Diagram your client as a social network and your place in relation to that network

Take a look at Figure 1-1, suggesting a school as a possible client with two key subgroups and a variety of connections, weak and strong. This figure shows the change agent's first approach to a client system, which might be a school. The most accessible point initially might be the office of the principal or it might be one or another teacher; rarely, if ever, a student. An important consideration will be the degree of internal integration and the real center of power with regard to the type of innovation you have in mind. Is it the principal and administrative staff or is it the teachers? Regardless of which it is, the change agent will also need to know whether these two potential sources of power are:
      well-connected to each other,
     in harmony or conflict, and
     fully in charge of the system as a whole.

Can you chart such a diagram to represent you and your prospective client?

1. Try to identify opinion leaders and other key actors on your chart.

2. Then pinpoint your own position and who you are connected to.

3. Then, looking at your chart, ask yourself these questions:


Am I connected to people who can really change this system?
Are the internal connections among subgroups, including teachers to students, strong enough to support effective communication and commitment to a change process?
Are the barriers to outside influence (represented by the solid ellipses) permeable enough that I can get a fair hearing for new ideas?
What changes in internal structure or connections or barriers would make this a better system (consider both weakening and strengthening)?

Stage 1.1   Who is the Client?


The term "client" simply designates the group of people who you are trying to help.     This group may be referred to as a "system" if they seem to have common goals and are trying to work together to achieve those goals. Sometimes it will not be entirely clear just who the client is. We often find that we cannot work effectively with one group unless, at the same time, we are working with others to whom they are related. This network of relations can get pretty complicated and unmanageable. Therefore, it is important at the outset to define who the client is. This boils down to three basic questions:

  • What group are you going to work with directly?
  • Who are the other groups to whom your direct client is related?
  • What are your expectations and responsibilities to these other groups?



What are the norms of the client system?


Boundaries of various kinds define any client system because they separate people who are 'members' from those who are 'outside.' Some boundaries are physical and obvious - like the wall and the barbed wire fence - but most boundaries are less visible. For example, the members of any social group share a number of common beliefs, values, and rules of behavior. These shared ideas or thoughts are the "norms" of the group. They delineate what it means to be "us" instead of "them." A change agent should become familiar with as many of the norms of the prospective client system as possible. He or she should know how sharply these norms are defined and how strictly they are adhered to by different members. Although these shared beliefs and behaviors are seldom unique, they may be viewed as unique by the members. Most social systems maintain their group identity partly through the mechanism of local pride, which identifies what "we" have as special, as high status, as most important and most relevant. This belief that "we are unique" can be a major stumbling block to any program for change; it may hinder both the awareness of a need for change and the acceptance of innovations from "outside."



Who are the leaders?


In attempting to establish a satisfactory relationship, an understanding of the formal leadership structure is also important. Some systems are only loosely and vaguely structured while others have a strict chain of command. The more clearly defined and structured the leadership pattern, the more critical it is for us to establish solid relationships with the leaders.


Who are the influentials?


In addition to the formal chains of command, there are many informal channels and leadership structures. It is most important that the change agent know the informal leaders. You should know the "influentials," those key people to whom others turn for new ideas. Most social systems contain such "opinion leaders," respected friends and colleagues who set the standard for the group even though they may not have formal status as "leaders" or "supervisors."


Who are the gatekeepers?


The change agent may also find certain individuals who hold key strategic positions with respect to the flow of new ideas and information. Such gatekeepers play a critical role in innovation and they may be distinct from the formal leadership and opinion leadership. In Education, the librarian, the guidance counselor, or the assistant principal may hold little formal power, but they may still be in key positions because they control channels of information on certain topics.  



With whom should you choose to work?


Most change agents find themselves in the position of having to select from the entire client system only a few members with whom they will be able to work directly throughout the change effort. Successful change agents have found it wise to try to include people who represent the following system characteristics:

  • opinion leadership,
  • formal authority,
  • representative of major factions or vested interests,
  • public relations ability, and
  • credibility and respectability.


By keeping in mind these major characteristics you can identify direct clients who will be very effective in aiding change efforts. With such people working on your side, you will have a good chance of influencing the entire client system. In choosing this "change team," however, you should not forget a sixth criterion, which in some ways is more important than all the others. This is compatibility with you. If you cannot work together effectively as friends and colleagues, your project will be in trouble.



Figure 1-1: THE CHANGE AGENT AND THE PRIMARY CLIENT SYSTEM