What Is The Role Of Change Agents – Years ago, an agency asked me to define their target buyer as part of a rebrand. My client wanted to do business with companies eager to innovate. I recommended that my client stop thinking of his buyer in terms of a formal title like CMO and instead look for a person I called a change agent – who I described as a leader who is in a position to effect the behavioral change necessary to a business to grow and innovate. Find the agents of change, I thought, and you will find the sources of innovation within a company.

Then I read with interest a new report by Brian Solis, The Digital Change Agent’s Manifesto. It turns out that over the past few years, Brian has interviewed about 30 change agents (with a focus on digital change agents) to better understand them – and to provide a roadmap for change agents to flourish.

What Is The Role Of Change Agents

What Is The Role Of Change Agents

Brian’s report is a revelation. Here is a report that helps companies identify change agents within their own organization and set them up for success. His report is also a rallying cry for people who believe they are agents of change or who are on the path to becoming one. Brian maps the attributes of a change agent, identifies obstacles to success, and identifies 10 mandates for change agents to thrive. While it focuses on digital changemakers—due to the distinct challenges and opportunities that digital presents—the report is a manifesto for changemakers of any kind.

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Business leaders should read Brian’s report for one simple reason: at a time when digital disruption has become the norm, companies that can find and support changemakers faster than their competitors will have a distinct advantage. Companies that fail to nurture and support change agents will lose these visionaries to someone who can. And change agents don’t exactly go around wearing “Ask me about change” buttons. In fact, they may be flying below the radar screen by choice. Brian’s report will help a C-level executive find and elevate them.

Brian defines digital change agents as “individuals who share a deep experience and passion for digital and are passionate advocates of its potential to help their companies compete more effectively.” Digital innovators often become change agents in their own right because someone assigned them the role or they simply started a grassroots effort to get a company to adopt some form of digital transformation. While there is no single type of digital change agent, they generally progress along this path to maturity (in Brian’s words):

I would add a fifth level: post-digital leader. These are individuals, likely C-level, who are helping companies make change an everyday norm within their companies – to the point where “digital disruption” becomes standard operating procedure. Digital is incorporated into everything the company does. Companies are adapting to completely new business models, which may or may not be centered on the digital experience. Examples of these leaders:

An even more refined type of change agent is what I call a market maker. Market makers aspire to do something even more ambitious: change behavior. For example, Jeff Bezos is a market maker because Amazon is largely effecting changes to the human/machine interface through voice assistants. For more information on market makers, read this post.

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The journey of a change agent is difficult. They face multiple challenges, including resistance to change and political landmines. They instantly learn the leadership and change management skills needed to overcome these challenges. But they all typically have the ability to take on the following informal roles to navigate the human aspects of change:

Note that these characteristics require an interdisciplinary person who possesses the ability to collect data and humanize it through storytelling. They also build influence and relationships – which come from human-centered skills.

Brian warns change agents to face obstacles ranging from self-doubt to fear as their careers progress – fear in themselves and their colleagues.

What Is The Role Of Change Agents

“Change agents must manage these colleagues’ fears by clearly communicating that the risks of doing nothing are greater than preparing the business for the future through digital transformation,” he writes. “They must assure these colleagues that they and the executives are protected.”

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He identifies four main challenges and writes bluntly about them. He openly acknowledges that if you are an agent of change, you will face “opposition, obstacles, and even sabotage.” The reasons are understandable, although not defensible: people feel threatened by change. Perhaps that’s why one of Brian’s top recommendations for change agents is that they get support from leadership. Better yet, leaders must find change agents and support them.

But change agents can improve their chances of success – for themselves and their employers – by taking 10 essential actions, which Brian calls a manifesto for change:

For example, Mandate 3, “learn to speak the language of the C-Suite,” means engaging in storytelling and translating technology and digital change into everyday language, among other actions.

Learning to speak the language of the C-Suite is essential to gaining the C-suite buy-in that change agents need to thrive. On the other hand, Mandate 5, “spread digital literacy”, aims to help everyone else in your organization (and beyond) understand the skills they need to transform for digital change.

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These mandates, by definition, are interdependent. To spread digital literacy, you need to master Mandate 4, which is making allies.

As I read these mandates, I was struck by how many of them involve building bridges and managing people. The Steve Jobs of the world, who succeeded by fiat and willpower, are not practical models for thriving as an agent of change. Change agents most often succeed through subtlety and nuance.

Change agents must act as individual brands. They must know what they want to represent and define a brand strategy to realize their vision.

What Is The Role Of Change Agents

Let’s say you decided to build a personal brand around augmented reality because you believe in AR and believe your company should adopt it. Your personal vision might be: “I will be the one to lead our charge into AR.” So, like any brand, you must define your key messages (justifying why your company needs AR) and your approach to delivering that message, such as thought leadership, public relations, social media, events, and your company’s internal communications mechanisms. Most large companies have these corporate brand building mechanisms.

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When I worked at Razorfish, Shiv Singh (interviewed for Brian’s report) and Ray Velez were masters at building personal brands, although they may not have used the term “personal brand building” when I worked with them. Shiv was passionate about diving Razorfish into social media at a time when agencies were still figuring out how to build services around social networks. Ray was passionate about technology that enabled innovation, especially cloud computing, befitting his role as chief technology officer. Both Shiv and Ray understood how to leverage Razorfish’s marketing and public relations functions to advance their visions. For example, Ray worked with me to release a report on technology catalysts for innovation, and Shiv collaborated on a similar report on social media. Both spoke at the Razorfish Client Summit, the company’s flagship event, contributed to other forms of thought leadership, and became visible as spokespeople through public relations.

Building a personal brand is not about stroking your ego. It’s about understanding how to leverage your own influence to achieve a vision. It’s about investing in thought leadership skills like speaking and writing – which, if you open your heart and mind, require tremendous personal humility.

If you enjoy some degree of success as a change agent within a large organization, you are likely to be given more responsibilities in the form of a team. Or maybe you imagine yourself running a team and would like to have that responsibility. Being a change agent means going beyond managing a team efficiently; Being a change agent means empowering your team to start acting as change agents too – which is especially true in the case of digital, because digital ushers in change faster and more urgently, requiring fearlessness, confidence and self-empowerment.

Change agents who lead effectively do more than manage budgets and complete performance reviews on time. Great change agents like Tari Haro of Cars.com create a vision and then empower their teams to dream big and perform big. Throughout her career, Tari has mastered the art of inspiring teams to go beyond the day-to-day work and embrace the new and unknown — behaviors that drive real change. In fact, she is the only person who has worked with me to design my own work, which happened at the iCrossing agency – perhaps the ultimate act of empowerment. She encouraged me to help take the iCrossing brand into new territory, like pairing the agency’s brand with a musician (which was a risky move) and combining influencer outreach, social media and thought leadership (which many agencies take for granted today , but they didn’t when we worked together). And now she’s applying her personal empowerment approach to Cars.com, where she leads

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