Change Agents Must Master Counterintelligence Tactics — Part 4 of 6

Posted on April 18th, 2016

NOTE: This is Part 4 of a planned 6-Part series. Link to Part 3.

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. Last time, we discovered Agent 3 (click here for details). Let’s get right to discussion of the next agent, Agent 4 (A4) — The Change Minimizer.

A4 is like Agent 1 in that they are opposed to change. The difference is that A4 is stealthier about their opposition than is A1. Don’t mistake this to mean that their opposition is less passionate. A4 has a broad continuum of reaction to change, spanning from strong antagonism like A1 all the way to a feeling that, while change may be necessary, it must be limited to the smallest possible impact. A4 mantras would include, “If it ain’t broke, …” and “better the devil you know, …”

A4 is known across the organization as an influencer; a mover and shaker that has the ear and loyalty of power brokers. They are confident and authoritative. Many in the organization won’t take a public stand until they know where A4 is on a proposed change. As a result, A4 tends to get things done by having the right people aligned to them. Despite this organizational power, A4 doesn’t necessarily possess deep expertise. Their power has been gained from a very keen political prowess. They rarely have to spend actual organizational collateral because, due to the company they keep, they aren’t normally held accountable for being wrong. Significant change is a threat to this seat of security and stability A4 enjoys.

A4 can be detected because though they seldom come out in support of change, they rarely object passionately; they rarely offer tons of data to support opposition; they simply “know” that this is the wrong time or the wrong place or the wrong person … They commit to “making it work” if the organization is bent on going, but they are very specific in their reservation, highlighting realistic threats to success of the undertaking. They appear to be level-headed and sober and, though they have been wrong in the past — even often, and since they have others in the boat with them, they are lauded for having been the force behind avoiding big mistakes that otherwise would have shipwrecked the effort along the way.

The biggest mistake made by change agents when dealing with A4 is two-fold. First, and most prevalent, is over-reaction to their objections followed by an all-out campaign to discredit them. Because of their political allegiances, this often ends badly for the change agent. The other mistake is to ignore A4 altogether.  Doing this will expose A3 to danger and nullify the message from A2. Since the change agent doesn’t know where all the political alliances are or how deep, A4 is the most dangerous operative to deal with.

So, how does a change agent leverage A4?

First, validate the risks outlined by A4 using the intel gained from A1. If what A4 says is real, A1 is going to latch on to it and take it to hyper-drive. There is normally little danger of A1 and A4 conspiring, since A1 doesn’t like the political power that A4 enjoys and A4 thinks that the passion A1 exudes makes them incredible. Once validated, enlist A3 to analyze the risk and plan contingencies, then include this info in appropriate bits in “spokesagent” messaging to change champion(s). Give the champion(s) enough detail in enough simplicity for them to be able to construct messaging (with the change agent’s help if requested or welcomed) that they will personally deliver to the enterprise: “We are aware that X might happen as we go through Y. Because of that we are planning Z which we are confident will protect us from N.” Finally, credit A4 for bringing this to light. This tends to disarm them on that particular risk. It also has the additional implication of raising the ire of A1 who feels actually responsible for bringing it up, so pay close attention to gain intel on the failure effects that A3 may have missed or understated.

Handled properly, there is no downside for A4, so there is no consideration needed for how to manage them post-change. They normally move on to the next change and play their role seamlessly over and over again.

Next time, Agent 5.