Change Agents Must Master Counterintelligence Tactics — Part 1 of 6

Posted on March 9th, 2016

Why do most change efforts of any substance within organizations fail? Why is failure so pervasive that most people are confident that they need only wait out the flurry of frenzied activity, often for no longer than the run-up to the next period financial report when everyone will be told to “drop everything else and make sure we get this nailed?”

Answer: Most “change agents” are completely and ignorantly unfamiliar with the “agents of change.” Everyone in a change environment is an agent of change. They are either working to promote change or they are working to obstruct it, consciously or not. The role of the change agent is to identify these agents of change, discover their intelligence, and leverage it to promote change. This is much like the work of a secret agent or government operative. Much like the superspy, the best change agent extracts and employs intel while blending into the landscape, escaping attention and suspicion.

So, who are these agents of change? We’ll find that out over the first five posts in this six-post series. In the final post, we’ll wrap it all together to offer some execution guidance. Let’s get right to it.

Agent 1 (A1) — The Anti-Change Agent. A1 wants to prevent change at all costs. A1 could be motivated by career stage, market, industry, or economic uncertainty, or deeply personal factors like family crisis, life stage or a deep-set desire to prevent current stakeholders from achieving success. Whatever the case, A1 can be easily detected by their consistent and zealous objection to change with or without substantial (and sometime voluminous) facts and data to support their opposition. The biggest mistake made by Change Agents when dealing with A1? Ignoring, suppressing, or even disciplining, reassigning or terminating them. While A1 can cause a lot of turbulence, they are often the key to successful change. Why? They often know what can and will go wrong as change takes place. Counterintelligence skill is needed to mine this intel. A straightforward, “Hey A1, how about telling me everything we need to watch out for,” isn’t going to get it done.

Here’s what does. Listen carefully and accept the data they volunteer as early in the intervention as possible, preferably during the define stage of change. Invite them to share their positions, opinions, etc in a formal forum that includes change stakeholders and executives, but not their peers. Give them focused access to ears they normally don’t have privy to. Use a primary Change Agent as a surrogate for the larger stakeholder group which can be present briefly at the start or end of intel sessions but shouldn’t hear the deep details of A1 positions unfiltered.

Why does this work? Many times A1 antagonism has built-up over years of being ignored and rebuffed. They have been passed over and seen people come in with much less experience, yet whose ideas get advanced even though they often fail. They have unsuccessfully tried repeatedly to raise red flags and warnings that could have avoided sometimes significant setbacks. They’re not always the most politically astute players, but often have the greatest technical acumen. (Technical in this case means understanding of the business and its processes and has nothing necessarily to do with technology.)

If listening to A1 does nothing else, it takes the wind out of the sails of resistance they may otherwise be fully prepared to cruise under. This satisfies your primary objective for A1: Make overt attempts to oppose change expose them as disingenuous, complicating any recruitment efforts they undertake.

As you gain intel from A1, pass it along to design teams for evaluation and incorporation into the change model where appropriate and feasible. In no case, though, make any promises or assertions to A1 that this will happen or is happening.

Later, during the test phases of change, you will get a chance to see A1’s greatest value firsthand: A1 is the ultimate crash tester. Put the model in front of them and defy them to break it. Of course your real motive is to make sure that they do break it if it can be broken. This is why you don’t let them in on the fact that you have been incorporating their intel. The last thing you need is for them to begin to feel invested in the success of the change or to guard their intel. You want them squarely determined to defeat it and defiantly prove that they know more about things than you do. What you learn during testing will be invaluable and save significant investment loss.

After the change is installed be sure to openly celebrate and credit A1 for the successes achieved. At that point make sure that they make an unambiguous choice either to embrace the change and take an active role in solidifying it or to exit. A1 doesn’t work well in environments where change they adamantly opposed goes forward despite their opposition.

Next time, Agent 2.