Anyone who intervenes in the problem-solving efforts of a social group or organization can be described as a "change agent," but there are a number of different ways in which such intervention can take place. The change agent can and should specialize in helping with that part of the process where he/she has the best chance of making a difference. That might indicate a very limited or a very broad role definition, a single contribution at a particular point in time or many interventions over the whole course of the change. Let us briefly consider what some of the roles might be, following the 7-stage paradigm for change management.
Regardless of their formal job titles and official positions, there are at least seven primary ways in which people can act as change agents. These are:
Most of the time, most people do not want change; they want to keep things the way they are even when the need for some sort of change is obvious to outsiders. For that reason, change agents are sometimes needed just to overcome this inertia, to prod and pressure the system to be less complacent and to start working on its serious problems. It can be a very difficult and controversial role because it puts the change agent in the position of an agitator or fomenter of change rather than a facilitator.
A basic problem shared by nearly all systems is human relations. Members are hindered from solving problems in a constructive rational way because of weak internal communication, a lack of awareness of common interests, and a lack of consensus or shared identity. Such fundamental system dysfunction may be reduced by interventions from human relations specialists. HR experts argue convincingly that relationship issues are the keys to any successful change. Allow people to relate well and act together as a functioning team, and then they can work on their own problems more effectively.
Even with a shared focal concern it is not always clear what the real problem is. Just as in medicine the client system may need to rely on the expertise of a trained professional diagnostician, preferably supported by various test instruments and data. So it is in any complex problem situation. Finding out what is wrong can be a full time job requiring expert assistance.
Effective problem solving requires the bringing together of needs and resources. "Resources" can be of many kinds: financial backing, knowledge of solutions, knowledge or skill in diagnosing problems, formulating or adapting solutions, even expertise on the process of change itself. Resources may also consist of people with time, energy, and motivation to help. A very special and underrated change role is that of the "linker," i.e., the person who brings people together, who helps clients become aware of and make the best use of the great variety of resources that are available.
Many people who want to bring about change have definite ideas about what the change should be; they have solutions and they would like to have others adopt those solutions. However, there is a problem here: sometimes the change agent’s commitment to a particular solution gets in the way of understanding the real problem or understanding resistance to the solution they are advocating. By placing emphasis on the process and not the content of change, innovation advocates can play a constructive role in the change process, making people more aware of new ideas and stirring up interest in the possibilities of change. Being an effective solution giver involves more than simply having a solution. You have to know how it relates to people's needs and concerns. You also have to be prepared to adapt yourself and your innovation to satisfy those concerns.
An innovation can be successful in one place at one time but still have little impact on the system as a whole. "Pilot" projects can be quite successful and promising but still die out and be forgotten unless there is a concernted effort made to extend them in time and place. That is where the change agent as extender becomes important. One of the original applications of a specialized change agent function was embodied in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s "Cooperative Extension Service." The CES employed a full time "extension agent" in every county of the U.S. The main job of this agent was to encourage farmers to adopt new practices from the flood of innovations proved effective by university-based researchers across the country. They used printed material, radio programs, and demonstrations to increase adoption rates.
The process helper is someone who assists the system in all aspects of the change process from awareness of need through relationship building and defining the problem, to search for and applying solutions. Because most people who want to bring about change are not experts on the "HOW TO" of change, they can be helped greatly by others who are skilled in many of the stages of problem solving, such as are described here. It is a complicated role that is not always understood or appreciated by those who are committed to a particular course of action. The process helper is always saying, "Wait a minute; isn't there some other aspect we should consider?" or "Aren't there some other people who should be involved in this?
People who take on change agent roles are very often multi-talented people with a lot of leadership potential. They may also have real power and command major resources. It is great to have all these qualities, but the temptation when you have them (and even when you don't!) is to take the whole process of change onto your own shoulders. Don't do it. It's bad for you and it's bad in the long run for the people you are trying to serve. If you do everything, especially if you rush ahead and do it before anyone can appreciate what you are doing and have no chance to study and imitate what you are doing, then in the end it will all go for naught. You will leave eventually because all your talents and ambitions are driving you on to other challenges at other places, and they will be left there back where they started with no knowledge or skills to pick up where you left off.