As well as factual knowledge, a change manager needs social skills. He or she has to have empathy and be able to discuss and appreciate the anxieties and difficulties of staff. People, after all, like to stay with what they know. That is why change creates tension which a change manager can moderate and alleviate with their skills.
How does a change agent work?
Top management at a business can engage a change agent as a consultant as soon as they begin to think about changes. Once these have been decided on with the change manager, he or she switches from consultant to project manager. The change manager is now responsible for implementing the project and manages the timetable.
This task requires not only factual knowledge. A change manager has to organise the project professionally and carry it out.
Key to change: having a clear objective
Employees at the company are regularly informed about the state of change and the forthcoming steps. It is a change manager’s responsibility to guarantee a flow of information and convey the vision of the future business successfully to the workforce.
A positive example of the power of a vision is the aim which Jürgen Klinsmann defined when he began work as Germany’s national football coach: we want to be World Champions. This vision allowed him to break free of the antiquated structures and processes established by the German Football Association. They may not have won the title in the end, but his vision enabled far-reaching change and a transformation of German football.
Change requires teamwork
Employees often feel like victims of change processes. Their familiar ways of working are changed. Good change management succeeds in convincing the majority that the changes are relevant. Employees can be additionally motivated if they are allowed to help shape the changes. This means they are involved in the change process and they act in concert.
To achieve this, a good change agent has daily contact with the workforce. Like a coach, he or she motivates the team and allocates responsibilities to employees who collectively move closer to the aim of change.
It is essential for management to support the agent. If there is a lack of backing from company management, there will be little chance of convincing employees of the need to change. Managers need to lead by example and be the first to adjust their own habits to new working processes. This makes them change leaders and role models.
Change management: the process
John P. Kotter developed a model of change management in 1996. A professor at Harvard Business School, he proposed dividing the process up into eight phases.
- Ascertain the need for action
Analysis will reveal where action is needed. Is there unused potential in an organisation? Where is the system inefficient?
- Form a team
The change agent assembles a team with the help of management. Which employees are important in bringing change to the operation or business?
- Develop a vision
The team works together to develop a vision of the future business. What strategies can help achieve the aim? What will practical implication be like?
The change agent conveys a vision to all of the areas of the business and convinces employees and managers of the objective. He or she acts as a multiplier for the idea.
- Eliminate obstacles
Processes that do not fit the vision are transformed. What roles and working procedures contradict the new concept? How can we replace them?
- Celebrate success
The change agent defines interim objectives for the project. In the starting phase of the project, he or she sets aims that are easy to achieve. When employees see their efforts bearing fruit, that will motivate them more.
- Drive changes
After each interim objective, the change agent asks: What went well? What did not? How can we improve it?
- Embed changes
Once the changes have been applied, they have to become a permanent part of everyday practice. Only then is the change process complete. Did we manage to change our habits?
Engaging a change agent: internal or external?
Change managers can be employed, trained internally or engaged from the outside. A team of internal and external change agents can work together, depending on the size of the project. The extent to which this is necessary will usually depend on the duration of the change project.
The internal change agent: how the workforce drives change
When an internal change agent takes charge of change management, they have to leave their previous responsibilities behind. This will create a gap in the internal change agent’s original department. Furthermore, training an employee as a change agent usually takes a lot of time and money.
The work of a change agent requires diverse abilities, so not every employee will be suitable for this kind of training. And if you train up a change agent, you will be in possession of a rare asset. Other businesses will definitely be interested in your agent. Their aim is clear: they will want to head-hunt your top staff.
To prevent this, HR management can and must pay close attention to the change agent at an early stage, and continue to do so. Career opportunities should be the focus of their efforts. The opportunity for quick promotion is usually more effective at this point than rival offers. Pay should always be adjusted to newly acquired skills and growing responsibilities
Investing in training an internal change manager will pay off if he or she is active in the role for a long period of time or at regular intervals. Managers need to ensure that gaps in personnel are filled.
The external change agent: how businesses benefit
The external change manager has to contest with the drawbacks of being an outsider. He or she has to learn the ropes in every project. Furthermore, employees will not accept them so readily as an internal change agent.
Employees will more often find his or her suggestions and ideas senseless or inappropriate. As a freelancer, an external change manager will also demand a higher hourly rate than an internal change agent.
An external change manager will bring broad knowledge and practical experience. They will work on a particular project, and do not have to be employed once the change has been successfully completed. An external change manager can certainly pay off for projects of short duration.
Change is unavoidable
What is certain is that businesses are constantly subject to the changes in their environment. Markets and business sectors change, customers require new products and services.
Change agents help companies steer safely through change, and ensure that changes are successful in the long run. The way a business leads its workforce most efficiently through change will remain dependent on the particular situation.