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Five Roles for Failure and Success in Change


Disciplines > Change Management > Articles > Five Roles  for Failure and Success in Change

Five roles | Patterns of failure | Patterns of success | See also


When managing change, there are five roles that you need to consider closely and how they interact. Do this wrong and you will fail.

Five roles

Change Advocate

The Change Advocate is the person in the organization who wants the change to happen. This person typically has a role in which organizational improvements are identified and they may be such as a Quality Manager, HR Manager or some other senior manager. Sometimes the person is lower down the organization.

Change Targets

The Change Targets are the people who must do the changing. They are typically ordinary people in the organization trying to do their jobs without too much interruption. Change for them seldom brings any real benefits and without effective handling they can easily become resistant to change.

Change Sponsor

The Change Sponsor is the senior manager who has the authority to require the targets to comply with the change and may be their immediate manager. Clearly, the Change Sponsor has to see the benefit of the change in order to support it.

Change Agent

The Change Agent is the person whose job it is to interact with the Change Targets to enable them to change as required.

External influencers

There may also be people outside the immediate sphere of change who have indirect interest in its proceedings and who may have influence with any of above four types of people.

Patterns of failure

Resistant targets

The simplest problem of failure is when targets of change do not like the change and resist its implementation, possibly in quite subtle ways, from avoidance to sabotage.

Uncommitted sponsor

A common reason targets can resist the change is because the Change Sponsor is not really bought into it. They may voice the words but they do not follow up with action.

A common pattern is where the Sponsor thinks they are immune from the change, which is to happen to other people, yet they actually are one of the people who must change the most. If they are unable to see this or back away from it, then the project may be doomed to failure.

Missing targets

When people who should be involved are not targeted then the change can also fail. A way this often happens is where the sponsor is a senior person and the immediate manager of the primary targets is not included as a key target. The sponsor also may need to change as can a much wider range of stakeholders, such as when cultural shifts are required.

Wrong sponsor

Sometimes the sponsor is the wrong person in that they do not buy into the change or do not have the authority to mandate it. This happens when the sponsor is not that senior and the targets go around him or her to a more senior person who is not really supportive. This is why sponsorship needs to be solid all the way to the top of the organisation and it is the the job of the sponsor you have to secure this support.

Incapable agents

Sometimes the agents of change are not able to do their jobs effectively. Sometimes it is because they do not have the skills. More frequently it is because they are not being allowed to do their jobs.

A typical scenario is where a Change Agent works for a Change Advocate who tells the Change Agent to go and implement a change with a team of Change Targets. The Change Targets of course look to their manager who should be a Change Sponsor or directed by a Sponsor. If the manager has not been involved in the decision to implement the change or they do not agree with it they may indicate that the change is not mandatory, whereupon the Change Targets can wilfully ignore the Change Target.

Malicious influencers

A further problem can occur when stakeholders outside the immediate sphere of change have reason to oppose it, for example senior managers who see their power base being eroded or peer groups who fear the change will later be rolled out to them. These people can slow and block the change by methods that range from withholding resources to whispered gossip about the ineffectiveness of the change.

Patterns of success

Successful projects counter the potential of failure by a range of methods, just a few of which are described here.

Effective reporting

If the progress of change cannot be seen by the change sponsor they may not know that change is happening. More importantly, they may not know that resistance is happening. It is therefore important to ensure sufficient reporting is built into the system to give clear visibility of change all the way the organization.

Sponsor engagement

A simple thing that a Change Agent can do is to check that the Sponsor is truly engaged before they start interacting with the Change Targets. Ideally, the Sponsor is brought on board by the Change Advocate but this does not always happen and a Change Agent who is offered a project should always first check this out.

Sponsors may also be engaged by getting them involved, having them make public statements about the change and involving them in design and review. If they are reluctant do to this, then their real commitment should be suspect.

Target management

A lot can also be done with the Change Targets both to get them engaged in the change and to show them that there is no alternative and they cannot hide from the inevitable.

It is important as a Change Agent to understand the Change Targets as people, with needs, wants and fears. If you can see and address these, the change may be made much easier.

Handle stakeholders

If you can fully understand stakeholders in change then you have a better chance of avoiding unexpected arrows flying in from the wings. This often means engaging them or at least informing them of progress, whilst marshalling powerful allies to prevent the change being derailed by 'outsiders'.

See also

Resistance to Change, Stakeholders in Change


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