What's the Difference Between a Change Agent and a Change Champion?

Posted by Paula Alsher on Thu, Jan 26, 2017 @ 10:32 AM

In our change management training programs we are often asked what the difference is between a Change Champion and a Change Agent.  Are they the same thing?  Aren’t they responsible for essentially the same tasks?  The answer is no.  They are not the same, but… the two roles often overlap.    Change Agents and Change Champions

To begin, we need to look at the 4 distinct roles in a change implementation. Don Harrison, founder of the Accelerating Implementation Methodology (AIM) likes to call these four organizational roles a CAST of characters:

Champions, Agents, Sponsors and Targets

  • Champions believe in the change and attempt to obtain commitment and resources for it, but may not have the line authority to make it happen
  • Agents are assigned responsibility to implement change, and are evaluated on their ability to get the project implemented
  • Sponsors authorize, legitimize and demonstrate ownership for the change (Authorizing Sponsors). Or they must Reinforce their personal commitment through their own visible, active behavior (Reinforcing Sponsors)
  • Targets change behavior, emotions, knowledge, perceptions, etc

Change Champions vs Change Agents

Each member of the CAST of characters has a distinct job to do in implementing change projects. 

are anyone within the organization who believe in, and want the change.  And given this role definition, we definitely need all of our Change Agents to also be Champions in order to be effective.

However, Champions may be limited in what they can get done as they may not have authority over the performance of the TargetsSo, while it is great to build a critical mass of Change Champions, in the end these individuals don't have direct accountability for the implementation!  We do need and want Champions, but they are not sufficient to actually get a change implemented.

Change Agents
, on the other hand, are primarily responsible for the tactical change project implementation activity including strategy, design, deployment, and evaluation of the change. 

Remember, however, that during a major change, there is often an overlap of roles. Take this scenario as an example:  Employee, Joe has an idea and begins to champion it within the organization. In order to get his idea implemented, he’ll need a Sponsor who has the requisite power and authority to provide him with the resources to get it done.  This Authorizing Sponsor says, “Wow!  That is a great idea, Joe!  Go make it happen!”  Now Joe is not only a Champion, but he is also an Agent. 

You can see that while there are four roles with distinct responsibilities, they obviously intersect and overlap quite often.  The Who’s Who of a change can be complicated, but when everyone has the same definition of the CAST of characters, you will be better positioned for implementation success.

In addition, people who have accountability for implementation must be very clear on what specifically they are accountable for!  One of the great values of our change management training and change management certification programs is that we provide the level of clarity and specific actions needed by each role, so that performance can be measured and rewarded appropriately.

Criteria for Successful Change Agents

Given the importance of the Change Agent role, picking the right Change Agents is a critical step that should not be overlooked. A common mistake is that Agents are often selected based on who is available or who is the most technically knowledgeable, rather than on who has the right skills to influence others. 

Based on our 30+ years in the Change Management Consulting industry, we developed the following checklist of criteria for effective Change Agents.  Change Agents must have:

  • A successful personal and organizational historyChange Agent Criteria
  • Success and credibility with key Sponsors
  • Trust with key Targets
  • Awareness of culture and sub-culture differences 
  • Belief in the project
  • Knowledge of the business unit and strategy
  • Ability to translate the Sponsors' Frame of Reference (FOR) to the Targets' and vice versa, without their own FOR interfering
  • Ability to develop teamwork among Sponsors, Change Agents, and Targets by creating common goals and inter-dependence for success
  • Comfort level with ambiguity
  • Courage (Why courage? Because the Change Agent must be willing to ask Sponsors for what they need, even when it becomes difficult or uncomfortable!)

Because implementation takes place at the local level, it is essential to build a network of local Change Agents distributed across the impacted areas of the organization.  These may be people working on a corporate project team or in a field location or business unit.  

So, while it's certainly important to have Champions who believe in your change, project teams should recognize early on the importance of building this network of Change Agents and ensure the Agents have the skills and knowledge to be successful in this important role.  

After all, remember… it's not the Change Champions who will actually have implementation responsibilities-- it's the Change Agents.  And that’s the difference between the two roles!

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Topics: Change Agents