type of organization.

We do most of our work in the area of publicly-funded long term services and supports, currently facing enormous disruptive pressure. Growing demand, exploding expenditures, workforce challenges, evolving consumer expectations, and regulatory requirements are all creating an environment where change is the norm and it may no longer be tenable to just tweak systems around the edges to achieve desired outcomes. Disruptive change willhappen, but it will only be transformative and positive with intentional effort to make it so. Change agents, or whatever you want to call them, build the bridges that can successfully carry organizations over the chasm between “as is” and “to be”. 

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