All Articles Leadership Strategy Don't let your change agents become free agents

Don’t let your change agents become free agents

4 min read


Managers and team leaders should know better than anyone the value of change agents within an organization. They are the “entrepreneurs” within your company, they are the drivers of organic growth, and they make great leaders. Because of this coveted capability, if they aren’t given room to build and grow within a company, it’s easy for them to take their talents elsewhere.

Because there isn’t one title for these “corporate entrepreneurs,” they’re found embedded within many teams (thank goodness). Once you spot them, here’s a brief how-to guide to help keep them inspired and ensure they stay:

Seven ways to keep your change agents happy

  1. Don’t confuse change agents with their siblings — the “Change Management Guru” or the “Big Ideas Person.” Change agents know this isn’t your mom’s change management, where solutions are predetermined and change management mollifies the troublemakers. Instead, today’s change agents build solutions socially by sincerely listening to and collaborating with the “Big Ideas Person.” While some may blow this person off or see them as inefficient, the change agent recognizes that promoting these ideas stretches the team’s thinking and helps create a winning solution.
  2. Don’t be threatened by them when they’re junior. In this economy, they’ll make your best future leaders: As you may have witnessed within your own organization, some senior-level colleagues may feel threatened by junior-level change agents. This is natural; they question and change decisions, offerings and structures that you worked hard to build and which, at one point, had a valuable purpose. As time goes on, the junior-level change agents inevitably become the leaders your organization needs to thrive.
  3. Let them lead through collaboration. Change agents do this very well. Changing a system isn’t a thought exercise; it’s a doing exercise. It takes manpower and input from all parts of the system. Although it’s sometimes seen as inefficient, collaboration is only painful when it’s done poorly; done well, it’s empowering. Facilitated by technology and preferred by Gen Y workers, collaboration has been shown to lead to better outcomes and is becoming the mode of operation for many businesses.
  4. Allow them to spend time upfront for problem-choosing and problem-framing (which is sometimes seen as delaying the actual problem solving). Change agents are great at problem choosing, problem framing and problem solving, and they know to do it in the right order. If the team puts in hours of work only to realize it has been solving the wrong problem, people will disengage. Team members want to create a solution that satisfies an unmet need, and they want to be involved in creating the solution. To do that — to create meaningful innovation — teams must tackle the often-forgotten task of selecting the right problem first and framing it for innovation.
  5. Encourage them to focus on learning, and understand that it’s not diverting attention from outcomes. Creating change means heading into the unknown. When a change agent looks ahead eight months to the next annual earnings report, she knows what will be learned, (e.g., what are customers’ unmet needs, and what is the right business model to deliver on those needs?) but won’t know what the solution will look like (A new partnership? An iPhone app?). Because she knows the value of what the organization will learn, she is not concerned about not having the solution just yet.
  6. Don’t prod them to jump to solutions too early. Change agents don’t become committed to one solution and don’t decide on a solution too quickly; they know this is the fastest way to kill innovation. This is by no means inefficient; they carefully come to understand the problem and then focus on the need being solved and the person or group it’s being solved for.
  7. Trust they know when to say “Yes and” and when to say “Not yet.” They tend to shift between these attitudes to best counsel their teams throughout the process of innovation. This does not mean they are indecisive or giving conflicting opinions. When a team is creating something, early divergent thinking is critical, but later in the game, it’s important to stay focused. A change agent knows the right time for each of these tools.

By offering a little understanding, trust and freedom, you can ensure change agents are content, loyal and prepared to use their talents to create growth for your company. Happy coaching.

Natalie Foley is vice president and chief operating officer at Peer Insight, a Washington, D.C.-based design thinking and strategy firm. Her expertise is in strategy and change management, which involves guiding companies through the process of finding solutions to customer-centered problems in complex environments.