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Change agents: The unsung heroes of digital transformation

It was one of the biggest buzzwords of 2017 and it will only continue to grow in the new year. But digital transformation is more than a buzzword. It’s also much more than digital.

Digital transformation represents the groundswell of business modernization and the construct of future-proofing against disruption. Yet, companies are all over the map in how they approach change. With the help of digital change agents, however, the future of business can find its heroes and accelerate productive transformation.

The challenge is whether executives can find and empower them to bring the organization together around unified digital initiatives. That is, before savvy competitors pluck them away.

In my research over the years, I’ve found that behind every company excelling across the “Six Stages of Digital Transformation” are digital change agents: the unsung heroes of digital business evolution.

But who (or what) are the change agents?

Change agents are often early adopters of digital trends who want to help their companies modernize. Many start as digital advocates and, over time, develop into experienced business transformers. They recognize the impact of digital and they’re driven to help their organizations adapt. However, they may lack the experience or authority to lead digital transformation at the enterprise level.

Determined change agents find the courage to step outside of their roles and groups to learn and help get other key players on board with modernization and innovation. Their work isn’t easy, though. Change agents face significant hurdles along the way from colleagues, executives and in some cases, the board and shareholders.

But, now change agents at every level, in any group, have a “manifesto” to help lead change, as told by their peers who are on the front lines of successful and not so successful digital transformation efforts.

Digital transformation is a human story

The truth is that whether it’s digital transformation, corporate innovation or culture, most efforts to bring about change in an organization is often met with great resistance. We’re only human, after all. Even though companies need to compete in a digital economy and are already investing heavily in new technologies and innovations, many still do so through disjointed efforts driven by digital trailblazers across the organization. In most cases, this is initially done without an official mandate. Still, this work sets the stage for formal initiatives as they gain momentum.

Change agents bring new thinking, mindsets, expertise, and experience in digital to their organizations. They’re also catalysts to driving the bold initiatives that eventually fuel their success. Their path is not straightforward, however. Their passion and determination can challenge, panic or upset those who don’t see the need to challenge the status quo.

While some change agents are born leaders who want to help their organizations transform digitally, many become change agents reluctantly. Even though they’re passionate about the future, they are not born change-management experts. Their passions lie in technology and innovation, but not necessarily in the political and cultural aspects of organizational life.

To succeed, they must do the hard work of managing change and help others in the organization learn, unlearn, and adopt new ways of thinking and working in order to spark transformation. They need to show how everyone can benefit from digital not just expect them to change because digital is… everywhere.

How digital innovators become change agents

Digital change agents can rise from anywhere in an organization. Marketing and IT tend to lead investment in innovative technology early on—typically driven by the need to modernize marketing and the customer experience overall—so many change agents come from these areas of the business. But anyone who builds digital programs, infrastructure, and capabilities as a part of their work or because they are passionate about digital can become a digital change agent.

Digital innovators sometimes become change agents by rising above their day-to-day responsibilities, pursuing innovative projects without official sanction as a means of “doing the right thing” in digital. These digital champions want to help their organizations compete for the future, but the C-Suite and business units that can benefit from their work in innovation don’t always know about or officially support their critical efforts.

Others are executive-appointed, tasked with driving change from within their domain of influence. They operate in an official capacity, but their work is “local.” It’s focused on specific business areas and not immediately exposed to other areas or teams that can benefit from their work and experience.

Different kinds of digital change agents

change agent portfolio

There is no one type of change agent either. They each boast different skillsets, goals, aspirations, and management experience. While their paths aren’t typically linear, they tend to adopt or progress through four recurrent organizational roles:

  • Digital/innovation advocates are individuals who are passionate, and actively spread the word about digital innovations. Though they don’t always have experience in navigating corporate change, inactivity is not an option for them.
  • Digital executives lead digital efforts in specific roles, but they’re motivated to expand their insights and efforts. They are not naturally or initially inclined to deploy change management tactics to inspire enterprise-wide digital transformation.
  • Aspiring leaders are beneficial as they navigate corporate relationships while honing skills in managing up and collaborating. In short, they learn how to align their digital innovation expertise and passion with change management initiatives to advocate for organization-wide digital transformation.
  • Promoted to more senior positions, many of those aspiring leaders become experienced digital transformers. In short, they build bridges across stakeholders groups and the C-Suite to lead and manage digital transformation formally.


The pace of innovation and disruption is accelerating. Digital change agents and leaders are instrumental in helping their companies more effectively compete in this digital economy. They spread digital literacy, drive collaboration between silos, build internal bridges with executives, and help accelerate progress.

Given their incredible value, leaders should compile a portfolio of digital change agents in their organization and consider how to best deploy and develop each of them. If not, leaders risk losing the very talent who are working to future-proof the organization.

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