The role of a change facilitator

Searching for sustainable support together

Paul Vader, editor HZ Discovery

Energy transition, equal and unequal opportunities, quality of life in small communities, reduction of waste streams generated by companies and autonomous transport are examples of social challenges that are large and complex. Because these problems affect many people, companies and governments, solutions only work if they have a broad support base. A change facilitator provides good guidance in tackling these kinds of issues.

How does a change facilitator operate and what kind of person is that? Lecturer-researchers Gabriëlle Rossing and Carlien Nijdam from the HZ Knowledge Centre EVM explain. This autumn, the book 'We Got To Move', to which Gabriëlle contributed, will be published. It contains a practical and theoretical foundation for this way of managing change.

Becoming Fit for the Future

In various study programmes, knowledge centres and lectorates, interdisciplinary teams made up of students and teacher-researchers in the minor Becoming Fit for the Future and the master River Delta Development work together on these kinds of issues. As a result, the role of change facilitator is constantly taking shape. A change facilitator helps those involved in a complex issue to get a grip on the challenge in order to jointly look for feasible and preferable improvements. The idea behind this approach is that those involved become so adept at this that they learn to speak the same language and take up the challenge themselves in subsequent sessions. In doing so, you ultimately make the change facilitator redundant.

Complex issues

This is a fundamentally different approach from that of a researcher or consultant who only provides advice. There is nothing wrong with that, but more is needed to tackle complex issues. To do this, they say, you need a change of mentality from merely performing ‘a project in which a solution is found and the collaboration stops at its conclusion’, to ‘becoming adept at continuous joint learning and trying in order to move in the desired direction’. "Carrying out research and finding solutions with you, instead of for you", is how they summarise it.

The approach

What does a change facilitator do exactly? "He starts by gaining insight into what is at play by having conversations with those involved about how they view the issue," Rossing and Nijdam explain. "Just having these conversations can bring about change. Events, such as a conversation, leave an impression. In general: ‘We influence each other through what we do'.

And that changes our view of things. We are therefore dependent on each other." This dynamic is the starting point for managing change. "It is the basis for looking at what we think is right to do together. An extension of this is treating others with care and not putting your own interests first." Acting from this more ethical perspective is, in addition to understanding what is at play, a basic rule of the game in this approach. It requires all those involved to look at the issue with an inquisitive eye and a constructive attitude, and to create an environment of trust.


Among other things, the approach provides clarity. In addition, people are being heard and there is solidarity between those involved, which can create room to manoeuvre and ultimately lead to broad-based solutions to an issue. Research lecturers Rossing and Nijdam from the EVM knowledge centre want to extend the working method within the HZ.

Students participating in the master River Delta Development, the minor Becoming Fit for the Future, the new bachelor Global Project and Change Management (GPCM) and some colleagues will be trained in this through the Facilitating Change course.

Living lab

In the Living lab comprising of ten public and private organisations in Zeelandic-Flanders on water use, stakeholders asked master's students if they could help them develop a vision. The students entered into discussion with them and found that the stakeholders did not fully understand each other's contribution and interests and that it was therefore too early for vision creation. This conclusion came as a surprise to some members, but they soon realised that for effective collaboration and development of a vision, it is important to understand each other's interests and contributions. A clear vision and objectives up to 2050 are now being developed. After that, a feasible trajectory will be mapped out.


• Checkland, P. and J. Poulter (2010). Soft Systems Methodology (chapter 5). In: M. Reynolds en S. Holwell (eds.), Systems Approaches to Managing Change: A Practical Guide (pp. 191-242). London, United Kingdom: Springer. • Heinich, N. (2019). Wat onze identiteit niet is (2e druk). Amsterdam, Nederland: Prometheus. • Spencer-Brown, G. (1979). Laws of Form (rev. ed.). New York, United States of America: E.P. Dutton. • Varela, F.J. (1979). Principles of Biological Autonomy. New York, United States of America: North Holland.

Twelve of the first sixteen students of the River Delta Development master's programme graduated in July. They have all since found a job. For most of their new employers, their skills as change facilitators were the deciding factor in hiring them.