Internal or External Change Agents?

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  • Topic: Agent, A Good Day, Organization development
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  • Published : June 1, 2013
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“have you seen any break-downs for internally led changes as opposed to Consultant led?”

My answer was “no”, I hadn’t seen any, I did mention that with the generally accepted success rates I tend to quote that 70 – 80% of change efforts fail … but then go on to reframe by saying 70 – 80% of change efforts fail to meet 100% of their original objectives. Which makes a lot more sense I think. And I guess we’re talking more about planned change where there is a clear set of measurable objectives upfront unlike more emergent change.

But the question did get me thinking about the question and the different reasons that organisations use internal and external change agents. Indeed I have written something about this in the latest edition of our book Making Sense of Change Management:

“Some organizations rely on outside help whilst others believe that they have the change agency capacity in-house. Although the core competencies of internal and external change agents are similar it is worth considering some of the differences between the two, partly so one can consider what may be best for any particular change situation, and partly so that the change agent can understand some of the nuances.”

Lacey (1995) identifies some of these different factors:

Consulting process

Internal Change Agent

External Change Agent

EntryReady access to clientsReady relationships
Knows company jargon

Understands root causes

Time efficient

Congenial phase

Obligated to work with everyone

Steady pay

Source [find] clientsBuild relationships
Learn company jargon

“presenting problem” challenge

Time consuming

Stressful phase

Select client/project according to own criteria

Unpredictable outcome

ContractingInformal agreementsMust complete projects assigned No out of pocket expenses

Information can be open or confidential

Risk of client retaliation and loss of job at stake

Acts as third party (on behalf of client), or pair of hands

Formal documentsCan terminate project at will
Guard against out of pocket expenses

Information confidential

Loss of contract at stake

Maintain third party role

DiagnosingHas relationship with many organization membersPrestige determined by job rank and client stature Sustain reputation as trustworthy over time

Data openly shared can reduce political intrigue

Meet most organization members for the first timePrestige from being external Build trust quickly

Confidential data can increase political sensitivities

InterveningInsist on valid information, and internal commitment; free and informed choice – people can choose to participate or not – is a luxuryRun interference for client across organizational lines to align support [“allowed” to engage with other parties of the organization if need be]Insist on valid information, free and informed choice, and internal commitmentConfine activities within boundaries of client organization EvaluatingRely on repeat business, pay rise, and promotion as key measures of successCan see change become institutionalized Little recognition for job well done

Rely on repeat business and customer referral as key measures of project successSeldom see long-term results We can see that throughout the course of the assignment both internal and external consultants will have challenges but often of a different nature. And of course how well the change agents address these challenges will determine how successful or otherwise they may be.

Huffington et al (1997) building on the work of Basset & Brunning (1994) suggest some criteria for when internal and external consultants may be indicated for a particular project:

Internal change agents when there is a need to work longer term with the outcomes of the change; when there is an internal driver to use or rely upon internal capacity or capability; when internal knowledge of the system now and into the future is required; when engagement with the...
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