Change Leadership Challenge 5: Use Networks for Change

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This is the fifth in a series of posts about change leadership. Previous posts covered active, committed leadership, building a compelling business case, embedding change, and meaningful employee participation.

“I’ll tell you how communication really works around here,” the data architect told me over coffee. “Jeff, Susan, and Ramesh make a decision. I play video games with Jeff during lunch and get the scoop. Then I tell the other architects.”

Jeff successfully found the key to getting information in this organization: work through the network, not through the hierarchy. Unfortunately, too many organizations assume that formal communication processes work, when in reality people use networks to get information. Make sure your next change initiative isn’t undermined by tapping proactively into your company’s hidden human networks.

Find Your Network Influencers

Every organization has a web of networks that people use to solve problems, make decisions, tap expertise, and get their daily work done. Within every network, five to ten percent of the population is disproportionately influential over the whole. Called Critical Connectors by network pioneer Karen Stephenson, they are informal leaders, trusted experts, and sought after teammates.

Covert influencers can make or break a change process. Since they are deeply trusted, their words carry weight with their peers. Know your network influencers and know where they stand on the issue. If they don’t support it, others will follow. Chances are that they have reasons for opposing change that you should know. Head off problems before they occur by understanding their thoughts about the change.

Engage Your Network Influencers

Wise change leaders proactively engage informal leaders in shaping the change. They ask for feedback, listen to critiques, and invite these influencers to help solve change-related problems. As a result, not only do influencers become invested in change, but the change initiative itself benefits from these knowledgeable employees’ insights. Later, during implementation, their involvement in the change helps reassure the general population that the change is worthwhile.

Use the Network for Communication Flow

Often people learn what they perceive as the “real story” about change through peers and get messages change leaders never expected (or wanted) them to receive. Before embarking on your change initiative, assess how communication flows in the organization. Does it generally follow formal paths? How does the information communication network operate? Where do people get their information? Are there parts of the organization that seem to operate in a black hole? Make sure your communication strategy leverages the network by disseminating information in ways that it can travel freely to all who need access to it. Devise methods to bridge the gaps between areas and to plug black holes before beginning communication in order to prevent the rumor mill from taking over.

Quick Check: How Effectively are You Using Human Networks for Change?

  1. Can you accurately name at least 5% of your workforce who are seen as informal leaders by their peers?
  2. Have you invited representatives from the group of informal leaders to help shape the change?
  3. Have you assessed where and how the communication network breaks down?
  4. Have you taken action to build bridges to departments, areas, or groups where the communicationnetwork breaks down?

If you answered yes to all of these questions, you’re ahead of the change curve and you’re setting up your organization for success. If you answered no to any of these questions, it’s time to invest in your informal network in order to support change.

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