Learn how to aid organizational change

Carefully choose your change agents’

Mary V. Gelinas and Roger G. James are the founders and principals of Gelinas James Inc., an Oakland, CA-based consulting firm that helps client companies through the process of organizational change. The client list they have put together during their combined 20 years of experience includes Coca-Cola Co., Carondelet Healthcare, Duke University Medical Center, Intel, Kaiser-Permanente, Levi Strauss & Co., and Vanderbilt University Medical Center. They have worked with their health care clients in creating more efficient systems for patient flow and throughput, building a stronger patient and customer focus, and reducing costs and bureaucracy.

Gelinas and James are authors of a recently published book titled Collaborative Change: Improving Organizational Performance. In it, they integrate models, theories, and practices to provide a step-by-step blueprint for launching effective, successful performance improvement initiatives within organizations.

An important part of any such effort is selecting what are known as "change agents." They answer some questions about this process:

Q. What exactly are change agents?

A. Change agents are members of the organization — individuals or groups of individuals — through whom the organization figures out how to improve itself. They are chartered by the organization’s leader(s) to develop recommendations to improve the organization’s performance. They work with stakeholders inside (and sometimes outside) the organization to assess the current situation and recommend changes. Design teams, problem-solving teams, and quality improvement teams are all examples of change agents.

Q. Why are change agents important to a successful performance improvement initiative?

A. If leaders are the drivers of change, then change agents are the engines of change. Leaders can provide direction and fuel, but by themselves they do not have the horsepower to create and sustain major change in an organization. Leaders need the understanding, support, and commitment of a "critical mass" of key stakeholders to ensure the success of a performance improvement initiative, that is where the horsepower comes from. Change agents can provide the focused attention that is required to develop this organizational horsepower. They are the primary source of energy for successful organization improvement efforts.

Q. What qualities do change agents optimally possess?

A. Change agents should be selected from the very best people in the organization. We often tell our clients that if they are thinking "I could never make that person a change agent; he or she is too valuable," then they are probably considering the right kind of person.

Change agents should be able to pass the bulletin board test: When their names are posted on the bulletin board, others in the organization should be saying to themselves: "Wow! These are really good people. If management is assigning these folks, it is serious. It must be a really important initiative."

Some of the qualities good change agents possess include the following:

They are respected by peers — opinion leaders.

They have the expertise to assess and develop solutions to the problem(s).

They understand the importance of involving key stakeholders and are willing to build their understanding and commitment.

They speak openly and honestly, challenge ideas, and think independently.

They possess interpersonal skills (or are willing and able to do so).

They represent the diversity of the organization that is the focus of the initiative (e.g., age, gender, race, ethnicity, education, experience, and point of view).

Q. How does a health care organization go about selecting change agents?

A. There are two basic ways to select people as change agents:

• Leaders can identify potential candidates, agree on a final list, and ask or assign individuals to participate.

• Leaders can orient their direct reports to the purpose, goals, and approach of the initiative and ask them for nominations, based on a set of agreed-upon criteria like the ones listed above. Nominees are interviewed by the leaders, and the whole group agrees upon a final slate. This option provides an excellent opportunity to build understanding of, and support for, the initiative in the next layer of the organization.

One caveat: It is critically important to follow whatever option is selected and communicated to the organization. Not following the advertised selection process can (and almost certainly will) be perceived as a betrayal and may severely hamper the change initiative before it gets under way.