Change Sponsors: The Change Agent’s Best (or Worst) Friend

“Sin is the refusal to keep growing.”  Saint Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–394)

I recently had the privilege of meeting with the Executive Vice President of a major medical center whose title encompassed responsibility for strategic initiatives.  He said of himself, “I have become a perpetual change agent.”  In health care there is simply no option.  However, in what industry or profession today is maintaining the status quo ante a prescription for anything but irrelevance?

As resistant as most of us are to the suggestion of perpetual change, innately we know the absence of change is death.  Living entities will always be changing or they will cease to exist.  The only question is whether the change is moving us in a positive or a negative direction.  Positive change is innovation and improvement.  Negative change is decline and deterioration.  What this “perpetual change agent” understood is that because change is inevitable, being the proponent for positive change will advance the organization’s interests and those of all who labor in it.

A great piece posted this week on the Gallop Management Journal adds some significant instruction on managing change in organizations.  It is human nature to resist and fear change.  Change challenges our desire for clarity and control.  Change breeds uncertainty and uncertainty breeds fear of the unknown.  In organizations, the fear of change becomes magnified and exponentially increases resistance.  Complex adaptive systems are “hard wired” to resist change.

Ushering change in organizations requires conflict competent leadership.   As David Jones in the Gallop journal interview indicates, being a change agent is essential, but not enough.  Organizational change is most effective when it is incremental rather than transformational.  (See Adjacent Possibilities post.)  Changing an organization’s “stripes” is extremely difficult work and should only be attempted when the organization’s livelihood or survival is at stake.

More commonly, change amounts to constant improvement on the current state of affairs.  Incremental change is the most effective method of innovation,  but still leads most people to exclaim, “Will change never end!”  Of course, the answer is “No, the alternative to change is unacceptable.”  Change agents must constantly encourage, empower and equip people for the inevitability of change in their organizations.

Command and control organizations are the least well equipped to effect change.  Unless the people responsible for implementing and maintaining organizational change are autonomous, internally accountable and self-motivated, change will be resisted successfully.  A workforce which is not trusted and resourced for success cannot implement change.  Most change initiatives fail not because of an ineffective change agent, but due to the absence of a leader willing to serve as a change sponsor.

Change sponsors are the organizational leaders who can articulate the vision, reinforce it over time and reassure the organization that the change desired has top level support.  More change initiatives have failed due to uncommitted leaders than any other reason.

When the inevitable heat is generated by unwanted change, change sponsors will either stay the course or run for the hills.  All of us have seen organizations (churches, schools and businesses) in which the leadership announces a new direction only to reveal that when the critical commentary emerges, the engines are reversed.  When that occurs, change in that institution has become virtually impossible from that point forward.  No change agent can possibly succeed.  The change sponsor “didn’t mean it” and the resistance to change was rewarded.

Successful change in complex adaptive systems requires multi-level conflict competence.  The change sponsor must know how to weather the innate organizational resistance to change and opt for survival rather than death of the organization’s capacity to innovate.  The change agent must know how to induce and increase the likelihood of incremental change among those responsible for implementation.  The organization must have systems which encourage the positive processing of conflict heat generated by change.  Finally, the people responsible for change implementation must be provided the requisite level of autonomy and authority to accompany their responsibility and be encouraged to be totally accountable for the outcome of their tasks, good or bad.

The culture of consultation needed for perpetual change in organizations today does not naturally occur.   It requires leadership of the first order.  Change agents and change sponsors must work in close coordination and the system must embrace the resulting conflict in order to process it in healthy fashion.

Although most of us would prefer to press the “no change” button, the rate of change is such today that to do so would insure ejection from the cockpit of a supersonic jet without a parachute.

Don’t press that Easy Button!



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