Do you know what jumpstarts an innovation program? It’s not an accelerator or business incubator or lavish new research hub. It’s not design thinking courses or business model brainstorms.
All of those can — and have — been used to great success.
There’s an activity that’s more fundamental than that that the best innovation leaders do early. And it involves searching for a latent resource that exists within every enterprise and that will make or break your program.
I’m referring to identifying change agents. These are the employees who will provide impetus and sustain momentum for lasting organizational change. It’s a resource that’s scattered across all of your project teams and entrenched in your daily operations.
These change agents are hungry for what your innovation group has to offer and will be among your most enthusiastic advocates. They will be your bench strength and provide the soft power that fends off corporate antibodies with business-as-usual tendencies.
It should be your top priority to identify these people early on. And if you haven’t systematically done so already, you’re behind the competition.
Change agents are the 10X’ers of the enterprise innovation game. They’re the ones carrying the ball over the line — so being programmatic about how you identify, activate, and retain them is the entire ballgame.
You think you know who these change agents are. But very likely, you don’t.
How do you identify these innovative employees among the hundreds or thousands of people in your company? And how do you understand their motivations? The answer is with a modern technique called network analysis.
Hidden change agents.
Change agents are the people in your enterprise who will be the fountain of new ideas, who will inform your strategy, and who will put in the hard yards to experiment with new ways of doing work.
They’re the influencers across your company who are viewed by peers as the best sources of information, who are approachable and consequently in the highest demand as a social resource.
In most cases, they’re synonymous with the champions that will make your startup pilots a success. They wield the soft power and have the vision that will help mold these oftentimes tenuous value propositions into something that can be sustaining.
The challenge is: change agents are often deep in your company with broad impact but little authority.
It’s the story of that project control specialist I knew on a job site in Queensland circa 2012 who was enamored with an iPad she’d recently bought and wondered aloud about all of the awesome software tools that could be at her disposal if only construction had more R&D budget.
This was before the company I worked for at the time started our innovation group, but she’s exactly the kind of person that would have been receptive to a dialogue about digital transformation and a willing participant in testing out a brand new mobile device-focused solution from a female founder.
Unfortunately, many innovation groups would have missed this change agent. Her name might have come up through her area manager’s project manager or maybe through one of her functional managers who also managed dozens of other people in that region. More likely than not, she would have slipped through the cracks.
A change agent network would have had a much greater chance of finding her and many others like her. Not only that, the network analysis would have allowed you to quantify the extent of that change agent’s connections and then — with a full picture — be strategic about how you engage them.
You could determine, for example, that she’s a fourth year employee who recently made the move to a new business line but still has strong connections to the previous business and still recognized by her peers as innovative.
Oh, and she’s really interested in field software and mobile devices.
This challenge isn’t unique to construction. Most industries have hidden change agents because day-to-day operations require long periods of time when employees are removed from corporate life or simply too heads down doing what they do.
Introducing change agent networks.
When done correctly, a change agent network allows you to identify your innovation audience quickly and is a powerful tool for distilling down the complexity of organizational structure into something that’s manageable at a programmatic level.
When forming an innovation group, the initial list of people is often made up of first-degree connections that senior stakeholders know or sometimes looser second-degree connections that senior stakeholders know to be affiliated with a particular part of the business and/or particular technology.
That list, while likely a good start for forming a leadership team, is only one layer deep — it only scratches the surface of operational depth.
A critical error is stopping your scouting there.
If that’s where you end your scouting, you’ll produce a very front office program.
That’s because much of the real work within enterprises happens behind the organizational charts and in informal networks that bypass formal reporting initiatives.
The thing to do is to go deep on the front end with a targeted message and probe down five or six layers into all of the many organizational channels. It’s there that you’ll find those employees that are most influential among their peers.
The important thing is to be systematic about administering the analysis and then spending resources to thoroughly interrogate the resulting information.
That information can then be sliced and diced in a way that builds a targeted list of employees who are open to championing new initiatives, piloting new products, taking part in an incubator, or engaging with new communication channels.
This is a must-have for any new innovation or technology group. But it’s also useful for established groups who are exploring their next act or ones that are looking to validate an existing approach.
A case study.
Change agent networks are especially powerful for companies that have recently gone through mergers or acquisitions.
I recently consulted for one of North America’s largest contractors who had acquired several companies over the past decade and was now in the process of building a new technology program.
The company is divided into distinct business lines with P&Ls that make for a healthy bit of competition within the organization. It was apparent that their initial challenge would be integrating all of these businesses into a wider innovation dialogue and then building cross-functional teams that would be able to drive new technology selection and adoption.
I went to work looking for change agents and did an analysis that peeled away surface level organizational interactions. This network analysis reached nearly a thousand employees and provided granular data into the change agents and nature of technology conversations happening.
The end product provided a useful view of siloing among the businesses. Not unexpectedly, the silos were especially sharp along business units that were part of recent acquisitions.
But there was room for hope in the newfound insights. One of these insights allowed leaders to target change agents within each of the businesses and to put particular emphasis on the ones that could best connect otherwise siloed parts of the company.
As they rolled out the technology program, they were able to build a dialogue across all business lines and put the pieces in place to address implementation challenges for the entire enterprise.
From square one, they were having the right conversations.
The purpose of an innovation program is to get people thinking about problem solving and then collaborating towards transformational change.
The complexity of modern enterprises presents unique structural and cultural challenges that can often dampen those good intentions — and the best way to inoculate your organization against rejection is to identify change agents early and then focus energy and resources to continue fostering them along the way.
Nate Fuller is Managing Director of Placer Solutions, advising leadership teams to transform their organizations in ways that improve performance and agility at the field level.
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