Change agents aren't personas, they are human

This report is really interesting and potentially very valuable to those of you who have digital transformation efforts either underway or are contemplating some version of one.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

Brian Solis' report, published by Altimeter/Prophet, is entitled, The digital change agent's manifesto: How the people behind digital transformation lead change from within.

I have diverse interests and a huge itch to write about all of them.

But, typically, if you read my stuff on ZDNet, which I imagine you do if you are reading this, then you know that I operate in a fairly narrow, not-all-that-imaginative band related to the tech industry and ideas that are associated with things customer facing. It's rare that I find a bridge from that tech-focused, narrow band to something that I don't get to write about much, though both relate to the area I do cover and scratches that diverse itch.

Well, we're there. My B.F.A.M., Brian Solis, one of the 21st century business world's leading thinkers -- especially in right-brained domains like user interfaces and user experiences, has written a research report on change agents that is both fascinating for its results and interesting for its format. Plus, it begs for a second edition with the questions that it raises.

Brian's report, published by Altimeter/Prophet, is entitled, The digital change agent's manifesto: How the people behind digital transformation lead change from within, which is slightly mischaracterized. It probably should have been inverted to: How the people who lead change from within bring digital transformation. Either way, my nitpicking aside, this report is really interesting and potentially very valuable to those of you who have digital transformation efforts either underway or are contemplating some version of one.

To be clear, from my perspective, change agents are mission critical to any innovative or even slightly uncomfortable business initiative, internal or external. The leaders can be management -- or, from the ground up, what I call field agents. They can be organic, or with a wise person in management who may or may not be a change agent, they can be appointed. But, ultimately, a change agent is sticking out his or her neck to do something that benefits the company and the employees and the customers, and, hopefully, it is recognized enough to benefit them, though that's not a foregone conclusion. The problem, of course, with those willing to take the responsibility organically at least is that there is no real corporate shield, and they are going up against ideas that have been entrenched and, to make things even more difficult, likely to have been beneficial to the company's success for a long time, making the battle for transformation more of either a slog in muddy fields or a fight in the trenches that awaits the moment when the change agent can lead the troops out of those trenches. It's a bit less nerve-wracking if you are an appointed leader, because you have the cachet of being a designated leader and thus gain some immediate credibility, and you have something of a corporate shield, depending on how committed the management folks who put you in the position are.

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But regardless of which, the tensions that are part of the change agents every day life are very real: The fear, the loneliness of being the sole carrier of the banner at first, and the uncertainty of success against entrenched and historically highly successful practices all lead to daily angst and long-term anxieties that impact how you work.

This is where Brian's report is one of the most singular reports on change agentry I've ever seen. He doesn't, like every other somewhat right-brained research report I ever have seen, focus only on the benefits of change agents; he focuses on where they come from and -- this is the kicker -- what they go through. That is the single, most unique, and important part of this report.

Brian's work shows that change agents come from pretty much what I indicated earlier -- from the ground up, which he calls "grassroots," and from the top down, which he calls "executive appointed." The grassroots folks are pursuing innovative projects in the name of doing the right thing when it comes to digital transformation, but they don't have the official corporate umbrella over their head. Sometimes the efforts are quiet, sometimes not so much, but what they are not is sanctioned. Executive-appointed change agents are usually individuals who are appointed as the leaders of specific projects in the area they are already in, unlike the grassroots people. They have a task. However, rather than just project managers who could be described the same way, their creativity, willingness to innovate, and their experience and existing leadership qualities are why they were chosen -- not just their title or certification from PMI.

Their spectrum of experience range is in leadership and change agentry, and they can range from the least experienced in both -- who Brian calls -- aspiring leaders to highly experienced, and they are digital executives with experienced "digital transformers" and digital/innovation advocates in between. I'm not going to spend the time going through what characterizes each. Suffice to say, experience is the driver.

That's all very interesting -- but what makes this report unique is the section entitled Common challenges digital change agents face. If this was the typical pedestrian, politically correct report, you'd think it would come up with what is now so standard it has reached the level of, "Yes it is important to know, but who doesn't know it?" But no, the challenges that Brian speaks of are in the following (most likely no particular) order:

  1. Managing ego
  2. Managing fear
  3. Managing bias
  4. Managing self-doubt

Each of them is couched in terms of managing the change agent's ego, fears, biases, self-doubt, and the same for others they are trying to impact. So, for example, in managing bias, he talks about several biases that show their ugly pusses during these kinds of efforts including: Confirmation bias, which means interpreting new ideas as validating what you are thinking already; anchoring, which means locking your thinking into your initial reaction to something and locking out any further changes in your thinking; groupthink, which is an aversion by individuals to an idea that gets subsumed by "the group" making decisions and individuals going along with that; loss aversion, a bias based on not risking losing rather than fighting for gain, which has risk; and finally, present bias, which is based on short-term gains given greater credence than long-term gains (partially, I would presume, because you can see it faster).

To manage one's own biases the recommendations are:

  1. Recognize you have them to start with
  2. Remain open minded and don't jump to conclusions
  3. Embrace dialogue, ask questions, and be ready to live with disagreements
  4. Surround oneself with people who have other opinions.

To manage biases in others:

  1. Understand the motivations that are causing the biases in others and address them.

What I think makes this report important is that the change agent isn't treated as a job category or a persona -- he or she is a human being who can be frightened, nervous, is biased, and has an ego, as do the people they are trying to convince. Thus, these human traits become part of what has to be dealt with in order for change to be successful at a company, especially one that is tied to the digital transformation of that company, and thus, not just the programs, or the operations, but the culture of that company.

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This is also where I think a second report is merited. There is only so much you can write into a single report without making it a book. Brian covers the approaches that have to be taken by change agents to deal with their own and others various issues but not the steps or practices that provide change agent the ability to resolve, or at least the possibility of resolving those same issues. I didn't expect it, but it would be good to get beyond the framework and down to the steps to resolution of these emotional and mental blocks that can gut change at a company. In fact, Dr. David Bray, currently the executive director of the People Centered Internet, said it well in the report: "Change agents can garner support by identifying steps to diffuse tensions among colleagues and departments, inform those who need convincing, and work together more productively." You go, man.

However, this wouldn't be a manifesto if it didn't have declarations about direction, and it does. I am not going to go through them here, because there are many of them, and each of them, ranging from Embrace Being a Catalyst to Link Digital Transformation Efforts to Business and Individual Goals, is explained in detail.

OK, I have a long week ahead, but I thought that this report is important enough for me to make you aware of it -- and to tell you to use the link I gave you in the third paragraph and download it today. Now, in fact. Go.

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