Agents of change and merging cultures

Are change agents really the superheroes of organizational change, and how do they approach the enormous challenge of mergers and acquisitions?

Written by Mind Tools
Published 07 May 2015
Agents of change and merging cultures

In 2000, Charles O'Neill defined the change agent as "data gatherer, educator, advisor, meeting facilitator, coach" who usually "has no direct line authority over the implementers." In contrast, Raymond Caldwell suggested in 2003 that there are four models of change agency: Leadership, Management, Consultancy, and Team.

During the consulting process, a change agent performs one of three roles: the expert, the extra pair of hands, and the collaborator. At each stage, he or she must demonstrate the necessary interpersonal, analytic, personal, and project management competencies:

  • Organizational behavior

  • Individual psychology

  • Group dynamics

  • Management and organization theory

  • Research methods/statistics

  • Comparative cultural perspectives

  • Functional knowledge of the business

  • Organization design

  • Organization research

  • System dynamics

  • History of organization development

  • Theories and models of change

  • Managing the consulting process

  • Analysis/diagnosis

  • Designing/choosing appropriate and relevant interventions

  • Facilitation and process consultation

  • Developing client capability

  • Evaluating organization change.

Moreover, he needs to understand the importance of:

  • Overcoming organizational defenses

  • Using the self as an instrument

  • Creating the holding environment

  • Supervision and shadow consultancy.

HR specialist and experienced leader of organizational change Dave Webber says, "To this list should be added self-awareness and collaboration" but even the best change agent may struggle to exhibit strength in every area."

In a large and sustained program, the change agent will rarely be one individual and will utilize different skills at different times during the change journey. Experience teaches me that being authentic as a change agent always starts with an accurate diagnosis of the need. Even where this is presented as widely understood, the change agent needs to validate this.

"I'm not sure that change agents always need to be the kind of superperson that these lists describe. The role can be graduated so that willing volunteers from the workforce, properly legitimized, supported and developed, can make an impact as agents of change."

"In one case where I used this approach successfully, we had staff from the most junior up to board level coming together as change coaches, undertaking training put together by my L&D team, but also being coached, developed and inspired by our nominated lead coach" who was a nationally recognized coach from the professional sporting world."

All of this was also supported by the CEO and main board, who took every opportunity to recognize and celebrate the coaches' work." Kathryn Horton of Turning Factor wonders, "Should people be called change agents, change champions or even change role models?

Modelling is vital for change to stick - and, often, key stakeholders within an organization who're not included can destroy any element of change that's happening.

"Every person needs to be a change carrier - and it needs time and careful planning for this to happen. Individuals at every level within an organization have a part to play in how the change happens. If the opportunity exists for a more proactive approach, involve every tier - gaining their input to what the changes are.

"There's a big difference between responsibility and accountability. In my experience, enabling a feeling, and belief, of accountability can speed the process of change dramatically. So, adopting a more inclusive approach is prudent in any change process."

There are six essential characteristics for successful strategic change initiatives:

  1. Alignment - ensuring that all the components of the change plan are an integrated whole

  2. Attunement - mirroring the preferred organizational culture and ensuring all aspects of the change are carried out in line with organizational values and with sufficient attention to the human side of change

  3. Critical mass - a change management plan aims to develop momentum and build sustainability. This occurs when a critical mass of people are aligned and in tune with senior management

  4. Building of organizational capacity and readiness - the more that senior management recognizes the need to develop this capability within itself and a significant proportion of its managers, the sooner that change can become a way of life and not something to be feared, shunned and avoided

  5. Encouragement of individual, team and organizational learning - change managers need to be supported by training and coaching

  6. Mindset - the whole of the change process must operate within a certain prevailing culture.

These days, mergers and acquisitions (M&A) are key examples of organizational change. For them to be handled successfully, there appear to be five rules to follow:

  • Communicate constantly

  • Get the structure right

  • Tackle the cultural issues

  • Keep customers on board

  • Use a clear, overall process.

Individuals can be managed through the process using the Elisabeth K-Ross-inspired change curve as a basis for understanding how people are likely to react to the changes. Teams can be managed through endings, transitions and new beginnings.

Bruce Tuckman's forming, storming, norming, and performing process also lends understanding to what leaders of new teams will need to take them through. M&A involve organizational culture change but first you need to understand how the existing culture's been created. In 1999, Edgar Schein identified six ways:

  1. General evolution, where the organization adapts naturally to the environment

  2. Specific evolution of teams or sub-groups according to their environments

  3. Guided evolution resulting from cultural "insights" by leaders

  4. Guided evolution through encouraging teams to learn from one another and empowering selected hybrids from sub-cultures that are better adapted to the current realities

  5. Planned and managed culture change through the creation of parallel systems of steering committees and project-oriented task forces

  6. Partial or total cultural destruction through new leadership that eliminates the carriers of the former culture.

To achieve successful cultural change:
  • Always link to organizational vision, mission and objectives

  • Create a sense of urgency and continually reinforce the need to change

  • Attend to stakeholder issues

  • Remember that the "how" is as important as the "what"

  • Build on the old and step into the new

  • Generate enabling mechanisms

  • Act as a role model

  • Create a community of focused and flexible leaders

  • Insist on collective ownership of the changes.

Kathryn concludes, "From my experience of managing large organizational culture change projects, changing culture can be extremely tough and emotional. Legacy can play a major role in this - and weak leadership and management can be an underlying cause of, and barrier to, change."

What organizational cultures have you observed, been part of, or attempted to merge -“ and how did you do it? Share your experiences and questions below.

About the author

Mind Tools

Mind Tools

Mind Tools was started in 1996 to offer practical online learning to people in the workplace.

By the time they joined Emerald in March 2019, they had grown into the one of the world’s most comprehensive learning resources, with millions of individual learners in 50 countries worldwide.

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