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Change Agents: Cancer or Cure?

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When corporate change agents are perceived as an invading cancer and rejected, there is no popular uprising to counter that force, unlike in the Mideast. The role of social media within an organization as a tool for constructive change and transformation has yet to evolve – but it will.

The highly immersive, intellectually stimulating and emotionally overwhelming TED Conference began yesterday. For the past 17 years TED has been one of my most valuable annual opportunities to withdraw from day-to-day pressures and realities and open my mind, heart and gut to a universe of new stimuli. It's a particularly relevant time for the TED experience. The past few weeks have bubbled-over with signs of change: the Mideast upheaval; the Midwestern states' labor confrontations; the firing of Jack Griffin by Time Inc and the return of Randall Rothenberg to the IAB;  the departure of Carolyn Everson from Microsoft to Facebook; the take-over (finally) of NBCU by Comcast; the Groupon decision to reject $6 billion. The Twitterati are aflutter with commentary on the role of change agents, whether the agent is a single executive or the totality of social media.

My colleague Walter Sabo has shared here valuable insights about how change agents can successfully inspire change and why they so often fail. Several years ago, I eliminated any reference to "change agent" from my bio, even though it had been a core part of my identity since my early days at ABC Radio and CBS Television. I prefer to be recognized as a media economist -- one who studies and reports on the production, distribution and consumption of media. I now consider myself an advocate for stability, by providing the economic framework for change that embraces the future and empowers those who lead organizations into the future, while valuing and honoring those who support and maintain legacy systems and revenues.

The role and goal of the change agent is to disrupt the organization, its traditional business models and its legacy structural silos and management layers. As I wrote here last week, traditional infrastructures and the status quo remain the dominant forces within governments, companies and even families. Individual therapy often requires the destruction of engrained beliefs and behavior before new behaviors and belief systems can be introduced.

But at the core, therapy first requires that you understand the negative influences of your current behavior and the positive ramifications of change. Change demands that you first embrace your total self before you can deconstruct and then reconstruct individual parts of your being. Successful integration of the new requires understanding of the old. Organizations and governments also need to be viewed -- from within -- in their gestalt before they can successfully institute change.

In nations where governments have become dysfunctional, the central operating systems of those governments refuse to place the needs of their people's long-term well-being ahead of the short-term realities and interests of the powers-that-be. They lack a fundamental vision of how to accomplish change without destroying themselves, especially when limited resources make it impossible to fund both the new and legacy models.

Social media enables crowds to move from their homes to the streets, and empowers them to act as a cohesive force against long-established systems. Institutions fight back and often win in the short-term, but they ultimately crumble. The reality is, though, that unless new institutions are built that replace the old, we have no clear vision of what the future will bring or how to manage the changes taking place.

Organizations like Time Warner cannot deconstruct before they reconstruct. That's why I believe change must happen in small pockets where new models can be implemented, tested and proven. T-W CEO Jeffrey Bewkes has struggled to establish order and clarity of vision. The failure of Jack Griffin, in my opinion, was not one of mission, style, culture or actions. It was a failure to use his time there to build a constituency of support among the rank and file employees. He endangered the status quo and the establishment – the government – without establishing a clear base of support among those who would be responsible for instituting his changes.

If the threat existed that editors would reject him, he needed the next layer of editorial management to make it clear that they would step into the vacuum and take to the corridors to defend his changes. Julie Roehm experienced the same reality as CMO of Wal-Mart. Instead of spending her first six months gaining the support of internal executives, she departed on a road show to find a new agency that could effectively communicate the message of change at Wal-Mart. When the organization rose up and attacked her, she had no core constituency to protect and defend her.

As I originally wrote in my 1993 book, "Scientists recently discovered a process in the body's immune system called "anergy." It has commonly been believed that, when an invading virus attacks the body, white blood cells race to the point of invasion, surrounding and destroying the invading virus. It is now known that the white blood cells do charge to the point of incursion but they do not immediately attack. Instead, they wait 'passively on the sidelines' in the 'anergic state,' depending upon a second signal from the brain to confirm the virus and authorize the white blood cells to attack."

The greatest challenge we face in responding to the transformation occurring in ourselves, our communities, governments, organizations, and industries is the failure to recognize that what may be perceived as cancerous cells are in fact inoculations against the cancer of eroding legacy systems. In Egypt and elsewhere, constituencies created through social media beat back the provocateurs who attack change agents.

But in corporate corridors, when change agents are perceived as an invading cancer and rejected, there is no popular uprising to counter that force. The role of social media within an organization as a tool for fostering those uprisings and inspiring change and transformation has yet to evolve – but it will.

Jack Myers can be reached at Jack@mediadvisorygroup.com. JackMyersThinkTank is free and underwritten, as part of MediaBizBloggers.com, by subscriptions to Jack Myers Media Business Report (www.jackmyers.com). Subscribe free to all MediaBizBloggers reports at www.MediaBizBloggers. For Jack Myers Media Business Report subscription information visit www.myersreport.com or contact Jack Myers at Jack@mediadvisorygroup.com. Jack Myers and Media Advisory Group provide details on all underwriters and companies in which we have an investment at www.jackmyers.com.This commentary was originally posted at www.jackmyers.com