Change management: 3 habits of successful leaders

Who's the boss in your organization when it comes to change management? Your official org chart doesn't paint the whole picture. Successful leaders tap into unofficial hierarchies
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Looking at a company’s organizational chart may tell you where official responsibility lies and the formal reporting structures. But it does not tell you how an organization really runs. Every organization has unofficial hierarchies and social networks of communication. These are self-organizing groups of people who have developed trust – and they are the paths of how communication and knowledge are actually passed through an organization.

These unofficial hierarchies are also the key elements to successful organizational change management, as it is through these hierarchies that corporate buy-in and trust occurs. Using these unofficial hierarchies is especially important when implementing organizational change, such as going through digital transformation and technology implementation. Success in the technology era will not occur without buy-in from the organization’s people– and that requires tapping into the company’s unofficial hierarchy. So how can a company do that?

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

1. Identify the organization's connectors

Every informal social network has what are known as "connectors." These are individuals within your organization who represent hubs of the network. They know large numbers of people, are the most highly connected individuals in a network, have direct ties to other individuals, and are most influential. Think of these individuals as social equivalents to a computer network hub.

Once you have a connector's buy-in, they will do the work for you.

These are the people to target in order to effect rapid change within an organization. Once you have their buy-in, they will do the work for you. They will rapidly pass on new information to their social network. Implementing rapid organizational change, whether a new policy or new system, lies in getting these hubs of the informal social network to understand and support the change. They will be the ones who will unofficially explain and sell the idea to the rest of the staff.

Using social networks or hubs for fast change management is not a new idea. It is actually supported by science, by both something called Social Network Theory as well as the 80/20 Principle, also known as The Pareto Principle. This principle tells us that most of the work (roughly 80 percent) will be done by a small number of people (roughly 20 percent). That is why these individuals are vital, even though they are few in number.

Social network theory is the study of how people, organizations, and groups interact, and it tells us that to pass information through the network the key is to get it to the network hubs. Identify the network hubs, pitch the change, and get their buy-in, and you are well on the way to making rapid change happen and stick within your organization. 

So how do you identify connectors? Pay attention to social gatherings and groupings and social conversations. Observe patterns in social interactions. Also, consider sending "test balloons" of information through the connectors you have identified and see where they land. This will allow you to test the power of connectors and their social network. The lesson here is to leverage the power of the connectors and use them for information dissemination and company wide buy-in. You don’t have to convince everyone. Convince the connectors and everyone will buy in to the idea.

2. Integrate unofficial internal networks into more formal structures

Informal social networks, independent hierarchies, and social communities have rapidly grown in recent years. This is in large part due to real-time digital communication. These groups can be very powerful in their ability to deliver creative ideas, new processes, and new ways of doing things. Communities are a natural part of the organization. Rather than going against them, many organizations are succeeding by actually managing them and using their talents to accomplish goals. These companies are actually integrating and coordinating informal networks and communities with the more formal structures of the organization.

Give informal communities specific goals and accountability to deliver an outcome.

One approach is to provide these informal communities with specific goals, give them accountability to deliver an outcome, and even the opportunity to explain findings to members of the formal organizational structure. You can begin by informally talking to staff, putting forth a goal, and watching how the community develops.

Remember, communities are informal and organic in how they are created. Team membership is often fluid, with some permanent members and others that come and go, and membership is often based on quality of contribution. Low performing members are sometimes excluded from communication and slowly drop off, while others are brought in if they are contributing.

Some companies have dedicated informal oversight by senior leaders, for instance by assigning a senior mentor or sponsor of the effort being pursued. Other companies have even elevated these groups in stature based on the quality of their output, have included their success in the formal performance evaluation, and have even given awards to such groups for their performance.

These communities or network can conduct a variety of research for the organization, they can collect and summarize key suggestions and solutions to problems from staff, and in may ways, serve as links to the broader organization. Entrusting formal goals to these groups can energize them and serve as a source of innovation and motivation. It will also ensure their focus is aligned with broader organizational goals, rather than having them randomly discuss issues that are of less value to the organization.

Lastly, if you want to leverage informal communities within the organization, set aside time for their participation. Some companies call this "time for community participation" and allocate a certain proportion on the weekly schedule for these activities. The right incentives and opportunities to create these communities can create tremendous value for the organization.

3. Tap into your talent’s network and ecosystem

Unlike in the past when corporate success largely depended on leadership, success in the technology era greatly depends on the strength of the company’s network. This means that companies can no longer view themselves as enclosed entities. Rather, they must operate as nodes that are part of a very large network connected to everything.

This network is an ecosystem comprised of customers, producers, and suppliers all connected via technology and the Internet of Things (IoT). Not only do we need to mutate organizational structures from hierarchical and rigid to flat and fluid — morphing like an amoeba to best meet the needs of the immediate problem at hand — organizational boundaries also need to become porous.

More significantly, companies can now tap into external talent through co-creation with customers and suppliers, crowdsourcing, and open innovation. Porous boundaries allow an organization to assimilate information and intelligence from its environment. This means finding ways to tap into your entire ecosystem and your talent’s network.

A great example is using versions of open innovation and crowdsourcing to deliberately generate inflows and outflows of knowledge in order to accelerate internal innovation. This approach is the antithesis of the traditional vertical integration approach where internal R&D and innovation activities lead to internally developed products that are then distributed by the firm.

Open innovation and crowdsourcing create an approach to innovation that is decentralized, participatory, and distributed, tapping into the best ideas and talent regardless of where they reside. This accelerates breakthrough innovation, reduces cost, reduces time to market, and increases differentiation in the marketplace.

Because of these benefits, organizations are increasingly turning to open innovation and crowdsourcing to solve difficult problems. This is often driven by the desire to find the best subject matter experts, strongly incentivize them, and engage them with as little coordination cost as possible.

Understanding how to really make an organization function well requires knowing how to tap into its unofficial hierarchy. If you follow the steps above, you'll be well on your way. 

[ Want to learn more about organizing open teams? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst. ]

Nada R. Sanders, PhD, is an internationally recognized thought leader and expert in forecasting, analytics, global supply chain intelligence, and sustainability. She is a distinguished professor at D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University, the 2019 president of the Production and Operations Management Society, and a fellow of the Decision Sciences Institute.