So you want to change things in your organisation; how to go about it? One thing I’ve found can help is getting a group of people across the organisation to form a network of change agents – but how do you go about that?
This isn’t revolutionary – John Kotter in his seminal work on change talks of the coalition of the willing, but that, to me, was more about senior stakeholders leading the change. And, to be honest, having any kind of coalition given the political landscape in the UK at the moment maybe isn’t the best way to sell anything to people, but I digress.
What I’m on about it much less top-down and more democratic, more classless, more about the enablement and engagement than the leading.
Ideally, what you have is a number of people embedded throughout the organisation. These won’t necessarily be senior people, but they will need to be trusted, influential and credible – they will need to able to represent their colleagues, act as a confidant and a communication channel, sharing information out in their part of the business and, just as importantly, making sure the issues and questions and worries and stuff that people across the organisation is fed back to the change team and the people leading the business.
So, first you do need to start with the leadership team and make sure they are on board and do enable the group to do what it is you need them to do; if your leadership team needs to control everything then you’re going to struggle.
I remember one organisation where I pulled together a network of change agents to support a pretty major transformational change. I knew that there had been a similar network in a previous piece of change, so I thought a good start would be to reach out to those people and see what happened last time, and see how willing they may be have another go – a couple of simple questions, nobody signed up to do anything other than answer an email.
Within minutes of the email going out – literally less than ten minutes after clicking send – two emails came to me from a couple of senior people which essentially said “How dare you talk directly to my people, I need to know everything that’s going on”.
There are two things going on here:

  • These leaders are clearly very control-minded and see external interference as a threat
  • The people under them are so conditioned to that control that they immediately defer to that control rather than answer a perfectly straightforward and reasonable question

Clearly this suggests some deeply-held cultural issues are at play in this organisation, which need to be addressed if anything is going to change in this organisation and also that empowerment that you need for the network to actually work.
How we do this is something for another blog another time, but does show, yet again, the importance of understanding the cultural issues at play when you try and change any organisation.
Back to our network of change agents and how to go about that. I’d start with defining what you want these people to be – you can use various names to describe them, change champions, comms reps, etc, but they are, in essence, change agents: people who facilitate and enable change within an organisation.
This can be as simple as making sure that key messages have gone out and questions are fed back for answers; it can be far more complex and involve them taking on actual change delivery, doing the work of the project team, but you need to agree what it is they will be doing and get everyone signed up to that early doors.
One way to do this is to pul together a role profile or job description – if your organisation has a standard template for jobs then use that, it helps give credibility, in my humble.
Next, recruit. Engage stakeholders across the business, let them know what kind of person you are after, and see who they come up with. Advertise – get the job description out there, ask for expressions of interest; then meet them – not necessarily a formal interview but a chat would be handy to see if they have what’s needed.
Choose who you want, and get them together. Like any job, you need some kind of remuneration, and for the change agents there are a few rewards you can offer them – the chance to network is a key one, align with personal and/or professional development. If you can also throw in a few events which involve some celebratory element, even a nice buffet or a trip out somewhere, all the better.
Anyway, get them together, preferably in one place. Get a senior stakeholder (the more senior the better and a CEO is ideal, otherwise the sponsor for the change) along to engage them in the change, and thank them for their time, and give them the empowerment they need to get the job done.
Chat through in general terms what you’d like to get from the network – then ask them how best to achieve that. Don’t tell them what to do, get them to come up with what they want to do: giving them some ownership, make them stakeholders in their own success.
Then set them off, make sure they do what they signed up to do, keep them in regular touch and use them as you need. In one organisation, I held weekly conference calls with a standing agenda item of a change readiness questionnaire – handy stuff when planning change to know how ready different bits of the organisation are for that change; it can also help track the impact of communication around change – if you have a series of change roadshows and change readiness scores don’t shift, then maybe you need to review your approach.(In fact, in this organisation, a series of meetings about a particular bit of change impacting a level of management in the organisation actually saw change readiness scores go down, which gave us food for thought).
Managing the network is very important – as is continually reviewing the membership and how well it is meeting the needs of the organisation. Often the people who add a great deal of value at the start of a piece of change may not be right for the embedding of that change into business as usual. Check who’s active, and who isn’t. And ask anyone who isn’t, why – what’s stopping them doing what they said they would do. Change things around as well, revisit the job description, see how well your engagement strategies are working out, and react to the feedback you get.
This continual review is the key to success with this kind of network; one of the most successful ones I worked with was tasked with helping pull two businesses together following a merger. Over time the membership and the focus of the group changed significantly, from a focal point for integration at the beginning to very active group of change agents embedding change across the business.
To sum up – get buy in, recruit, get them to agree what they’re doing, review continually and don’t be afraid to change things around when you need to.
So, have a think: what needs changing in your organisation? Could a network of change agents help? What could they do to help? Is your organisation culturally ready and able to have a network like this, or will your cultural issues stymie it before it can deliver any value?