Personal Blog of Joe Brewer

The Various Roles for Social Change

In Social Change on March 26, 2011 at 10:20 pm

Want to be a change agent?  You’ll need to understand the different roles involved.  Drawing upon Everett Rogers’ theory for Diffusion of Innovation, I’d like to share the model for how different people contribute to the change process.  This web of relationships represents the way that change really happens.

Here’s a visual representation (click for a larger view):

Breakdown of Key Roles

Each purple box represents a category of person who helps or hinders the spread of a new idea.  The Change Agent must be prepared to engage — or avoid — each of these people in an effective manner if cultural, institutional, or political change is to occur.

The Innovator creates a new idea that has the potential to significantly change the world.  This is often NOT the Change Agent.  Innovators are often great at developing their idea, but lack the skills or flexibility of thought to get them implemented successfully.  As the Change Agent, this will be your job.

The Transformer translates the idea into a usable form befitting the particular context of an organization or community.  The Change Agent must persuade the Transformer that the idea has sufficient practical merit to be worthy of implementation.  The Transformer then does the work to transform the idea through an appropriate implementation process.  Sometimes Transformers are known as “early adopters”.

The Mainstreamer is any person who uses the idea as a tool, product, way of thinking, etc.  After enough early adopters have found practical uses for the idea, this group of people come to represent the “new normal” for how something is done.  It is possible that the Change Agent may have no direct connection to Mainstreamers.

The Iconoclast is a critic of the old way of doing things.  This person seeks to spread dissatisfaction with the “old normal” and helps create dialogue around the need for improvements.  The Change Agent can draw upon the critiques made by Iconoclasts to build legitimacy, but must take care not to undercut her own efforts by coming under fire.

The Reactionary actively resists change.  This person doesn’t want the new thing and is a stalwart who protects the status quo.  The strategic Change Agent will chose their battles wisely and either deal with Reactionaries directly or seek to bypass them, whichever they deem more likely to spread their idea with success.

Every change process has its Curmudgeons.  These people are cynical and negative to such an extent that they disrupt the change process.  It is vital that the Change Agent recognize that this is NOT a form of apathy.  Curmudgeons care very deeply about the topic at hand and were likely once change agents themselves who got worn down by failed attempts in the past.  It is possible to rehabilitate Curmudgeons and convert them into Change Agents again, but this is a lengthy and difficult process and should be considered carefully.

The Laggard is any person who reluctantly adopts the new idea.  This person may be uncomfortable with change and only convert because it is too inconvenient to continue the old way.  Change Agents should not seek adoption of ideas by Laggards, investing their energy more efficiently in early adopters who can translate it into practice with relative ease.

Many communities also have Recluses.  These people are off in their own little worlds and disconnect from the change process.  They will not easily be converted and can stall the change process if their distant stance infects others who potentially could become Mainstreamers.

And of course there are Controllers.  These people have positions of power and influence in the community.  They may have control of budgets or decision-making protocols.  Or it may be that their opinions are highly visible and influential due to the high levels of trust people place in their judgments.  The Change Agent must approach the Controller carefully.  If the Controller adopts the idea, he or she can rapidly accelerate its spread by becoming a “Super Transformer”.  Yet the risk remains that the Controller may reject the idea and become a “Super Reactionary” capable of shutting the innovation process down entirely.

I hope this break down of the change process is helpful to you as you go out and seek to make change in the world. I use this framework regularly in my work and it has greatly clarified how I engage with the communities where I’d like to see change occur.

(Special thanks to Alan AtKisson for his Amoeba of Cultural Change concept, which inspired this clarity of thinking on the change process.  See his breakdown of key roles here.)

  1. Nice definitions Joe! Still need to get together man!

  2. [...] work of Everett Rogers, I’d want to teach about the diffusion of innovation and the various roles involved in making real social change happen.  With this knowledge, Change Makers would be able to [...]

  3. [...] intro to The Various Roles of Social Change that explains the social dynamic for how real change [...]

  4. [...] Makers never act alone.  The web of relationships in this social sphere can be broken down into useful roles for spreading ideas — including innovator, early adopter, reactionary, and mainstreamer. [...]

  5. [...] about the social ecosystems that enable large-scale innovation to unfold and the importance of various roles and relationships in the change process.  What I haven’t done is share what research in psychology can tell us [...]

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