Don Quixote
Don Quixote charging the windmills (Image via Flickr

Congratulations. Your organization has selected you for the important task of serving as a Change Agent. This is a position of great responsibility, as the leader of change will help to define the future of the organization for many years to come. Whether your selection came from within the ranks or from outside–the White Knight spirited in to save the Princess–your choice can only mean that you have impressed key individuals with your insight and intelligence. You have been elected to the small circle of People Who Can Make a Difference.

You will understand–at any rate, you will come to understand, I assure you–that my congratulations are necessarily tempered with sympathy. This is because the role of the Change Agent is a loveless one. Your organization–all organizations–that are not failing outright have an undigested mix of perspectives and personalities, and these differing points of view and people compete for hegemony. Your office is the battlefield upon which these rivalries will be fought. Consensus reigns only at an organization that is already dead. Not everyone will be convinced that change is necessary; few will agree as to what change is necessary. As a rule, change is something we seek in others in order to accommodate our own parochial interests.

It is important not to confuse the Change Agent with the Turnaround Artist. The Artist enters an organization whose situation is existential. Everything is on the table. The Artist is fully empowered. On the first day at the new assignment, the Turnaround Artist walks the corridors and wonders silently how many of these people, crouched in their cubes, will be gone within the month. There is no room for sentiment, no clinging to the past. Whereas many people look for leadership to be insightful and intelligent, for the true Artist the primary qualifications are decisiveness and ruthlessness.

The Change Agent, on the other hand, has been put in charge of an organization that is stalled but not dying. Standing before us today, but staring at a point three years, perhaps five, in the future, the Agent will usually make the mistake of trying to persuade everyone that what he or she sees–that chimera on the horizon–is imminent. But this is to no purpose: not until the coffin slams shut will everybody fully realize that something must be done. There is no coffin in sight here, there is nothing that is screaming for urgency. The challenge for the Change Agent is to protect the established organization even as it is led to a new and more vigorous set of activities. The position is inherently political and rarely provides a safe opportunity for a full-throated outburst. Everyone must be kept happy and smiling even as they are asked to do more, to do things differently, to forego perquisites and prerogatives sanctioned by tradition.

To complete this typology, we should mention the Founding Visionary. The Visionary is an object of romantic veneration in our society (think of Bill Gates and John Lennon), and many, many people, legends in their own minds, aspire to this exalted status. The Founding Visionary has nothing in common with the Turnaround Artist, who is more Shiva than Brahma, and views the Change Agent as a hopeless bureaucrat. The Founding Visionary is the essential individual in the right context (which only the Visionary can define), but is disruptive to the established order. For this reason the Founding Visionary is usually something of a low-level sociopath (think of Bill Gates and John Lennon) and not suited to the task of revivifying an organization. The role of the Change Agent is prosaic in comparison to that of a true Visionary; thus it is critical that the Agent tempers ambition with humility.

During the course of my career I have had the opportunity to act as both Artist and Agent, but now I mostly serve as the Trusted Advisor. The Advisor acts with detachment, sending the sons and daughters of others into battle. As in chess, where it is essential to protect the King, much of the time the Advisor admonishes the Artist and Agent to look out for their own interests. It is the Trusted Advisor who is writing this letter.

As you embark on your new assignment, I urge you to consider that some of the very things that brought you to the attention of the people who selected you may now be inappropriate; indeed, some of these things could undermine your success. If you are associated with a particular point of view, that point of view could alienate some of the very people you must nudge in new directions; if you are famous for insight, you must now make a show of deferring to the intellects for whom you are now responsible. The measure of your success is the extent that others think that it is their success.

Most of all, please avoid unconstructive provocation. Outside of school, no one wins points for having the right answer. Let others win the points for moving in the right direction. Fight on few fronts (but fight), one if possible. Never trumpet victory, only the strong efforts and successes of others.

This is a letter of congratulations, not an epitaph. If you prove to be a successful Agent, few will recognize your achievement for what it is; often heroes are unsung. But some observers who know you and the challenge before you will be watching. Play to them. It is their applause you should be seeking, as they understand what is at stake and how high the mountain is to climb.


Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


5 Thoughts on "Letter to a Change Agent"

Cervantesque in more ways than one. Would be wrong to call it a mere “blog post”. Once again, thanks for a good short story Joseph!

Having been a (brought in) change agent for much of my career I can agree with most of this. Especially the part about protecting the organization, which I liken to rebuilding a ship at sea. Change has a short term cost, the cost of confusion, as new ways of working are worked out, and that cost must be kept reasonable. But once the general nature of the change has been decided on by the top brass, it is really just a matter of “walking it through” which means finding and resolving the myriad specific small issues that arise as the change evolves to completion. This is of course a great bother to everyone, hence the loveless aspect, and then you leave. It is still very satisfying.

Joe’s essay helps me identify ways in which over my career in university press publishing I have tried to be a change agent. For at least three decades I have been championing the cause of open access for monograph publishing (beginning long before the term was even coined), Unlike some of my colleagues, like Phil Pochoda and Tom Bacher, who have been like-minded, I have tried positioning myself as an insider, not an external gadfly who is often too easy for an organization like the AAUP to marginalize. One reason i have been able to do this is that, ironically perhaps, I have been a staunch defender of copyright since the early 1970s when i joined the copyright committees of the AAP and AAUP. (Indeed, the AAUP honored me with its Constituency Award in 1999 largely because of my work on copyright.) Open access envisions a world where copyright plays a much less significant role, because it ceases to be an engine for revenue protection. I have written many articles about both copyright and open access. It was while I served as AAUP president that I drafted the AAUP Statement on Open Access, championing new thinking about OA from the industry’s inside. Earlier, in the 1990s, I had been one of the moving forces behind the CIC’s effort to mount an OA monograph publishing operation. And at Penn State in 2005 I helped launch the Office of Digital Scholarly Publishing, which includes an OA monograph series in Romance studies. Even more recently, I served on the search committee for the new director of Amherst College Press, the first American press to do entirely OA monograph publishing. But despite all these efforts, i realize that OA is still a dream to be realized sometime in the more distant future. Until university administrations begin walking the walk about OA with regard to monographs, not just journal publishing, and until AAUP member presses are convinced that such innovations as ebook aggregations like UPCC and JSTOR will not save them economically, OA for monographs will remain an aspiration rather than a reality, except at the margins in a few experimental programs.

Great piece, Joe. There’s a fourth type you might consider adding to your list: the Crazy Man (or Woman) from the Desert. This is the person who is flown in (preferably from a great distance) to say things to the organization that an internal person could not get away with saying. Having said those things, the Crazy Man/Woman then gets in a plane and flies home, leaving the person who invited him or her behind to say to the organization “Man, that person was crazy, huh? But you know, there are a couple of things he said…” This is a role that I’ve played on many occasions. It’s pretty fun.

That is indeed the fun part, Rick, which I call “guruing.” Then the change agent gets the hard job of cashing the conceptual check that the guru has left behind.

There is yet another type, which is the trouble shooter. Typically they (and I) get called in when everyone thinks there is a problem but everyone thinks it is someone else’s fault. Typically it is a system problem and no one’s fault, so I call the symptom “blaming.” Of course change, or the lack thereof, is often the problem. I am so old that on my first gig the question I was investigating was “why aren’t the engineers using the computer?”, the computer being a new thing in general engineering at the time (early 1970’s).

Some things never change and change is one of them.

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