A change agent, or agent of change, is someone who promotes and enables change to happen within any group or organization.
In business, a change agent is an individual who promotes and supports a new way of doing something within the company, whether it's the use of a new process, the adoption of a new management structure or the transformation of an old business model to a new one.
A change agent is sometimes also called an agent of change or change advocate. Champion and change agent are sometimes used interchangeably, as well; however, some see differences between the roles each one plays in supporting change, with a change agent having more responsibilities and accountability than a champion for ensuring that change happens successfully.
Internal vs. external change agents
Managers and executives are often expected to be change agents within their organizations. However, change agents are not limited to high-ranking employees. A change agent can be a lower tier worker with the right mix of skills, characteristics and authority to shepherd others through the transformation. A change agent can also be someone outside the organization; an external change agent is often a consultant hired to help with a change effort.
Although a change agent can come from various positions within or outside an organization, a successful change agent is generally one who is well-respected by the individuals impacted by the organizational change, and one who is well-informed about the various facets of the project, the organization and the individuals involved.
What change agents do
Regardless of the actual position or job title a change agent holds, an individual who takes on the task of being an agent of change assumes responsibility for:
- promoting the value of the transformation that is being undertaken by the organization;
- formulating how the transformation will happen;
- guiding and supporting others through the transformation; and
- ensuring that the new processes, procedures, structures, etc., are implemented in ways that deliver the expected value that the organizational change was to produce.
Overall, a change agent serves as a liaison between the organization's leadership that sponsors a change initiative and the people impacted by the change. He or she helps articulate reasons for the change, answers questions and persuades others on the necessity of the initiative, while also bringing concerns voiced by the organization to the attention of leadership.
Change agents' roles and responsibilities
To achieve those objectives, a change agent generally assumes a number of responsibilities -- responsibilities that should start once leadership decides to undertake an initiative. That way, a change agent can contribute to the initiative's implementation strategy and decision-making process.
In addition, by assigning a change agent at the start of the initiative, the change agent's objectives, responsibilities and metrics for success can be incorporated into the project plan.
An infrastructure engineer explains her role as an agent of change.
The specific tasks that can fall to an agent of change include:
- explaining why change is taking place and who will be affected;
- advocating for the change initiative;
- disseminating information;
- highlighting potential benefits and drawbacks of proposed initiatives;
- anticipating and evaluating areas of potential dispute or disruption;
- developing strategies to counteract those potential areas of dispute or disruption;
- obtaining feedback to share with leadership and conveying responses back;
- serving as a point person who is available to hear others' concerns, ideas and questions;
- advising stakeholders, as well as the impacted individuals;
- mediating points of contention; and
- tracking and managing objectives of the project established for the change agent.
Change agent characteristics
To help ensure success, organizational leaders should choose a change agent based on a variety of characteristics that are commonly identified as the most effective for the position. Those characteristics include:
- diversified knowledge;
- experience in the business discipline impacted by the change effort;
- a willingness to ask tough questions;
- flexibility, creativity and an openness to new ideas;
- a strong network;
- trustworthiness and credibility;
- an understanding of the business culture;
- excitement for new opportunities and potential; and
- comfort working through uncertainty.
Similarly, a change agent must have specific skills in order to be successful. Those generally include:
- the ability to prioritize;
- the ability to build relations;
- strong communication skills; and
- good people skills.
Why agents of change are important
A change agent serves a distinct role within a change initiative as a proponent of the change, as well as a conduit between leadership and the rest of the organization. A successful agent of change can help smooth resistance to change and address the issues before they derail an initiative and, thus, can help ensure the successful implementation and adoption of a new project.