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Recruit Change Agents And Save $11 Trillion

Resistance to change among employees is far and away the most common reason that most major organisational changes fail. And it’s costing companies a lot of money. And I mean a LOT of money.

Global companies spent a record $5.04 trillion on acquisitions in 2015. Up to 90% of M&A deals are unsuccessful. That’s up to $4.5 trillion. Wasted.

Spend on enterprise application software was $326 billion last year. More than two-thirds of these projects fail to hit targets. That’s $228.2 billion. Wasted.

Then there’s the $5.9 trillion lost every year to customer switching after a shoddy customer experience, largely due to grumpy, disenfranchised employees.

And there are the monumental productivity losses every year from employee disengagement (more than $500 billion worldwide).

Adding all these figures together, that’s over $11 trillion wasted. That’s almost the entire national debt for the U.S.

And all because companies continue forcing change on their employees instead of working with them. Every badly-handled change initiative makes employees more disengaged, more resistant. Another nail is hammered into the organisational coffin.

It’s easy to get change wrong. The good news is that everything you need to get it right is already there inside your company. You’re just not looking in the right place.

Find The Secret Agents
The most successful projects are driven by the rare and valuable people we call change agents. The trick is to find them and harness their energy, passion, and influence to minimise resistance and increase the odds of success.

But what are these strange and rare creatures? How does one spot them in the chaos of a company crossing the chasm of change?

At Kiely & Co we use a method called change mapping. Other forward-thinking companies call it snowball interviewing. It’s a way of spinning a web of insight across the entire organisation.

We talk to people across different functions and levels to see how they feel about the proposed change. We understand how it will affect them.

At the end of each conversation we ask them who else we should talk to. Who do they ask when they need to know something? Who do they go to when they need to get something done fast in the complexity of a process-bound company?

Then we ask them to introduce us to that person.

Colleague-to-colleague referrals allow us to grow a network of trust. Eventually, you start to understand informal social meshes of influence. When you hear a name two, three, or four times, the chances are that you have discovered a change agent.

Take your time. The most successful projects keep exploring until you’ve discovered change agents in enough parts of the company to understand how their spheres of influence overlap.

Target The Points Of Resistance
Once you understand who will be most affected by the change, you know where the key points of resistance will be. Target the change agents in these brands, departments, regions.

Communicate clearly. Don’t tell them they have to be involved with an initiative. Invite them to be involved and tell them why you need their help. Change agents are usually keen to help and delighted their skills have been recognised. It’s nice to feel needed.

But they must be allowed to opt in. Force and coercion do not work. Their influence will wane if they start to be seen as a mouthpiece for management.

Dictating how the change is going to happen doesn’t work either. Respect and harness their experience and knowledge. Co-create solutions with them.

Bring them together in dynamic design events.

Not only does inviting multiple perspectives and experience into the design process generate stronger solutions, if the format and casting are right, your change agents will leave inspired, excited, and ready to share their motivation with their peers. They will do the communications for you, and help to overcome scepticism and resistance (I’ll talk more about the power of multi-disciplinary design next month).

Once you have connected them, make sure you maintain the buzz. Provide platforms where they can get to know each other and support each other; online platforms are useful, but nothing replaces regular face-to-face contact. Don’t skimp. There’s a lot to lose.

Progress, Not Politics
Many companies make the mistake of giving people the title “Change Agent” and hoping all will be well, but good managers or leaders are not necessarily change agents.

From my experience, influencer networks have very little to do with the company organisational chart. Climbing the career ladder does not automatically correlate with being a change agent. These people are more interested in progress than politics.

This rare breed are honest, authentic, and trustworthy. They are approachable, empathetic, reliable, supportive, collaborative. They go out of their way to reach out and connect.

Change agents are believers. Dreamers that do. Storytellers. People who are passionate about making things better. Their passion is contagious. They have vertical and horizontal connections, affording as much respect to an intern as to a C-level leader.

They are driven, persuasive. They sometimes trust their gut and ignore corporate policy, preferring to ask forgiveness than permission.

Be A Smarter Leader
These stars can only shine in an environment where people want, and are encouraged, to connect.

Senior leadership have to fully buy into grass roots empowerment and must invest at the right level to be able to harness its power. They must provide frameworks to enable and nurture cross-organisational collaboration and trust. The most successful leaders listen, discover, and reward the best employee-led initiatives and replicate them elsewhere.

All too often, “command and control” leaders become intimidated by the influence of change agents. They stand in their way, try to silence them, or, even worse, banish them in an attempt to regain power. This strategy sends a shock wave of malaise across the company.

My advice is to be a smarter leader. Find your change agents and nurture them. Learn to harness their monumental energy. When there is so much to lose, people-powered transformation can help you win.

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