If You Want Change Agents, Then Understand "Agency"
If you boil it all down there is a simple truth that applies to every organization:
As you move through life, your organization will need to change, and that means people will need to change behaviors, and that will require internal “change agents.”
Successful change needs people who are going to take the lead and help make it happen. Change agents. This is particularly true when it comes to culture change. This universal truth is not necessarily top of mind at every organization, and that’s fine. Sometimes the change is not a priority, and you’re more focused on implementation. But at some point, you’ll realize that you’re on the path of some big change, and you can’t do it alone. So you turn to your colleagues and try to mobilize for the change.
But before you can have effective change agents, you have to understand the concept of “agency.” In sociology, agency refers to “the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.” Agency can be impeded by “structures,” which could be internal (a cognitive belief structure) or external (social/organizational structures).
So here’s what this means for culture change. Many organizations have created organizational structures AND have supported internal belief structures that tell employees that they are powerless to change culture. That it can only come from the top. That you need a consultant to analyze your culture and tell you what to change. That you’re too busy doing your work to lead the change. There is a deep lack of agency.
For culture change to be successful, you need to address the agency problem. That is one reason why our Culture Design projects involve the creation of an internal Culture Team that is made up of people from all levels in the hierarchy and as many different departments as we can get. We then give THEM the culture data to analyze, and we help THEM write up both priorities and the action steps. Sometimes I’m sure they want us to write the action steps for them. After all, we’re culture experts, and we’ve seen similar situations many times before—can’t we just give them the best practices?
No, and for two reasons: (1) just because it worked somewhere else doesn’t mean it will be a best practice for you, and (2) we need to grow agency—we need to grow the capacity in the organization for people to act independently and make their own free choices, otherwise there won’t be enough change agents to get the work done.
Conventional wisdom says culture change is hard and takes a long time because that’s just the nature of culture change, but I would argue that the real reason is the chronically weak agency among employees. The good news is, it’s not that difficult to grow agency, and if you build that into your culture change work, you’ll get results faster.