How to engage and nurture a change agent network

A change agent network can mean the difference between success and failure for a new project. Here’s how to tap into the power of that network
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In my last article, I covered how to build your volunteer army – a network of change agents who can be the voice and catalyst for change in your company. Next question: How can you effectively tap into the power of your newfound super fan club? Let's break it down.

How do I engage change agents?

The first step is to invite your agents to participate. You have a few options, but I recommend you hand-pick the people you want. Managers can be asked for nominations, but you risk getting people who are available rather than well-suited. As a last resort, you can post an open invitation for those interested.

[ Read also: How to deal with critics during change. ]

Change agents get to be the voice of their business unit and have an influence on a strategic project.

Appeal to self-interest and to the big picture when asking people to join. Agents have the opportunity to hear news before everyone else, participate in walkthroughs or early demos, get hands-on with the solution in advance, work closely with leaders, be the voice of their business unit, and have an influence on a strategic project.

It’s best practice to ensure managers are on board with their employees spending time on your project. Remind managers that having a team member “in the know” can alleviate their own time commitment to the project and give the team a major advantage during the transition. Give them an estimate of how much time is needed. The early stages of a program are less demanding, so I scale the plan up like this:

Months 1-2: estimate 2 hours/month

  • Attend a 30-minute “inside scoop” meeting every two weeks, with updates and demos
  • Provide feedback and input
  • Share info with your unit
  • Relay questions to the project team

Month 3: estimate 4-8 hours/month

  • Attend a 30-minute “inside scoop” meeting every week
  • Attend deep-dive training sessions
  • Encourage participation in training
  • Provide feedback and input
  • Share info with your unit
  • Relay questions to the project team

Month 4: estimate 10-20 hours/month

  • Communicate a go-live support plan
  • Support go-live messaging and feedback
  • Direct people to available resources
  • Provide peer support during go-live
  • During go-live, attend daily 15-minute check-ins

Optionally, ask agents to complete a form that tells a bit about themselves, their background, and why they are interested in the project. That lends itself to running some fun activities to get agents interacting with one another…which takes us to the kick-off.

Make it a big deal! Include some icebreakers that get people talking. Get them to describe what they think will happen. Ask them to share stories about "the worst project I’ve been on" and how they can ensure that doesn’t happen again. Have a sponsor attend and pump up the energy!

What should change agents do?

The main role of change agents is to act as a conduit. You provide content for them to share (presentations, screenshots, demos, process flows, diagrams), which they then wrap with language and examples when conveying it to their groups. Agents collect feedback and questions and relay it back to the project team to provide input and get answers.

[ Read also: Change management: Why CIOs should sometimes lead from behind. ]

Change agents help you take the pulse of the organization, providing a quick gauge of whether people are listening and buying into the direction. Run regular meetings to equip them with information and give them an opportunity to recap what they are hearing. Invite special guests for deep dives when needed. If there is nothing new to say, run a short Q&A or cancel the session.

Scope and design will shift regularly. Don’t let that deter you from engaging change agents.

As the leader of many change networks, I’ve gotten used to saying, “Remember what I said last time? Well, we’re not doing that anymore.” Scope and design will shift regularly. Don’t let that deter you from engaging change agents. Honestly, it’s a bit of drama, but that’s exciting for people: Let them react and give them a voice back into the project team when they say: “That’s crazy! We can’t work without…!” It may just be the feedback that’s needed to avoid a disaster.

If participation is weak, consider a point system to reward actions taken such as customizing and sharing communications, prepping a leader, presenting slides, and submitting employee questions.

At go-live, publish a list of change agents who can provide local support. Make them part of the support plan. Give them T-shirts or laminated “passes” on lanyards. I have created desk cards change agents proudly display to let people know they are available for help.

In everything, highlight the importance of their role. Say thank you early and often. Make them feel special: They are!

The projects we run are complex. The details matter. The more voices you have sharing information, the better equipped people will be to adapt. A well-run change agent network can be your biggest asset on the road to a successful project.

[ Are you leading culture change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst. ]

Jeff Skipper is an expert in accelerating change. Clients such as Shell, Goldman Sachs and The Salvation Army have engaged him to achieve dramatic results during strategic transformation by wrapping complex change in motivating mission. Jeff holds a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and is a Certified Change Management Professional. His first book will be published in 2020.