Articles 4 min read

Building a Change Network That Works by Sandie Bakowski

Change is hard but there are levers that can make it easier. Using a network of the right people to act as your change agents is one of those levers. I am a huge believer in getting employees to drive change, but the design is key as Change Agent networks are often implemented badly. Here is the usual chain of events.

  1. An initiative is kicked off and an action is agreed to ‘build a change agent network’.
  2. That gets cascaded down to middle managers with the task to find (yet another) change agent.
  3. Managers look at their teams for someone who is not doing much.
  4. The worker who no-one really knows what to do with gets picked to be the change agent.

The person chosen is often the introvert who likes being left alone. Nowhere near the natural type for getting a crowd whooping. In reality, this is more of top-down ‘command and control’ approach to employee engagement. An uncomfortable situation for all.

Change agents are such an important pillar for your change brand, and getting the right people involved is your pixie dust for change. To understand why they are so critical, it’s useful to talk about the two types of power networks in an organisation.

  1. Formal power networks map to the positions held within a company and the power attributed to them through the organisation chart. It’s all about ranks and lines of authority and your ‘top 200’ type territory. With change programmes it’s necessary to have that top down power, senior sponsorship and buy-in.  But change networks implemented in the style mentioned above, end up part of that formal power network and don’t tap into the informal power networks.
  2. Informal power networks are something different. These are not mapped on any org chart. Instead, they form organically and are about who is well-liked and respected in the organisation. Respect is earnt rather than given so is massively powerful. Some people have natural power and motivate others without that formal power rank. These networks contain the ‘heat spots’ within your workforce and it’s those positive influencers that you want as your change agents. Often these people have the motivation to give much more but haven’t yet been given a formal role to channel it through. Use that to your advantage.

Successful change needs both top down and bottom up backing but often people misjudge how to harness the bottom up part.


  1. Choose your figurehead well
    You are going to need to have someone at the helm and their style of leadership is going to be important. Role modelling is critical, and they need permission to demonstrate your target behaviours. Choose someone who has that trust and respect at a grass roots level but also has senior level backing. Choose someone who can listen – not as easy as you think as most people don’t listen. Find someone who is intuitive, curious and open. But also, who can lead and take the right type of risks to push the status quo in just the right way. Someone employees will admire and want to be associated with.
  2. Find your influencer networks
    You need to find the informal networks and woo them – which means it has to be an appealing change to be associated with. If you are lucky there will already be some networks that have high engagement so work on winning them over. Internal social business tools or social media are fabulous for this as you can just pick the most engaged positive voices.  Look for networks already working, look on social media. Who is going the extra miles?  Who has energy?   Who do people like? Graduate networks are great too – ridiculously high energy levels.  BUT make sure your champion network is inclusive of all types – get them from lots of different groups, not just one pool after all you want a network, not a clique. Look for many gatekeepers and be open minded.
  3. Give them a vision and a toolkit
    A vision is a story they can buy into. See my previous blog post for help with writing a clear compelling narrative for your change to reduce what can be, the now endless ‘noise’ that comes with change.  Equip your influencer network with a toolkit to help them tell that story to others in one consistent way (my white paper, ‘how to write a change narrative that works’ offers some helpful advice for that.)
  4. Provide a job spec.
    Write a job spec for the influencers, it may sound silly, but it helps people know what you are asking of them and what they are signing up to. But always use a human tone of voice. You don’t want to be seen as too formal and bureaucratic. Keep your tone of voice informal like the role, playing to the fact they are special. Your job spec is part of your brand.
  5. Link to KPIs
    These people will have day jobs and if they are in an old school legacy organisation, they are going to have to fit into formal power processes like appraisals. Therefore, do whatever you can to link the work they do into their KPIs. This means their contribution can be formally recognised. Play to the formal rules.
  6. Write social media guidelines
    A lot of change work requires people to put themselves out there on internal social media channels. Help them know what good looks like. Give them some scenarios to work through like what to do when they get resistance or vocal push back. Help them be prepared and great brand advocates for new behaviours.
  7. Two-way communication is vital
    Communicate in an open and honest way that builds trust. Actively listens and encourage people to share their ideas or concerns, you want two-way channel as your influencers are also your opportunity to learn.
  8. Treat them well
    Treat everyone as an individual and make sure your influencers feel respected and valued. Repeating the previous bullet point, build in two-way listening. There is really no point in having a push channel. You want the feedback loops; your champions are your eyes and ears.
  9. Lead by example
    Demonstrate leadership, resilience and composure under pressure but also empower them to do the same. Don’t answer for them– step back and let them work as a true network. To do this though you need a culture of no blame – support them if they make mistakes.
  10. Don’t just recruit supporters
    Having people that you need to win over in your change network is very helpful. After all, if you can convert them, then they will end up your most loyal supporters. Listening, learning and piloting solutions with them is a great way to get things right. Restricting your change network just to supporters means you miss out on that valuable feedback

The hardest part of change is the people part and when designed right, influencer networks are one of THE best mechanism to get buy-in. If you would like help designing a hero network in your organisation, then please get in touch.

The Business Transformation Network has posted this article in partnership with Making Change Happen blog.

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