Change agents – Merchants of ideas or much more than that?

In business and politics alike, the idea of a change management is typically associated with a change in the leadership. Ron Johnson was brought on board to applize the JC Penney experience. We all know how that worked out. Melissa Mayer is trying her best as everyone seems to be tuned in to see what happens at Yahoo!

Let’s dig a little deeper into what change really means in business and who successful change agents are.

Is there need for a change because your business is getting left behind and others are doing things that you are not doing yet. Usually, this is the case because we are all too busy to fix anything that is not broken. Reactive organizations bring the so-called change agents in an attempt to catch up and stay current. That’s healthy for business. Sort of.

A different kind of change
Sometimes, there is no problem. Change is brought in to seize an opportunity. It is a true, non-reactive strategy play that great businesses engage in. That’s what makes them great. A forward-thinking company, with a clear vision and a strong set of values, is ready to reinvent itself in order to capitalize on the changing market dynamics. This is different. The vision, values and culture of the organization are way more important to understand and a formula for change has to be crafted with great care.

Change agents
I believe, a true change agent is someone who is able to successfully turn the entire mothership in a new promising direction using the energy of every single molecule in complete harmony, creating a new self-sustainable momentum.

It cannot be as simple as introducing a new leader with a proven past somewhere else to bring about this type of change. It takes time to understand how an organization really works.

The process of surgically removing what works from what doesn’t work has to be thoughtful and culturally effective.

For the change to be self-sustainable, one has to engrain the rallying cry in the psyche of the organization in a way that it does not conflict with the current set of values. You don’t want to disrupt the value system causing an a identity crisis, unless you are pretty sure that, that’s what it would take. You have a much bigger problem if the company’s beliefs are in question.

Psychologist Jerome Bruner describes the essence of creativity as “figuring out how to use what you already know in order to go beyond what you already think.”

The most creative leaders would rediscover and reinterpret what’s come before as a way to develop a line of sight into what comes next.

Once the strategy is established, a change agent masters the art of articulating a clear and simple message that should feel like a no-brainer to everyone in the organization. It also needs to feel like there is a clear path forward. Genuine hope is inspired by transparency, clarity as well as a tunnel vision towards the goal post.

The twist
Yes. There’s a twist. My whole premise was based on whether the change is in response to a problem or to capitalize on a strategic opportunity. Now let me argue that this was a false dichotomy. The only difference between a problem and an opportunity is in how you look at it. Every organization is reactive in some areas while being three steps ahead of the game in others.

Business is messy and this false dichotomy, in turn, implies that at the end of the day, change does not necessarily require new leadership. It just requires great leadership.

Great leaders have the magical ability to wake up one day and start over with a newer and better perspective. They can selectively unlearn and ignore their presumptions of what can or cannot be done. They are able to erase half of their memory and keep the other half. Most importantly, they have wisdom to know exactly which half to keep.

They are not a great change agent because they are merchants of ideas from other worlds. They are great because they can reinvent themselves and inspire a movement anywhere and anytime. Their own source of inspiration could be anything but their style is always their own. These are true change agents. These are great leaders.