change network

Uncovering the secret change network

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There’s no denying the power of the change network in accelerating and embedding change. But are you sure you know how to map and measure influencers? Here are some quick pointers.

Communications professionals and change managers have long known the power of using a network of change agents. Champions or advocates can help to facilitate and embed change, especially in large, complex organisations.

However, many change programmes may still be missing opportunities to uncover sources of real insight and influence – the well-connected ‘go-to people’ in an organisation – just because they may not sit in the expected place in the company’s hierarchy.

Recent research say informal and personal networks can be as critical as formal ones, and that someone’s influence does not necessarily correspond to their seniority. The authors of a 2013 paper for Harvard Business Review, studying 68 change initiatives in the NHS, discovered these ‘two types of workplace’. The first is the traditional formal hierarchy:

formal change network

If we were in the process of setting up a formal change agent network, or simply analysing stakeholders for our project, it may be tempting to focus on the top two levels as the most influential. However, if as the study does, we look at the same people in their Informal Network, the picture’s different:

informal change network

Because Josh is well-connected and sought out for advice he becomes much more influential than his seniors in the organisation. In fact, HBR’s study found that people at any level who wished to exert influence as change agents should be key to the organisation’s informal network. [1]

We found this when we helped a firm in the rail industry introduce iPhone technology to over 10,000 front-line maintenance workers.

One of the keys to the project’s success was in securing the support at local level of a network of systems support managers and team administrators, stretching from Inverness to Plymouth. They had the right know-how to help us logistically, the relationships with line managers to encourage great attendance at training sessions and, crucially, the credibility amongst the local workforce to explain why the change was happening and what it meant.

Once we’d tapped into and grown this network we could work with them effectively over three deployment waves in two years, saving everyone involved time and effort – their input was invaluable.

Of course, leaders drive change, and employees want to hear from them during uncertain times, but equally we shouldn’t resist the logic that tells us people trust and talk to the colleagues they work most closely with.

From a business change perspective we need our stakeholder analysis, mapping and ongoing employee engagement activities to uncover and nurture such potentially rich advocates, rather than risk ignoring them because they are less ‘influential’ in the traditional hierarchy.

The networks I’ve referred to here aren’t ‘secret’ but they may not be obvious or formal, especially during the initial planning stage of the project when stakeholder analysis is traditionally done.

We need to harness or build networks that look beyond job roles and functions as well as beyond the centre of an organisation, (where, incidentally, we in our project teams often find ourselves sitting). And we need to be unafraid to keep looking during the life of the project; as new ‘influencers’ are uncovered we need to be able to respond and change tactics accordingly.

Further reading

Free online change readiness assessment

The best offline communication channels for your change programme

[1] Harvard Business Review, July 2013 – The Network Secrets of Great Change Agents https://hbr.org/2013/07/the-network-secrets-of-great-change-agents ]