Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Industrial Engineers as Change Agents

Industrial engineers are well prepared to function as change agents in organizations of all types. A change agent, or agent of change, is someone who leads a change project or business-wide initiative and intentionally or indirectly causes or accelerates social, cultural, or behavioral change.

Numerous driving forces motivate the behavior of change agents. An agent who is constantly adapting to new practices is often motivated to find better ways to do things. These driving forces may be external - shaped by circumstances outside the agent's control, such as the state of society or the seasons - or internal - from a desire to make change. Agents must have the conviction to state the facts based on data, even if the consequences are associated with unpleasantness.

Being a change agent is exciting, fulfilling work, but it can carry a significant risk for those who don't understand what they are getting into. As a change agent you need to asses each situation, get established in your new role, prepare to launch the process, create a detailed plan for the transformation, manage the ensuing changes, and learn from the experience.

In the light of the many problems and risks associated with change projects, the change agent has a very important function. The change agent’s or change leader’s capabilities have a major impact on the success or failure of the project, and on the extent of potential unwanted side-effects.

There is no “ideal” change agent. Particular requirements normally relate to the actual situation in the organization (e.g. corporate culture, strategic relevance of the project, acceptance of the project among management and staff, timeframe and resources). Depending on these factors, change agents either may need good project management capabilities in order to guarantee timely progress, or they should be good leaders with the ability to motivate people. Canterucci defines change leaders on five levels. Although he mainly focuses on leadership capabilities and qualifications, his system was transferred by Recklies to change projects with varying importance. The leader of an organization-wide restructuring project will need different capabilities than the one who is responsible for clearly defined project on departmental level.

Levels of Change Leadership Skills, derived from Canterucci:

Level I
Accepts the need for change, communicates and defends the need for change throughout the organization, creates an open and receptive environment;
→ small change initiatives with clear direction.

Level II
Defines and initiates change, identifies leverage points for change in processes and work habits;
→ change projects at local level.

Level III
Leads change, translate the vision of the organization into the context of a specific change initiative and bring this message to the entire organization, redirects approaches in the face of new opportunities;
→ transformation of a central vision into change initiatives and organization-wide communication.

Level IV
Manages complex change, understands the cultural dynamics of the current state of an organization, creates a strategic practical course, balancing the current reality with the need for rapid adoption of the desired future reality;
→ generates change with a high degree of transformation.

Level V
Champions change, challenges the status quo by comparing it to an ideal or a vision of change, causes crisis in order to support dramatic actions and change efforts, transforms the organization;
→ ability to revolutionize organizations.

Kanter (1999) mentions many emotional components among the most important characteristics of change agents. She stresses the need to question the knowledge of the organization. Existing patterns of thinking and existing assumptions about the organization, its markets, customers and relationships have to be challenged. Thus, change agents should realize that there is more than one right solution. The change agent has to be able to evaluate facts from different points of view, e.g. from the customer’s or competitor’s perspective. Furthermore, Kanter (1999) stresses the importance of coalition building, which she describes as an often-ignored step in change processes. Change agents should identify and involve opinion leaders, decision makers on resources, functional experts and other important persons as early as possible in the project-planning phase. The importance of the factor motivation is well described with the phrases “transferring ownership to a working team” and “making everyone a hero”. The most important preconditions for successful change management – the involvement of the people – are contained in these two phrases. Members of the change team and other employees affected by the change initiative must not feel like as if they are just the tools for change or the subject of change. It is not enough to have a convincing vision. Real commitment can only be gained by giving people the chance to become actively involved, to contribute their own experiences. Every employee needs to know that his contribution to the project is important and is valued. Thus, people will develop a sense of ownership for the project, which, in turn may serve as a major source of motivation when it comes to the inevitable problems and barriers. Kanter (1999) provides a great summary of the characteristics of a good change agent when she writes that the most important things a leader can bring to a changing organization are passion, conviction, and confidence in others.

Buchanan und Boddy (1992) carried out a study on the perceived effectiveness of change agents. On that basis, they compiled the fifteen most important competencies of change agents. These are evidence for the importance of the soft factors:

15 Key Competencies of Change Agents

1. Sensitivity to changes in key personnel, top management perceptions and market conditions, and to the way in which these impact the goals of the project.
2. Setting of clearly defined, realistic goals.
3. Flexibility in responding to changes outside the control of the project manager, perhaps requiring major shifts in project goals and management style.

4. Team-building abilities, to bring together key stakeholders and establish effective working groups, and to define and delegate respective responsibilities clearly.
5. Networking skills in establishing and maintaining appropriate contacts within and outside the organization.
6. Tolerance of ambiguity, to be able to function comfortably, patiently and effectively in an uncertain environment.

7. Communication skills to transmit effectively to colleagues and subordinates the need for changes in the project goals and in individual tasks and responsibilities.
8. Interpersonal skills, across the range, including selection, listening, collecting appropriate information, identifying the concerns of others, and managing meetings.
9. Personal enthusiasm in expressing plans and ideas.
10. Stimulating motivation and commitment in others involved.

11. Selling plans and ideas to others by creating a desirable and challenging vision of the future.
12. Negotiating with key players for resources, for changes in procedures, and to resolve conflict.

Managing up
13. Political awareness in identifying potential coalitions, and in balancing conflicting goals and perceptions.
14. Influencing skills, to gain commitment to project plans and ideas form potential skeptics and resisters.
15. Helicopter perspectives, to stand back from the immediate project and take a broader view of priorities.

Leading change is a delicate business. Organizations need to innovate and become more agile to compete in today's global economy. But on the road between this general agreement and any new way of doing something, there are many pitfalls awaiting the change leader. Change stirs up a lot of resistance in people. As Mark Twain put it, "I'm all for progress. It's change I don't like."

People do not automatically resist new developments -- but they certainly do react to having change imposed upon them, especially when this is done arbitrarily and without consultation. A much more effective approach is for change agents to:

  • build a clear vision of where the organization needs to go in order to survive and be successful;

  • share this vision, and explain why the organization has to go in this direction;

  • develop and share a roadmap so that everyone can understand the journey and begin to plan on their part.

Rather than becoming pre-occupied with stragglers, management should focus on providing support and encouragement for the enthusiasts. These people will lead the way, act as role models, and mark a path for others to follow. This type of supportive approach is the first step in making people part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Change agents are responsible for facilitating the change through (JISC infoNet):

  • gaining commitment for the changes;

  • facilitating evaluation activities;

  • monitoring and reporting progress of change;

  • consulting and identifying bottlenecks/sources of resistance; and

  • disseminating lessons learned.

Change is endemic. The pressures for change come from all sides and the pace of change is ever increasing. Living with change and managing change is an essential skill for all.


Buchanan, D and Boddy, D. The Expertise of the Change Agent: Public performance and backstage activity, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1992.

Canterucci, Jim. What Makes a Good Change Agent?

JISC infoNet. Change Agents

Recklies, Dagmar. Are You a Change Leader?

Further Reading

Change agent Patti Hattaway

Change Management

David Hutton Associates Visitors Lounge

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