Five Reasons for Creating a Change Network

No one knows for sure how many change efforts fail.  An often-cited statistic is that nearly three quarters do.  Some have pushed back at that number as being far too high.  To complicate the matter further, when a statistic like this is mentioned, criteria for judging success or failure are never cited.

Leaving “failure” (however that may be defined) aside,  a lot of change efforts, in my experience, fail to reach their intended potential. For all of the effort and disruption that people experience through the process of the change, there is often a considerable gap between what was initially envisioned and what becomes reality. Think of it as the change potential gap.

There are a variety of factors that contribute to the gap. I’m guessing that if I asked you to make your own list it might look something like this:

  • Inadequate explanation of the reason for the change
  • Ambiguity about the intended outcome
  • Insufficient personal attention paid to those who will be impacted
  • Lack of meaningful engagement or perhaps no engagement at all
  • Overt and covert resistance not diagnosed and addressed
  • Power and organizational politics exercised at cross purposes
  • Cultural rub points unrecognized or unattended
  • Insufficient resources to implement the change as intended

As I look at that list, there is a thread that runs through all of them. That thread is lack of active change leadership that reaches to all corners of the organization.  Active change leadership is a hallmark of effective sponsorship and sponsorship is one of the key make or break points for effective change. It is also one of the best strategies to diminish the change potential gap.

What is change sponsorship? It is active, shared leadership that demonstrates commitment to change across all phases of the change effort and across all parts of the organization.

Effective sponsorship is not the responsibility of a single person or a single role. It is the responsibility of a network– people from different functions and levels who help others understand, prepare for, and transition through the change. They may possess formal or informal power, but they are influencers and thought leaders in their part of the organization.

Those who are part of the change network make a variety of substantive contributions:

  • They communicate vision and priorities
  • They align change objectives with business strategy
  • They mobilize resources and commitment
  • They assist with the resolution of issues locally, and
  • They help to lead people through the change.

Five Reasons You Need a Change Network

A change network benefits change management in five tactically important areas.

  1. Degree of involvement

In my post What’s the Driving Force Behind Engagement, I wrote about Kurt Lewin and Margaret Mead’s seminal work in investigating social change as part of the war effort in the early days of WWII. Lewin articulated several key insights and concepts that underpin all change management.

One of his insights was that passive techniques for creating change (reading about a change, hearing a presentation about a change, etc.) do not produce sufficient involvement on the part of the audience to affect the system of forces that are acting on the intended target – its force field.

Lewin observed that techniques that produce high involvement yield much higher rates of change that endure for longer periods of time.

How can a change network help to produce high involvement?

Quite simply, a change network multiplies the opportunity to engage change-impacted areas.  Here are four examples of the contributions a change network can make:

  • A change network can conduct multiple, local small-group presentations and discussions about the change.
  • Members of the change network can have one-on-one conversations with people who wish to have them.
  • Members of the change network can make themselves available for informal Q&A sessions especially early on but also whenever the need arises.
  • Members of the change network can serve as coaches and supplement individuals’ managers when needed.
  1. Making change

Making change begins with the concept of equilibrium.  Every change we wish to make in an organization is in a state of “no change” because all of the various forces acting on the situation result in equilibrium.

In order for a change to occur, the equilibrium must be “disrupted.” There are two ways to disrupt the equilibrium. First, you can add driving forces to move the equilibrium in the intended direction. Second, you can diminish or eliminate restraining forces. In each case, the equilibrium is broken and change in the desired direction will result.

However, there is a consequence for using the first approach alone. Applying force only in the intended direction sets up counter forces that we commonly refer to as resistance. The more effective strategy is to do both together.

Given the delicate dynamics of equilibrium, how can a change network help to make change?

An important ingredient for making effective change especially in the early stages is reliable, actionable information. What groups or individuals have staked out what positions relative to the change? Where will the impacts be felt most deeply? What part of the change appeals to people? What part of the change seems daunting? Who are the influencers and what do they think? These questions among others begin to characterize what is useful to know to disrupt the equilibrium effectively.

Members of the change network are well positioned to help. Because they are dispersed throughout the organization and are tuned in to their locale, they can be active in diagnosing the forces acting on the change.

Further, because of their local knowledge they can be instrumental in determining how to reduce or eliminate “restraining” forces and how to add or amplify “driving forces in a more focused and relevant way.

  1. Establish standards and norms that shift behavior in the desired direction and anchor them

Social habits can be powerful sources of resistance to change. Social habits are anchored in group standards and norms. When I worked in a small factory during one of my summer breaks from college, I was pulled aside very early on by one of the old-timers and told that there was “a way things are done around here” and it would be a bad idea to buck the system. It took me a minute to understand that they were referring to the rate of production and our little talk was a warning not to work too fast and be a “rate buster.”

Organization changes always confront group standards and norms. They may not be as simple as the example above, but they exist. Depending on how deeply ingrained they are or misaligned to the intended outcome, they could become significant sources of resistance.

How can a change network help to address social habits as sources of resistance?

Sponsors and advocates can help change leaders to recognize and understand the group standards and norms that are or may become sources of resistance. I worked with an organization that was implementing an enterprise information system to improve integration and interoperability across business units and processes. The effort met with forceful resistance. As it turned out, very strongly held divisional norms about ownership and control of databases and applications were at the center of the resistance. Once this became evident, dialogue about addressing mutual interests could begin.

Sponsors and advocates in your change network can help in a second way. Given their local knowledge and influence, they can help to establish, reinforce, and anchor new standards and norms.

  1. Communication – frequent, local, and tailored

There is a moment that sticks out in my memory from an organizational communication class in college. The professor was describing how people experience communication in organizations. The professor drew a dashed line across the board. She explained that the dashes represented touch points and moments when people receive communication about a topic. She circled one of the gaps in between and told us the gaps are moments of silence and what happens in the gaps is that people fill them in with their own story line. The less frequent the dashes and the longer the gaps, the greater the arc of distortion. Given this human proclivity, communication gaps are seriously problematic.

Elsewhere in The Change Kit and this blog series, I’ve written that communication is a necessary but insufficient change strategy and I stand by that. I’ve seen too many examples of change efforts that relied on push communication as the primary vehicle of change and ignored other means. Change efforts need a lot of other ingredients, but never underestimate the utility of frequent, focused, and relevant communication.

How can a change network help in this regard?

We’ve already established that a change network consists of people from different functions, levels, and places in the organization. This makes the network an excellent communication vehicle and contributes to effective communication in three ways.

First, your change network, because of its reach, can help deliver consistent messages about the business case for change throughout the organization.

Second, they can communicate and reinforce in a unified voice at a local level what the future state will be and why it will be superior to the current state.

Third, they can help people understand the overall plan and translate to their part of the organization the steps to get there.

  1. Critical mass

For change to occur, it is not necessary to achieve a majority of supporters. Instead, what you need is critical mass – enough early adopters that the majority will begin to follow. Remember, a dynamic in peoples’ inclination to adopt change is often to wait until the perceived risk has moderated.

How can a change network help you get to the tipping point?

First, the very existence of a change network pushes in the direction of critical mass. The careful selection of people in key places in the organization that have formal or informal power and are influencers and thought leaders seeds the conditions for achieving critical mass.

Second, by operating as a unified, networked block, they model the way for those who are unsure about the change.

Guard against the “change potential gap.” Recognize that leading change must be a shared responsibility and enlist the help of a well-chosen, well-placed change network.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can reduce the change potential gap and take your change work to another level, please visit

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