Winston Churchill once said, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” Change is inevitable and necessary for all organisations. Any type of change — no matter the size, objective, or trigger — has the potential to shake workplace dynamics.
Without a carefully thought-out change strategy, these changes threaten to disrupt operations, value chains, and employee satisfaction. Through market statistics, we all know that about 70% of business change efforts fail . Effective business change management reduces the likelihood of failures because it takes into account the rational, emotional, and political lenses held by all staff going into this process. The goal, let’s not forget, is to ensure effective change adoption and realise the benefits of any change.
When organisations enact changes like new systems, structures, and processes, outcomes are tangible – easier to assess than shifts in mindset or behaviour. Very often, people are the least predictable part of delivering successful change. In most cases, most people will find it difficult to understand the major opportunities that they can seize in the new climate.
This happens because, often, leaders think of themselves as the singular ‘change leader’; they may not understand why their colleagues struggle to visualise the potential benefits as easily as they do. With the diverse perspectives of the modern workforce, two co-workers sitting side-by-side rarely share the same priorities, constraints, triggers, or style of communication.
According to Dr. John Kotter, “A great change leader creates other change leaders.” Having a sponsorship coalition, alongside a critical mass of people who promote the change, is vital to ensure that you’re fostering the right kind of change in the right kind of environment, taking all the rational, emotional, and political lenses mentioned above into account. A change network is an effective way of building this critical mass.
What are change networks?
Change agent networks, variously known as ‘change champion’ or ‘change advocate’ networks, are selected groups of individuals who represent the various parts of a business that will be affected by a change, while also being part of the brother team delivering the change.
Change agents’ roles are people-centred and consist of a variety of traditional roles: including communication, training, product testing, collecting feedback, and advocating for the needs and concerns of the impacted audience. These are leadership roles that rely on natural influence and persuasion skills.
How do change networks help you achieve success?
Change networks are focused on ensuring change adoption. Whilst company-wide changes might be accepted in theory, successful implementation is another matter. Change networks help people to understand, accept, and adapt to new environments and ways of working.
Change only happens if those directly affected make the decision to start working differently. These decisions will not last if they’re an imposition from the top down – they need to be made day-by-day with the continued input of those most affected by the changes.
When businesses implement change, resistance is expected. People feel safer doing what they’ve always done, even if it’s no longer the best way to go about things. Fear of the unknown makes it difficult for employees to see how operations will look going forward, and to envision themselves in their new roles.
According to the Kübler-Ross Change Curve, your employees will go through stages of shock, denial, frustration, and depression as they adjust to the new reality. They will experiment and explore new avenues before they accept the change and integrate it into their daily workflow. Change networks help you manage this impact and respond appropriately.
Employee concerns are a great barometer for potential risk factors and can help to inform your next steps. The best way to address them is, of course, via people embedded within the business and the affected audience. People representing the leadership in these positions, and going through the change themselves, are best placed to bridge the gap between all parties involved. They can sympathise with and recognise relevant issues to help leadership come up with the most human-centric solutions. These individuals transform the change from a strategic objective, divorced from the day-to-day work, into something tangible – something that their colleagues understand and are willing to adopt.
We must recognise the importance of building your change ambassadors’ credibility with those they seek to influence. It’s essential to understand your audience and respond to their needs. Above all else, that’s what your change network must reflect.
How do we put an effective change network into place?
Establishing a change network is an important capacity-building activity for the organisation. It requires tangible changes to job descriptions, key performance indicators, performance management reviews, competency models, and sometimes hiring processes for new staff.
It’s also a cultural change. It alters the fundamental expectations placed on staff, broadening their responsibilities from simply “doing a good job”, to “doing a good job and improving the way the job is done.”
Next, to make sudden change less disruptive, be proactive when selecting and building your change network. Choose the participants best placed to foresee and respond to the most likely risks and issues that may arise. In your interactions with these change agents, prioritise transparency, continuous feedback, and two-way communication — and make sure that you’re providing support and having leadership model the change themselves.
By taking these steps before they’re raised as an issue, you can maximise your resilience to change. This means counteracting any problems systematically at the root, rather than reacting to the symptoms as they surface.
When setting up your own change network, it’s important to understand what often goes wrong in order to discover what works. So, what are some common pitfalls?
As we delve deeper into the era of hybrid and fully remote working, it’s no longer a given that every team will be together in the office. This lack of physical access and face-to-face interaction can make it far more challenging to build a change network. With the absence of unplanned conversations and impromptu feedback, complaints and frustrations do not travel as quickly or as easily. This only reinforces the importance of regular, scheduled feedback sessions and choosing change agents who can act as standard-bearers for their colleagues – wherever they may work from.
In highly political workplaces, the process of upheaval may marginalise certain stakeholders. This creates silos. It dissuades people from sharing opinions or taking ownership because they don’t feel like they have a say, at least not in any way that makes a difference. Change networks should provide equal leadership opportunities to all stakeholders because equal distribution of power, more often than not, ensures everyone’s interests are represented and balanced.
Change networks are made of people and, normally, these are people who already work for the company. They have day jobs that take most of their time, so getting their commitment to backfill these roles can be very difficult. In order to ensure the right people are able to take these roles, convince them and their management why the benefits of this change are important enough for them to prioritise it. Finally, make sure to incentivise their efforts with recognition and rewards.
Change agents, like other staff members with set roles, need support, knowledge, and purpose to thrive. As these roles are temporary, daily management often falls by the wayside, which results in fewer and fewer people participating over time. Defining responsibilities, setting up expectations and objectives, proving them with a support system, and having open communication channels all combine to foster involvement, momentum, and consistency.
How do you select the right people for the role?
So, now you know the pitfalls facing a budding change network, how do you go about navigating them?
Ask yourself, can you identify key figures in each impacted team that will inspire their co-workers? What about the black-hat thinkers whose opinions could negatively influence your efforts, but who can also offer valuable, constructive criticism? You want to get both types of people on board as, together, they will make the best change agents. You also want to include active listeners: natural leaders that are open to receiving feedback and can articulate possible solutions.
Successful change needs strong leadership. Support for change must be fostered from the ground up, but this requires action, provision of resources, and a strong example from the leadership team to secure follow-through. Change networks downscale new ways of working, but are also responsible for aligning leadership aspirations with the realities encountered by the team on the ground.
Here’s a checklist that will help you construct your own change network:
- Clarify the purpose and scope of your change network - is it covering a portfolio or a specific project? What pain points of the business do we want the network to address?
- Give new Change Agents tasks quickly to establish the expectation that this is a two-way relationship between the Programme Team and the Change Network of “give and take.”
- Provide a support system in which change agents can grow. Enable them to act, starting with the support of the leadership teams.
- Make it easy for change agents to report back and demonstrate value. Be clear on the objectives you’re setting them and set up mechanisms that ensure their feedback is captured and acted on.
- Communicate the benefits of change. The change agents and their management must understand it and buy into it. They are your partners in delivering this change and you need them to make it a priority.
- Make sure the people you select represent the make-up and diversity of your organisation.
- Give the people in your change network the right tools, information, resources, and knowledge to accomplish their goals.
- Engage with the change network regularly (ask them as well as tell them!). Make sure to celebrate their successes.
Bringing it all together
As you make your way down our list, bear in mind your initial reasons for implementing a change network:
- Ensuring a smooth transition to a ‘new world’ post-change.
- Improving communication and feedback collection.
- Embedding the change into your business and maximising adoption rates.
Ultimately, change networks are designed to overcome trust issues and create an environment where employees feel safe and secure, despite fear of the unknown and natural resistance to change.
According to Samantha Robertson, Business Change Capability Lead at NTT DATA UK&I, ‘By focusing on people, purpose, and psychological safety, businesses can embrace, accelerate, and embed change as a constant ally in the company’s growth journey.’
If you want to build change networks that provide lasting value and accomplish what you set out to achieve, be aware of things that can go wrong — like miscommunication, lack of follow-through, and ineffective leadership — and take steps to avoid them. Bring your workforce to the table, hear their voices, and most importantly, let them become an active part of creating a new, changed world: one in which they will not just survive, but thrive.
Remember, change agents are your boots on the ground. They inspire behaviours, manage first impressions, impact opinions and values, collect feedback, and, in doing all this, they provide comfort. That’s why it’s critical to choose the right people and set them up for success.
To learn more about business change and how change networks can transform your operations, get in touch today.
 Harvard Business Review, Cracking the Code of Change