The powerful value of influence in change management

Back in 2018 when I was still working at Dorset County Council I wrote a LinkedIn article about the influence method of change management and how successful it had been despite a limited budget.

Having worked for many years on one form of ‘change management’ or another, from social marketing to digital transformation, I’ve noticed that the only thing that sticks long-term is a culture that enables influence to flourish. Prescriptive mechanisms that use a Genghis Khan style of change management may work in the short term but generally aren’t sustainable because of shifting organisational priorities which means the money needed to keep doing them often disappears into someone else’s budget.

Broadly, influence can be defined as the ability to change the way other people think or behave in relation to a given set of circumstances.

We see influence at work more visibly than ever with the rise of social media and other online networks. You only have to look at how and why the likes of Facebook, Amazon and Google have risen from nothing to being some of the largest businesses in the world to get a flavour of just how powerful influence can be.

We also hear and use the word ‘influencer’s‘ to describe individuals who successfully encourage others to take desired actions more frequently. This is not to say this is a new phenomenon, from the earliest tribal leaders to the leaders of the early union movements, influencer’s have been around as long as humans have been on earth.

However, whilst sales and marketing functions have long understood the benefit of having someone of influence endorse their product or service; it is a concept that is only just coming to the attention of those who work on behaviour and culture change in the IT industry.

So how does influence work and who are influencers?

At its simplest, an influencer can be anyone who others look to for guidance. For example, the most obvious might be the c-suite executives we might expect to both endorse and approve a direction of travel; the least obvious might be the administrator who decides to use OneDrive for file sharing forcing her manager to follow suit.

Influence works by demonstrating behaviour change. This can be explicit or implicit, depending on your perspective.

For example, the IT department might decide that staff should be using OneDrive to store working documents before the final version is stored in SharePoint. To bring this about they may locate a team willing to try out the new way of working. Following a successful trial the team and the IT department work together to provide information and guidance to the rest of the organisation about how it worked, how to get started and the pitfalls to think about.

Alternatively, influence can be as subtle as a member of staff using Microsoft Forms to gather food orders for staff. When other people use this they see the benefit themselves and decide to try it out for themselves.

Influence cannot be planned to its full extent because it is, by its very nature, dynamic.

But we can help it along by identifying a number of influencer groups/people. We can then work with them specifically to identify what might be the ‘killer app’ in their particular circumstance. But after that, it’s like watching the ripples made by pebbles thrown into a pond. The wave effects from the interaction between ripples cannot be predicted, nor should you try to do so as that is a futile experiment in controlling the uncontrollable.

Influencer Groups might include:

  • Observers – know things are happening but lack time and/or the motivation to get involved. This group tends to focus on ‘what’s in it for me’.
  • Opponents – can often be identified by variations of the ‘it won’t work’ dialogue. They are great at helping us identify where communications are failing, our instructions are wrong or it’s just impractical.
  • Entrants – have, usually, just joined the organisation, heard about Office 365 or seen something on the Intranet for the first time. They are great for spotting the ‘gotcha’s’ because they haven’t been integrated into the Borg group think so see things more clearly.
  • Experimenters – are the ‘happy clickers’ with an ‘oooh, what’s that’ approach. They sign up to any and every event eager to know more about what’s coming and how it all connects.
  • Advocates – generally think change is a good idea and are willing to say so but tend to do it from a distance. They are usually leaders and managers who see the broader benefits but may not use the technologies themselves.
  • Helpers – are the people everyone goes to with a question. They frequently show others how to do things, share their knowledge and step into conversations, wherever they take place.
  • Evangelists – are people who extend their reach into the wider organisational community.
  • Staff groups – many organisations have specialist interest groups such as disability, LGBT etc… These cross many boundaries and are also great for identifying flaws in planned processes. They can also help access marginalised groups.

What you do with influencers and their requisite groups depends on where you are in your change plan. If you’re at the beginning it might be as simple as communications, those who are further along might want to consider specific activities and behaviours they need trying out or testing.

Those who influence others are the easiest and most cost-effective way to create scaleable, sustainable change. As long as it’s done right this will become the most important tool in the change toolkit. Done badly, and the current and future programme could be seriously undermined.

Image by expresswriters from Pixabay

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