How, why, and when to build a network of change agents

When leading change efforts, you can ethically stack the deck by building a network of change agents who are prepared to succeed and lead the way for others. Here’s how to get it done
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“You’re Invited!!” The words appear in raised silver lettering on a jet-black greeting card. Inside, details of a new opportunity to demonstrate leadership, build new skills, and have a voice on a strategic program. Do you accept?

Change agent networks are the bridge, the translators between the inner workings of a project and the rest of the organization.

I’ve helped prepare many of these invitations. Every project I’ve worked on has benefitted from a network of people in the business who could help spread the word about an important change coming to the company. Change agent networks are the bridge, the translators between the inner workings of a project and the rest of the organization.

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

Let’s take a deeper look at how a network of change agents can help you deliver a successful project.

Why build a change agent network?

Our natural tendency is to go through informal channels to get details.

Ever had trouble hearing a speaker? Missed an announcement? If you’re like most people, you turn to the person beside you to get a replay. When there is a single source for information, everyone knows where to go for answers, but many won’t approach an executive. Our natural tendency is to go through informal channels to get details.

Now picture a speaker with supporters in the crowd. They can respond directly to questions while the speech goes on. They can amplify comments so the speaker can address them. People “on the ground” are a big advantage in getting the word out clearly.

Clarity is incredibly important when you are rolling out a strategic, complex program. Having a network of people that can reinforce the message with each part of the organization and relay signals when people are not getting it puts you at a big advantage.

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

When it’s time to “go live,” employees commonly look to their peers to see who will try out the new solution first. Will they succeed or fail? Is it safe for me to try it? You can ethically stack the deck of success by building a network of employees who are trained and prepared to succeed and lead the way for others. Their success makes it safe for everyone else to get engaged.

Who should I add to the change agent network?

There are many helpful characteristics to consider, but the more you add, the harder it will be to build your network of agents. Some skills you will need to develop if they don’t have them.

Mandatory characteristics:

  • Desire to help others as part of the team
  • Capacity (time) to help
  • Respected by peers
  • Expertise in subject/functional area or system

Nice-to-have characteristics:

  • Existing superuser
  • Knows the organization well
  • Seen as a go-to source for help
  • Fast learner
  • Strong communicator
  • Training/coaching/listening skills

Don’t screen too hard or you will end up with poor representation. Change agents aren’t perfect. Consider them a community of individuals who can help each other with complementary strengths.

Where do change agents come from?

Change agents must be members of the stakeholder groups who will be receiving or implementing the strategy, project, or change. They typically reside in the business (as opposed to IT for technical projects).

Ensure representation that covers each area of the business in scope as well as different geographies and timezones. An agent in North America will have challenges providing support to peers in Australia. However, don’t get hung up on perfect representation. While it’s very desirable to have someone physically able to show up in meetings and stop by desks to relay messages and provide help, webcams and phones make it easy to reach people everywhere.

Don’t prioritize volume of agents over quality. The “voluntold” will not help your cause and can de-motivate other agents.

When should I build the change agent network?

There’s no sense engaging people until there is some significant information to share and the team is in a position to answer questions. As the team gets clear on design, you will have more to communicate and input becomes more desirable. As a result, meetings may be infrequent (monthly) at the beginning, ramping up to weekly prior to go-live, and daily after the transition, when employee feedback is particularly critical.

In my next article, I’ll dive into how to engage your new change agent network – and what they can do for your organization.

[ 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.