In a recent listserv conversation, someone asked a very reasonable question:  What does the literature say about how change agents are received?  This was in the context of knowledge management (KM), and the inquiry stemmed from an honest attempt to understand the hostility experienced from some in the workforce upon being introduced to KM initiatives.

The notion of ‘change agent’ or ‘change management’ evokes images that may be at odds with how change is reflected in the literature.  An ‘agent’ sounds as if it is one person’s job, even though most understand this person is a modulator within a complex system.  And ‘management’ implies all the behaviors of control and authority that we know run counter to what is needed.  While we are used to hearing about heroic leaders spearheading change through their companies, Katzenbach and Smith find the “inevitability” of teams when an organization is facing major change.  They define major change as reliant on the magnitude of “1) ...how many people have to change their behaviors, skills, or values, and 2) the degree of readiness or resistance inherent in what is often described as ‘the way we do things around here.’” (195)

Wheatley finds that change is natural, and the opposition we find to it in organizations comes from how we have come to expect organizations to work.  She found that 75% of change projects fail, or “do not yield the expected results.”  Key word there: Expected.  “Our ideas and sensibilities about change come from the world of Newton.  We treat a problematic organization as if it was a machine that had broken down.  We use reductionism to diagnose the problem; we expect to find a simple, singular cause for our woes...to repair the organization, all we need to do is replace the faulty part and gear back up to operate at predetermined performance levels.”  (138)  So we leave our messy homes, navigate complex traffic patterns, and arrive at our tidy offices - where every process is documented and incentives structured to maintain the smooth operation of the organizational machine.

Wheatley also arrives at a seeming paradox.  While we should work at the level where we appreciate the whole of the system, eschewing a focus on a specific ‘broken part,’ we also work at the component level.  We do not approach change as if mass and acceleration were the only aspects of force, we understand non-linear effects, and how relatively small changes can echo and amplify enterprise change.  We work at the component level, but look to system level effects - because no problem can be understood in isolation.  This aligns with what we are observing in the natural sciences.  Wheatley quotes the former director of the Max Planck Institute; “there is no analytic language to describe what we are seeing at the quantum level.  I can only say that it does not help to analyze things in more detail.  The more specific the information, the less relevant it is.”  (140) So if we accept a naturalistic science approach to social organizations, we need to embrace paradox.  It appears to be the order of things.

But this isn't news. In our off-duty lives, we do embrace paradox and change.  We expect it.  Children are born, people die, fortunes change, vacations take unexpected turns, we suffer illness and experience serendipity.  In time, our children become parents while they remain our children.  We expect our personal lives to be messy and we adapt.  By and large, we expect change.  We are not surprised by the quoted Heraclitus:  “everything changes and nothing remains still.”  This expectation of change leads us to see cycles and we begin to predict our response.  We live amidst expected change.  “We anticipate the change and respond, or we can predict what will occur.” (Bellavita)

Further, in Eastern traditions, the whole is always considered.  Wheatley quotes a Buddhist teaching story that reminds us how everything is related and interdependent.  You cannot consider a leaf without also appreciating that its existence required “earth, water, heat, sea, tree, clouds, sun, time, space.” (142) When you ask an audience to select the “one that doesn’t belong” from the grouping of cow/chicken/grass - the response from a Western mind may come from a reductionist background (grass), while an Eastern-trained mind may respond ‘chicken’ - as the cow has a relationship with the grass.  Those of us with Western-trained minds are attracted to this approach that respects relationships and interdependencies; even as we live and teach according to the reductionist scientific tradition.  It feels more natural to us somehow, as if some deeper truths are hidden in the Eastern tradition.

When we come to the workplace, however, we are told we are part of a machine, with established processes and goals.  We step into a world that encourages an external locus of control - everything meaningful happens outside our office. We are not in control of our environment, and we are left to focus on a part of the whole.  The ‘whole’ is someone else’s job, likely a flag officer or executive.  We don’t like it, it feels unnatural, but we adapt our expectations accordingly.  We change what we expect, and take on an identity of isolation.  Over time, this is how we work.  Our identity is shaped, at odds with what feels natural during our time with our families.

Along comes the change (KM) agent.  Telling us to share with others.  Understand and respect the whole.  Take responsibility for helping others know what we know.  Appealing to the naturalist in us; telling us to embrace change, consider interdependencies, and live amidst paradox.

But.  Our workplace hasn’t changed.  Performance reviews remain focused on predicted goals regarding our isolated function. Success metrics are not obviously tied to whole system performance. Incentives do not encourage relationship, but competition at the expense of the whole.  The change agent hasn’t been able to change core aspects of our environment, and we feel as if we are asked to grow a leaf with no heat and insufficient water.  Our anger is not directed at the faceless organization to which we’ve adapted our expectations - but the person asking us to apply skills we use to live outside the workplace to improve the organization.  It is appealing on an emotional level, but we cannot see its feasibility “here.”

Bellavita offers some perspective that should inform any prospective ‘change agent,’ observing that our response to change depends on the temporal aspect.  For change that has occurred: we adapt and adjust.  For change that is occurring: we have (hopefully) the opportunity to initiate action and influence events, to shape the change that will affect us, our organization and our environment.  For future change: we anticipate and plan for what will occur. (112)

Katzenbach and Smith find “the most effective efforts simultaneously provide top-down direction, bottom-up goal achievement and problem-solving actions, and cross-functional system and process redesign.” (209)  (As an aside and caution, I heard Jon Katzenbach speak a few years ago and he said if we were writing the book now, it would reflect more the “wisdom of networks.”)

Recommend:

Accept the conflict, the people resisting change are both encouraged and depressed by your work.  The resistance will feel personal, and may even be expressed in personal terms.  Use anecdotes and stories that link our natural skills at change management, paradox, and holistic thought to the workplace challenges.

Place the change in temporal context.  If past, provide tools for adjustment.  For current - press your leadership to allow for broad participation to influence how the change occurs.  For future, same:  provide for broad participation in planning.  Heckscher (228-230) provides a case study of the IBM Values Jam, where thousands of voices were heard in developing the new corporate values.

Help the leadership understand its role.  Heckscher offers that a leader’s job in change is to build a shared purpose and build the network.  This is counter to their training, most likely, and requires a leader who is able to understand the changing notions of control and authority.  “Yet this is also an immensely creative context within which to work because the absence of certainty, security and a sense of belonging is of itself a source of inspiration in terms of exploring new ways to reach out and engage others in dialogue about how it and we might go on together.” (Williams, 72)

My wife observed that, in our personal lives, 'there is no one else in charge.'  Perhaps the definition of 'being in charge' needs to change, as people develop new expectations regarding their role in the workplace.  If people know how to navigate their messy existence, perhaps it is time for us to leverage those adaptation skills in the false machines of the workplace.


Bellavita, C. (Ed.). (1990). How Public Organizations Work: Learning from Experience. New York: Praeger.

Heckscher, C. (2007). The Collaborative Enterprise:  Managing Speed and Complexity in Knowledge-Based Businesses. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (2006). The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Wheatley, M. J. (1999). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Williams, R. (2006). The Experience of Leading Public Sector Organizations in a Performance Management Regime. In R. D. Stacey & D. Griffin (Eds.), Complexity and the Experience of Managing in Public Sector Organizations. New York, NY: Routledge.

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