Stage 1.4   Where Are You Starting From?

What Is Your Relationship at the Very Beginning?

A new change project seldom represents a completely new beginning. Here, as in most of the affairs of life, past is prolog. The success of a client's past encounters with change and with change agents will greatly color the success of future relations with you. When starting out on a new project, you are likely to be in one of four situations:

  • the blank slate, no prior relationship with the client;
  • reestablishing a formerly good relationship;
  • reestablishing an uncertain or ambiguous relationship; or
  • redefining an existing on-going relationship.

Each of these situations has special advantages and disadvantages.

The blank slate

A good relationship is a complex and delicate bridge, very difficult and expensive to build and very important to maintain. One can only really appreciate this fact when starting a completely new effort. In a relationship, nothing can be taken for granted. You must be acutely aware of norms and values, leadership, influence patterns, and so forth, while at the same time you are maintaining an image of complete trust and serene confidence. The number of concerns which will tax your energy and absorb your attention is greatly multiplied.

A completely new relationship is beset by a host of uncertainties and unknown quantities. The change agent is faced with the task of acquiring information from every available source, while at the same time making crucial decisions about the project. Such decisions will inevitably be based on partial and distorted knowledge which may make or break the project. Needless to say, it is a delicate task.

On the other hand,, there are many benefits in the brand new relationship. First of all, the new change agent is not initially identified with any special internal faction. Thus, the change agent may have a chance to become and to remain an objective observer as well as a friend. Secondly, the change agent may derive special benefits from his or her initial "guest" status. For a complete newcomer, even potential enemies will be polite and will not try to shout him/her down or shove him/her out without a fair hearing; he/she may be granted a kind of honeymoon period during which he/she is relatively free from critical scrutiny and harsh judgments. If you sense that most members of your client system start out with this open-minded attitude, you should take full advantage of the opportunity to assure all factions of your own open-mindedness and eagerness to bea friend and helper to all. A new face may suggest to the clients that new things are truly possible, whereas an old face with new ideas may merely be seen as an old face with old ideas.


Re-establishing a good relationship

If the client already knows you and values your past service, you have a very strong base from which to begin a new change project. Such an advantageous starting point, however, should not be taken for granted. The cautious change agent might ask the following ques­tions in preparing for a new project with an old client:

  • Does the client still view that former relationship as positive?
  • Are aspects of the relationship in need of improvement?
  • Have there been any intervening events which could have muddied the waters (e.g., change of leadership, changed fiscal climate)?
  • Could the nature of the prior relationship lead the client system to any erroneous expectations (e.g., were you seen as a change agent before?)?

By preparing in advance to deal with such potential snags, you can insure that your relationship will continue to grow -from a solid base.


Re-establishing an uncertain relationship

It is difficult, but not impossible, to make a fresh start with a client with whom the prior relationship was problematic. In such a situation it is mandatory to create a positive atmosphere and confidence in the 'new you.’ The client must be led to believe that the prospects for success are now much better. You can evaluate the probabilities for success by answering the following questions:

            Have you made an adequate analysis of problems in the prior relationship?

  • Has anything been done in the interim to correct any of these?
  • Have you attempted to build a new image of yourself as a change agent, and to instill new expectations among your clients?
  • What, if anything, has happened to the client in the interim that would alter the prospects of success - either positively or negatively?

If the previous encounter was, in fact, a failure, it would be unwise to begin all over again before the problems in that relationship are resolved and new expectations are instilled. Even then you should have evidence that a new start is likely to be successful despite past experience. Examples of such evidence might be:-

  • a major change in the leadership of the client system;
  • a change in the political climate;
  • a change in the fiscal climate;
  • an improvement in your own status;
  • recognition, (sincere; verbal, preferably public) by the leadership that you are now seen in a new role and are newly appreciated in that role.

Redefining an existing, ongoing relationship

Very frequently, in assuming the role of change agent, you are moving out of a previously held role with which the client system has firmly identified you. This is almost always true of the change agent who emerges from the client system, itself, as the teacher or administrator who becomes director of a new project or program. Special suspicions and resentments can build among peers if it is perceived that:

  • you are gaining power over others, especially your peers;
  • you are receiving special recognition, perhaps undeserved in the eyes of peers;
  • you have access to resources (financial or other), that others don't have, or that they feel they have equal claim to;
  • you are being relieved of other, perhaps onerous, duties in order to perform in your new role.

Modifying or redefining an existing relationship may require a good deal of diplomatic skill and sensitivity to human relations. The change agent has to be especially aware of the perceptions of all the key persons and interest groups who constitutes the client system and of the relevant outsiders as well. To properly reconstitute your image you may have to consider doing each of the following:

  • Inform key persons that you have assumed a new and different role.
  • Solicit concrete signs of recognition from key persons that their relationship to you is new, and that they accept this fact.
  • Make  sure you are sufficiently comfortable in performing this new change agent role so that you will not slip back ­into "old role" behavior if, for example, your associates start making demands of you to perform in your old role. The need for training and practice in the skills of relating WELL. to clients is nowhere more apparent than in the situation which requires
  •  you to modify an existing relationship.