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The Most Overlooked Asset in Organizational Change

Type: Featured Article
By Maya Townsend
4 November 2015

Organizations have been changing for millennia, but people still struggle to lead change effectively. It’s difficult to send consistent messages, maintain momentum, and engage employees over the long haul. Luckily, organizations have a hidden asset that leaders can use to accelerate change.

Every organization consists of hidden networks that people use to solve problems, share information, and make decisions. We create networks instinctively; we know that we need to have good relationships with people like executive assistants and project team members in order to succeed. Then we add people who help us develop and grow, who help us achieve future plans, who mentor us, and whom we mentor. Over time, our individual networks become enmeshed with those of others to create a complex web.

When we step back and look at these webs from an organizational perspective, they provide rich insights that we can use to accelerate change. The most important gift they give is the insight that 5–15% of people in any organizational network are “Critical Connectors.” Critical Connectors are disproportionately influential over the whole organization. That means that, in an organization of 100 people, about 10 have the ability to move the group forward in more significant ways than others.

Critical Connectors have this ability for a few reasons. The most important reason is that they are trusted by their peers. Employees learn that Critical Connectors possess assets like accurate information, good judgment, the ability to make things happen, and keen problem-solving abilities. When Critical Connectors speak, people listen.

Critical Connectors often aren’t the people we’d expect to show up as highly influential. One colleague polled her organization’s leaders on who they believed were the top 20 most influential people in the organization. Then they assessed the network. There were only three people who appeared on both the data-based list and the leaders’ subjective list. There was such a radical difference between the lists because most people don’t have insight into the whole; we only see our own networks. The people the leaders nominated were those who influenced them individually, not those who had a broader reach across the organization.

How to find and leverage Critical Connectors

A simple survey-based assessment can identify Critical Connectors in organizations. The analysis uncovers hidden subject matter experts, trusted colleagues, informal leaders and others who people follow. The resulting lists can help leaders identify who to tap to assist with change. They can even differentiate between those who would be most helpful inventing a new way of doing things and those who would thrive on implementing the change.

Once an organization has identified Critical Connectors, leaders can use them strategically to help with change. One organization developed an “advance team,” which served as a change advisory group. Team members received previews of change-related communications and plans and provided feedback in order to help increase the efficacy of these activities. When the change launched, team members became active advocates for change. Their peers, when hearing messages from leadership echoed by their most trusted colleagues, were more willing to be influenced and support change.

Bell Canada used a related technique when attempting a full-scale culture change. They convened a group of Critical Connectors to help guide the change. Over time, these influencers, called Pride Builders at Bell Canada, engaged others until seven percent of the workforce (2,500 out of 35,000) was actively working to create change. Their work paid off. According to a Booz & Co report, the “emerging cadre of leaders achieved breakthroughs in performance in different parts of the organization: increases in employee engagement of 20–40%, increases in customer satisfaction up to 40%, and increases in revenue up to 20%.” These were the numbers leaders needed to see—and that demonstrated the Critical Connectors’ ability to create change.

From Critical Connectors to information flow

Critical Connectors can be powerful allies during change. However, network insights provide more tools to organizations seeking to improve change implementation. Network assessments show how information flows and develops within the company. They produce maps that graphically depict how people receive information, with whom they discuss it, and who supports behavior change.

One company learned that a department was hindered by a bottleneck communication pattern; all information had to pass through one individual before it reached others. People didn’t have a chance to process the change or identify implications for their work because they weren’t receiving basic messages about change. This problem required only a quick fix to change the pattern so information flowed into the department from multiple sources.

Another organization discovered that the trusted adviser people were seeking out to discuss implications for change was a vocal opponent of the change. This individual had worked in the organization for decades and had a great deal of institutional knowledge. She opposed the change because she perceived it as a “flavor of the month” that wasn’t worth the effort. People listened, and change adoption lagged. The organization resolved the situation by engaging her more deeply, listening to her concerns (many of which were valid and pointed out flaws in change plans), and assigning her to the team responsible for refining the change. Over time, she became an advocate and was able to support others in adapting to change.

Using network insights for change success

Networks exist in every organization. Yet most leaders have no insight into the shape of the networks and the assets within them. The knowledge is easy to obtain and can be a powerful asset during a company’s journey to its new normal.

Maya Townsend Maya Townsend went from hiding in the corner at networking events to leading a company (Partnering Resources) that helps individuals, teams, and organizations thrive in our networked world. Today, she uses knowledge of the art and science of networks to help leaders find opportunity in complex business ecosystems, influence change, and build high performing, collaborative workplaces. Co-editor of The Handbook for Strategic HR, she'll happily tell you why you should throw out your performance reviews and why most HR departments need a total makeover. Sign up for her biweekly email, and you'll never miss her columns.

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