September 12, 2022

The Importance of Change Agents, Sponsors, and Champions in Organizational Change Management

It’s necessary for organizations to regularly undergo changes to remain competitive. In addition, changes are often needed to scale. Changes can be minor or significant. But no matter the magnitude of the change, the impact on your business can drastically alter its outlook—either positively or negatively.

Change’s effect on the people within your organization is more important than the size of the change. Change isn’t easy, and humans are hard-wired to resist it. Additionally, a job is a significant part of a person’s life, so any changes within their role, department, or organization can have a highly significant and possibly intimidating effect on them.

Still, business leaders must recognize that change is a requirement to allow for growth and success. These changes can take many forms, such as shifts in culture, internal processes, and team structures, or adopting new technologies and business models. But what’s more important than the change itself is how that change is managed. Managers, department heads, and other leaders within an organization must oversee, promote, and guide employees through organizational changes using effective organizational change management (OCM) methods for best results.

Organizational change management (OCM) methods are necessary to leverage change to achieve desired outcomes. Without OCM, organizational transformation or company transitions can be complicated, leading to unnecessary costs. Additionally, you can run into roadblocks with increased resistance, making timely change implementation impossible. Lastly, your organizational change efforts can fail without employee engagement and proper skill assessment and training. Therefore, OCM helps bolster effective and well-accepted change.

When effectuating change in the workplace, it’s vital to encourage employees by making them aware of the growth opportunities or individual benefits accompanying the change. In other words, what’s in it for them? Organizational changes generally benefit the companies implementing the changes. But people want to know how they’ll be affected personally, what they can expect, and what they can potentially get out of their initial discomfort. OCM accompanied by “change advocates” or “agents of change” can help organizational leaders relay the change initiative to each impacted person in a way that promotes adoption and commitment.

Who Are the Change Agents, Sponsors, and Champions Within an Organization?

The good news is, change leaders are already present within your organization—finding them is the challenge. It’s important to understand that each major organizational transformation must be accepted at the enterprise, project, and individual levels, necessitating various change management roles to oversee each facet of the change and its impact.

Therefore, you’ll want to use a network of change agents filling various positions within your business. It’s vital that anyone who steps up to this role be well-respected and highly influential. They must also understand their role within the organization and the organization’s culture and values. Finally, they’ll need to fully comprehend the change being implemented along with its effect on their colleagues and the company’s success, focusing on the realization of benefits from the project.

Change Agents

A change agent helps promote the value of the change being made. They are usually needed locally—working directly with your impacted employees. They will help formulate a plan to implement and support the change efforts, guiding others through it. Ultimately, their goal is to ensure the benefits of the change are realized, and the expected outcomes are produced.

Regardless of a change agent’s job title or position within the organization, their responsibilities should be the same. They should become advocates for the change initiative and drive home its intended results while mitigating or counteracting any resistance or disruption throughout the transformation or transition process. This task needs to be done with a certain level of understanding, compassion, and transparency for those affected by the change. Therefore, change agents must be expert mediators who are trustworthy and can create and maintain good working relationships.

Change Sponsors

Your organization’s primary sponsor must authorize and make way for changes within your business. Typically, these individuals will support your organization at a department level. Like a change agent, they should ensure that each change results in its intended benefits. Change sponsors must have a clear vision of the change and understand its need. They should also have influence, public support, and some leverage to get others to commit to the change.

Sponsors go beyond assisting in management. Instead of planning, problem-solving, instilling structure, and devising processes, change sponsors communicate a vision and inspire others to be visionaries. They create an alliance that’s pointed to the future of the business and high-performing success that exceeds simply doing one’s job.

Change Champions

Change champions are more high level—or at the organizational level. They are essentially at 20,000 feet, transferring information down the chain to the individual via the sponsors and agents. Change champions are the ultimate senders and receivers of information, acting as extensions of the overall project team to help bridge the gap between the project and the end users of the system, process, or other change. In other words, they are responsible for integrating the project into the organization and devising a method of change advocacy that effectively presents the change to the impacted individuals to encourage adoption.

Change champions aren’t always needed, depending on how you’re rolling out the project and the type of project you’re undertaking. Contrarily, when a project influences various aspects or components of your business, you may need a change champion for each unit or workstream involved, utilizing sponsors for smaller teams rather than an entire department. Typically, the bigger the impact, the higher you go, requiring one or more change champions. Sponsors or agents can handle changes at departmental or other singular levels. But when the impact is organization-wide, that’s where change champions step in.

What Is the Significance of These Change Management Roles?

Appointing a change agent earlier rather than later during the lifecycle of a project ensures that the adoption of the change happens faster and with more ease. Resistance can build as a project progresses, especially when that change requires significant transformation and disruption of roles and processes. Research shows that only 38% of people are content to leave their “comfort zone,” while 62% don’t like it, are hesitant, or will only occasionally do so.

The difference lies in a person’s perspective based on past experiences and personalities. Some see change as a positive or rewarding venture with desirable outcomes or new possibilities. Others see change negatively, interpreting it as a hindrance or dead-end to everything they’ve been working toward or a “stop” to their forward-thinking vision. Therefore, having someone in place to prepare employees for the change, encourage its acceptance, and promote its benefits can help strengthen one’s commitment to the change, providing them with needed security and a readiness to embrace it.

To avoid activating negative feelings from the start, change agents and other change management leaders should participate in a project from planning through to its execution to closely follow and address any apprehension about the change and act accordingly to keep the project from derailment or failure.

Companies should also prepare for the possible departure of change agents when projects span many months or years to prevent any setbacks to employees’ enthusiasm. Furthermore, it’s essential that change agents, sponsors, and champions thoroughly understand their roles to be most effective. Prosci’s research shows that these individuals’ effectiveness is directly correlated to the success of a project, with projects having “extremely effective sponsors” meeting or exceeding objectives “more than twice as often as those with a very ineffective sponsor.” Still, in one survey, 50% of participants said they didn’t believe their sponsors adequately understood their role.

To be extremely effective, change agents, sponsors, and champions must:

  • Be active and visible throughout the change
  • Have a strong following or group of key individuals—such as stakeholders—supporting the change
  • Regularly communicate their support and promote the transition to those impacted

What Types of Organizational Change Projects Require Agents, Sponsors, or Champions of Change?

You likely won’t need various advocates of change for minor projects. The types of projects that will require the support of change agents, sponsors, and champions will have organization- or department-wide impacts. These changes include:

  • Implementing new technologies
  • Changes in leadership
  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • Changes in organizational culture
  • Switching from a brick-and-mortar structure to an e-commerce workplace
  • Rebranding
  • Launching a new department
  • Times of crisis

What Are the Consequences of Not Having Change Agents, Sponsors, or Champions?

These individuals are paramount to the success of a project. Prosci research shows that these change leaders are so critical that they can actually “make or break” a project or initiative. Not having these people in place can result in:

  • Unnecessary costs
  • Heightened resistance
  • Slower adoption
  • Lack of goal insight
  • Communication gaps

What Skills Should These “Champions of Change” Have to be Successful?

Change champions and other “agents of change” within an organization are usually found at the C-suite or other leadership levels. Due to their seniority, they likely already have management experience and a particular skillset or knowledge that sets them apart. However, it’s often ideal to have change agents at various levels within your company to best reach your employees and advocate for the change on a more local or equal footing.

In addition to the requisite proficiency or know-how about the company, its people, and its processes, individuals in change management roles should also have:

  • Good leadership and coaching skills to be able to influence and guide others effectively
  • A thorough understanding of the big picture to articulate it to others
  • Authority to implement changes and have oversight on projects or lead teams
  • A sense of urgency to make quick decisions and act
  • Good communication skills to sufficiently explain the change and its impact
  • A tech mindset and understanding of advanced terminology to translate complex or complicated concepts into user-friendly language

Partner With Oxford For Help With Your Change Management Objectives

We want to help cheer you on and see your projects through to success! While Oxford doesn’t directly provide change agents, sponsors, or champions for you, they can help you identify these people within your organization. These agents of change are all found and supplied by your business. Our change management consultants can help guide you in selecting these essential individuals. We have become accustomed to working alongside these specific personalities and can quickly pinpoint who they are likely to be.

Additionally, we have the knowledge and expertise to assist your organization with implementing changes. Benchmarking studies have shown that projects with excellent change management have a 93% success rate. Those are significant odds! And that nearly guaranteed rate of success means better and earlier adoption of the change, fewer workarounds, overall greater acceptance of what the company is trying to achieve, and lower staff turnover, typically resulting from change or the chaos surrounding it.

Lastly, excellent change management leads to a shortened hyper care period, meaning little disruption to your operations and overall productivity and a healthier short and long-term bottom line. Change is hard, but partnering with the right people to effectuate change can make it the rewarding experience you’re hoping for with the positive outcomes you need.

Quality. Commitment.

Whether you want to advance your business or your career, Oxford is here to help. With nearly 40 years’ experience, we know that a great partnership is key to success. Start a conversation today.