An Image of a Change Agent - by Michael Wash

The questions that this paper begin to address are the following:

- What are the appropriate development experiences for me as a change agent?

- Where do the experiences that are available now fit? How do they link together?

- Is there an optimum or preferential sequence of experiences?

- What are the essential skills for an effective change agent?

Self

It is likely that for anyone who enters into the world of change agency, they carry with them some value of change for themselves, and it is this element of self generated change that can be nurtured, nourished and challenged throughout any development track of change agency. So, the need for effective support systems, environment of learning, problem solving, feedback and peer consultancy is vital to any change agent development group or network. Openness to learn is not enough for effective change, for that openness often has its consequences; the consequences being personal change. If this goes unsupported, then the pain can become intolerable and disconnected, hence for any development group that professes to be a learning unit, it must carry the responsibility of investing in its people to equip them with the appropriate skills of coaching, peer supervision and action learning.

Nurturing an infrastructure of self-development can occur in many different creative ways. However, an approach that is aimed towards respecting the individual as a whole person, i.e.: the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual aspect of being human, is more likely to achieve optimum learning.

The above can be seen in evidence, albeit to varying degrees, in the presence of learning partners, action learning sets, the maintenance of connections through the facilitator group meetings, conferences and coordinator meetings and other development activities inside and outside of a learning organisation.

This emphasis on self development reflects a philosophy that includes the belief that if you place yourself in a position to enter into another’s world, then to earn the right to do this you must first enter into your own world, allow others into that same world and experience change yourself.

The Other

In development terms, and as change agents, this in itself is not enough. Each individual is unique and therefore, generalising change based on our own experiences is inadequate. Respecting this uniqueness may help us to avoid projecting our own assumptions and prejudices on the development needs of others. However, there are some common characteristics of being human that can, if we understand these, help us to understand others.

Understanding the behavioural elements of motivation and learning is relevant to the majority of our activities, particularly in the areas of coaching, facilitating consultancy and design. In addition to this, what has been found useful is having an awareness and understanding of the common development phases from conception, some believe from before, through birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adult, adult, middle age, getting older, the years of greater wisdom, death and some believe the life after. There are some common patterns for all of us. Having an awareness of these patterns can increase our sensitivity and quality of being with another.

Individual

Having a value of self-change, and respecting the uniqueness and commonality of being human, is an essential foundation from which effective change skills can be taught, learned, practised and developed. So, what are the essentials?

Listening, empathic responding, questioning and challenging are, I believe, the minimal skills of being an effective change agent. Doing these in some form of framework, to orientate self and another in a change process, can help track the changes and encourage supportive action. Frameworks such as the Skilled Helper Model, used in the Project Way of Working framework, can optimise the use of these skills for the benefit of individuals and groups.

Group

Much of what has been said so far, in terms of skills development, has been with the belief that that many of them are best learnt on a one to one intensive basis, with good accurate observation and feedback, so that individuals get a chance to unlearn what often have been ineffective skills for a long time. However, much of the change agent role is working in groups, hence the need for the skills not only to be applied on a one to one basis, but also applied within a group setting.

The facilitator training programme reinforces the importance of self development and the application of skills within a group. Extending that quality of presence and effective helping from a one to one basis to working within a group demands further knowledge, awareness and development.

Understanding how groups work through their formation, development and dynamics, that exist within any given group, increases the likelihood that an intervention from a facilitator will be likely to be based upon knowledge and awareness of process rather than having to rely on pure intuition. The transfer of one to one skills to a group requires the facilitator to be able to balance out a range of interventions aimed at increasing a groups’ effectiveness in the areas of content, interactions and relationships and the process by which the group have chosen to use to achieve any given task.

In addition to intervening in these areas, the facilitator is often required to observe and give feedback, observing the multitude of activities with any given group is indeed a demanding task. To give feedback in such a way that it can be heard and acted upon is a high order and complex skill. Both areas are important for the development of a change agent.

‘Teacher’

A major role of any process consultant (change agent/coordinator) is to work with people in such a way that helps them make their managerial processes and the way they learn, explicit. This can often extend into creating environments where optimum learning can occur for any given culture, hence at some stage through the development of a change contract, there is likely to be some design requirements. The ability to design processes, by which learning can take place, needs some knowledge and understanding of the environments in which people do or don’t learn. Also, design skills require appreciation of timing and planning and the links between theory and practice, doing and reviewing.

Putting this design into practice requires all the skills previously mentioned, that is; the skills of listening, questioning, particularly clarifying questions that are focussed on learning, particularly associated with inputs or experiences that you have designed, as well as challenging individuals to relate what can often seem cognitive learning to their own experience, thus increasing the likelihood of change occurring as a result of a learning design.

Other skills and abilities involve appropriate presentation and communicating clearly the key points that are essential for any design to be successful. Also essential to any learning event is the ability to design an appropriate evaluation process, this involves follow up of learning and application of practice in the work situation. Some of these process design skills can be developed through the figure of eight experience (See Page 129 ‘54 Tools and Techniques for Business Excellence’ (5)).

What also may be useful is a grounding in the basics of educational psychology and exploring learning methodologies and design. It may be appropriate for the internal consultant (coordinator) to design a whole variety of workshops, some may have to be didactic, others purely experiential, depending on culture, climate and client need. Either way the coordinator will need to be flexible and be able to perform effectively the presentation skills and teaching/coaching mode through to the behavioural training elements and open experiential learning if appropriate.

Tools and Techniques

There are a plethora of tools and techniques to aid the process of change, some of which have simple frameworks, others are essential philosophies that many of the skills that have previously been mentioned are linked into, without which the frameworks become quite empty and practised loosely, often at the sacrifice of the client.

One of these approaches that is founded in firm philosophy is policy formulation, this is an integrated approach that combines abilities of change with skills of problem solving within a framework of a change process.

This approach is visible through the use of a series of questions called ‘The Beacons’, which enable policies to be clear and the u-procedure, which also makes explicit policies and goes further to confront done policy to the creation of new ways of working. This approach is founded in the philosophy and approaches of anthroposophical psychology based on Steiner’s work, its sources are rich indeed.

Another powerful technique is in the work of Chris Argyris and his Defensive Routine Approach (1). His ways of describing approaches to learning and methods, to make explicit what it is in our behaviour and style that causes us to learn things, is a powerful confronting tool that enables personal learning to occur and also the links to be made between personal style and organisational development.

This is done through what he calls culture mapping, whereby the effect and consequences of certain actions are mapped back to their original intended source. However, to facilitate this process, knowledge of this methodology is insufficient as it requires a high level of facilitation and process awareness, and the ability to support the consequences of personal and organisational change. Soft systems (2) is another framework particularly useful when faced with a complex system situation, and through the use of its rich picturing methodology, can visually represent the connections, dependencies and relationships in a systematic way. With this, and working with the clients’ world view, new design can take place followed by experimentation whereby system modification is ongoing.

The skills, values, approaches and techniques used in isolation will reduce the effect for which they were originally designed. Further frameworks orientation is required to optimise the change of consultancy intervention to be effective in terms of changing people, environments and systems that will affect results.

These approaches require having a grasp and understanding of contracting and scheduling procedures. From client entry and project orientation, through to design of change, evaluation and follow up, and the scheduling that is required at each stage of contracting, in order that appropriate skills and resources are matched with the necessary interventions. All this needs to be matched with the appropriate environment.

Context

The environment in this case is organisations. In any organisation, there are common elements, understanding what these elements are and what the optimum links are to make this organisation effective will help the consultant in their ability to listen for managerial blindspots and leverage points for change.

A simple organisational framework that helps us to do this is Gerard Egan’s Model A (4). Familiarity with this will not only help us orientate our listening, but help us to design organisations with our managers and assess the effectiveness of these. Model B is the Skilled Helper Model (3). Applied to organisations, this is the classic change framework that many of the tools and techniques are built around.

Understanding the environment in which a consultant is working is important. This understanding can be enhanced, when initially orientating to a project or client situation, by becoming familiar with the work situation, hence some operational experience linked into the client situation can help not only in general orientation, but also familiarity with client language and terminology, just enough to avoid it becoming distracting to listening out for the real problems.

Michael Wash
Original Article June 1989, Updated June 2009.

References:

(1) Overcoming Organisational Defences – Facilitating Organisational Learning
Argyris, Chris Prentice Hall, 1990

(2) System Thinking, Systems Practive
Checkland, Peter Wiley, 1981

(3) Change Agent Skills B – Managing Innovation and Change
Egan, Gerard University Associates, 1988

(4) Adding Value – A Systematic Guide to Business Drivers, Management and Leadership
Egan, Gerard Jossey Bass, 1993

(5) 54 Tools and Techniques for Business Excellence
Wash, Michael MB2000, 2007