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Two Kinds of Change Agents – and How to Use Both

Research shows that it may help to enlist well-connected change agents – and, different types of agents.

Are you attempting to implement a cultural shift towards sustainability in your organization? Research shows that it may help to enlist well-connected change agents – and, different types of agents. According to professors Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro, the key is to find someone with the right internal network for the type of change you are trying to affect.

Informal Networks

There are two types of informal networks in organizations. In a bridging network, one individual links people or groups who are not otherwise connected. These may be different business units, different functional areas, or different geographic regions. People that are central to bridging networks know and interact across internal organizational boundaries. In a cohesive network, all members have strong ties to each other, and there are high levels of mutual trust and support. People who are central to cohesive networks are sought out for their advice and trusted for their judgement.

The Role of Disruptive Change

Any major shift towards sustainability is likely to involve disruptive change. To create this change, you will need to explain its benefits to key decision makers in the company, and you will likely need to overcome resistance. According to the authors, the best change agents for disruptive change are those with bridging networks. Why? They customize their message to the individual needs of each member of the network. Having a change agent ‘bridge’ also makes it less likely that the people they are trying to influence will band together against the change, since they are not close to each other.

How can you find a ‘bridge’ in your firm? Look for an individual whose career path has progressed through various departments and who has both horizontal and vertical connections in the organization. Ideally, this person will have broad technical knowledge and be capable of strategic and multidisciplinary thinking. They will be able to help build support for change by framing it in different ways for influential people throughout the organization.

Once the need for disruptive change is accepted within the organization, you will likely need to start moving towards implementing incremental change within the various departments. This is the time to enlist a new champion – one with a cohesive network within the department where the change needs to happen. Incremental change is less likely to generate resistance – and in a cohesive network, resisters will likely be persuaded to cooperate by other members. Look for someone who has worked in the department for a long time, and whose opinion is widely respected.

Note that your change agent does not have to hold a senior position. The authors found that well-connected individuals in lower positions may succeed where their more senior but less connected colleagues failed.

Watch for Endorsers, Resisters, and Fence-Sitters

To be more successful at affecting change, keep track of influential individuals who can enable or block the initiative. These come in three types – endorsers, resisters, and fence sitters.

Endorsers will support your initiative regardless – so after having enlisted them to your cause, you do not need to worry about cultivating a strong relationship with them.

Fence-sitters are more likely to support the initiative if they are close to you, so build relationships with them.

It may be worthwhile cultivating a relationship with resisters, depending on the type of change. In the case of incremental change, a resister who is close to you may be more likely to support the initiative. Beware of getting too close to a resister, though, lest you become the one who is influenced.

Battiliana, J., and Casciaro, T. 2013. The Network Secrets of Great Change Agents. Harvard Business Review. July-August 2013; 61-68.

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