The forest fungi and the secret power of change networks

The forest fungi and the secret power of change networks

This is a picture that I took when I was doing a 5-day hike in the south west of Tasmania called the Western Arthurs region.  This was a hike that I did 4 years ago prior to some of the worst bushfires of Tasmania where significant portions of beautiful Tasmanian nature has been wiped out.  The south west was renowned for endless days of rain with very little sunshine.  Yet, when we were there we were blessed with several days of consecutive sun.  It was one of the best hikes I’ve done globally.  It competes head-to-head in terms of beauty with other trails I’ve done around in the Italian Dolomites, the Himalayas and the Canadian Rockies.

Doing a 5-day hike in the south west of Tasmania means carrying all your food.  It means drinking water from the rivers.  And it means sleeping in your tent.  There are no huts and no running water.  There are not many other hikers.  Most of the time its just you and mother nature.

As a child I was taught at school that in mother nature it is a matter of survival of the fittest.  It’s every tree for themselves, whether its fighting to get sunlight, to absorb nutrients or growing fast enough to take over the land.  So, wherever I looked, I was constantly faced with trees battling with one another to survive.

However, this is not so!  Suzanne Simard is a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia and has been spending over 20 years studying forests. She has found that the ecology of forests is not just about individual trees fighting for survival.  More importantly, what makes a forest is actually attributed to what happens underground.  You see, she discovered that trees and fungi form a partnership, known as mycorrhizas.  Mycorrhizas is a thread-like fungi that fuses with tree roots.  They help trees to extract water and nutrients in exchange for carbon—rich sugars that the tree makes through photosynthesis.

Mycorrhizas is what connects plants to one another within the forest.  Even trees of different species are connected through their extensive web-like presence all over forests.  This means the forest is more than just a collection of trees.  If a tree is on the brink of death it sometimes shares a substantial portion of its carbon to its neighbours.  So, as you can see, there is greater emphasis on cooperation over self-interest.  In any forest, yes there is survival and competition, but there is also negotiation, reciprocity, and even selflessness.

The most amazing part of this is that it describes perfectly the role of change networks!  Change network has the power to connect to every single person in the company.  As a network it is not confined into one business unit, or one hierarchy level, and instead cuts across various organisational boundaries.  Well, at least well designed and effective change networks can.

Let’s dive deeper into what a strong and effective change network looks like….

1) Project-agnostic

One of the most common ways of designing a change network is to have project specific change networks that only support one project.  In this design, each project is charged with sourcing, developing and supporting change champions.  Change champions support one project, and then at the conclusion of the project they are disbanded.

The problem with this design is that there is significant waste created in the system.  It takes significant effort and resources to find, train, develop, and support an effective change champion network.  A lot of projects never achieve what they set out to achieve within the life span of the project since the time required to develop a fully-fledged change champion network can take over a year.

On the other hand, change champions that support multiple projects are able to help join dots across different organisational initiatives and sense-make what this means to the impacted teams around the organisation.  They can also easily cut through and pick up any potential collaboration and synergy opportunities across projects.

Mycorrhizas can take significant time to grow and strengthen to build a healthy and strong forest.  In a similar vein, change champions are the same.  With each project they are involved in, the sharpen their change capability and delivery know-how.  Effective change champions are keen to experiment and try different ways to support end-user engagement and involvement.

I’ve seen change champions dressed up in outfits matched to project themes, delivering cupcakes to impacted teams with core messages attached.  Others create smart reminder ‘cheat tip’ stickers that can sit on the corner of the computer monitor.  Leaders are dressed in space uniforms (aligned with project theme) to drive change awareness.  The options are endless.

2) Cuts across layers

A lot of change champion networks are designed at the mid layer of the organisation.  These are middle managers who can influence the outcome of the change more than frontline staff members, but are not so senior that they are too busy to participate.  Whilst this may seem logical, simply relying on a group of change champion at the mid layer of the organisation may not be sufficient.  

Here’s why:

  • Middle managers are often not the ‘end users’ of systems or processes and therefore are not able to get down to the details required to feedback to the project regarding the suitability of the change, the sentiments of the end users and any tweaks or adjustments required in the change solution.  E.g. any system feature design details or opportunities for user interface changes are not best captured by middle managers if they are not the end users themselves
  • Depending on the organisation there may be 1-3 layers between the middle manager and the end user of the change.  This means the thoughts, emotions and feedback from the lowest layers of the organisation may not be fed up in an effective way.  This can be called ‘signal loss’.  
  • Middle managers are also usually not the ones involved in system or process testing and therefore are not able to provide input to shape the change.  Their input is usually higher level and more about how to engage the impacted teams.  Whilst this is valuable, it may not be sufficient.

To build a strong, vibrant and extensive change champion network, the network needs to reach different layers of the organisation.  This means, not just middle layers but also lower layers of the organisation.  The top layers of the organisation may be engaged and involved through various committees.  Middle and lower layers need to be engaged through change champions at these layers.

What this means is that change champion network needs to branch not just across different parts of the business, but also different layers of the organisation.  In practice, not every change project requires involvement with every change champion since not every layer or every part of the business is impacted.  However, having a capable and extensive change champion network means that at any one-time change champions will be involved in a number of initiatives (since most businesses are undergoing some kind of change at any one time). 

Just like mycorrhizas, the stronger and more extensive the network, the more capable the group is to influence and drive change vertically and horizontally across the company.  This means smaller business groups are not neglected and deprioritised.  

3) Routine interfaces

In the forest, mycorrhizas provide essential sustenance in the form of supplying critical nitrogen, water and other nutrients to plants.  Change champions are no different.  Armed with knowledge and understanding of the change and the latest updates of change impacts, they are able to interpret the messages in a way that is relevant to those impacted, using their language.  This is what a program-level communication is not able to do since each team has their own history, priorities and language that may differ from other teams.

Just like in the forest, it is not a one-way interaction.  The change champion interacts with impacted employees and in this process proactively assesses and ascertains where they are in the change journey.  There is clear understanding of the particular communication, learning or leadership support needs of impacted teams.  They understand their motivations and what de-motivates them.  This is a powerful set of messages that may be fed back to the project mothership.

High performing change champions not only communicate and collect feedback, they proactively sense-check and ‘walk the floor’ (more virtually nowadays) to feel the pulse of the employees.  Often change champions are also impacted themselves, so it is easy for them to empathise with others also impacted.  In this sense, just like mycorrhizas there is a balance of self-interest as well as selflessness to help others in need.

4) Cross network collaboration

The nature of having an extensive change network means that by design there will be different sub teams of change champion networks.  This could be grouped by business unit or by grade levels.  Being able to share and connect to peers is easier than with those who could be considered ‘managers’.

Routines need to be designed so that there is frequent sharing and collaboration across different change champion teams.  In the forest, we know that chemical alarm signals could be generated by one tree to prepare other nearby trees for danger.  A group from one business unit may have sensed potential risk for change failure as a result of something they have experienced that they could share with other teams who have yet to undergo the change.  

On the other hand, it could also be that an experiment has worked wonders in one part of the business that could easily be proliferated in other parts of the organisation.  At a large insurance company, a change champion network wanted to be able to chat freely to teams impacted by the change and be able to respond immediately to their questions.  Impacted teams are frontline staff working virtually and therefore it is not easy for each staff to raise a question, and for a change champion to answer this.  

They came up with a great idea of a chat channel which was approved by IT.  This is now migrated under Microsoft Teams.  In this chat channel any of the frontline team can feel free to ask any questions about how to use the system, short cuts, outages, addressing customer concerns, etc.  In the beginning there were few questions – but slowly, after any raised questions were quickly answered, others jumped in.  This is now one of the most active Teams chat channel in the company.  Naturally, other businesses soon followed.

5) Nurturing the network

Change champion networks do not happen by themselves.  Like any community they need constant nurturing, engagement, support and leadership. 

Typical nurturing activities include:

  • Onboarding and expectation setting for newbies where information is shared regarding the work of the network, core principles, time required, etc.  
  • Change capability sessions on a range of topics including conducting impact assessment, change communication, providing feedback during testing, engaging impacted stakeholder groups, etc.
  • Leader support – It may be valuable for senior leaders to attend certain sessions to show support and visibility to the work of the group
  • Cross business unit change champion networking – a structured agenda could be set up to cross-pollinate and share ideas of how changes are implemented across business units
  • Routine forums where project specific topics may be discussed
  • Formal acknowledgements and prizes for key milestones and achievements
  • Data on change impact, change readiness and change roadmaps 

Change champions can greatly benefit from access to change data.  Change impact data can be powerful to form a clear understanding of exactly what changes are coming and how their stakeholders will be impacted.  

Like any other living network, change champion networks require ongoing reinforcement, support and even challenges.  Membership needs to be regularly reviewed.  Some may not meet expectations and may need to be replaced by others. Turnover is to be expected.

6) Supporting multiple initiatives

Since each business unit will likely be undergoing a number of changes at any one time, change champions would need to support multiple initiatives.  In this case, having a single view of the multiple changes that the business unit will undergo will be powerful.  The change champion is key in connecting the dots across different initiatives in a way that forms a useful narrative and story for the impacted audience.  They need to understand when the crunch periods will be for the business unit and when there could be risks to negatively impact business operations.

Change Outcome
Example of single view of change from The Change Compass

Recent research suggests that mycorrhizal networks link not just within each ecosystem, but that they also link prairies, grasslands, chaparral and arctic tundra – pretty much everywhere there is life on land.  The challenge for organisations is to not only to invest and develop their change champion networks within the organisation, but also to link these networks to those outside the company.  When change champion networks from different companies link up, the amount of learning and collaboration that can occur can be tremendous – blossoming of reciprocity, negotiation, and even selflessness.

Before your change journey takes off, make sure it’s ….. diverse?

Before your change journey takes off, make sure it’s ….. diverse?

Yesterday Space X ‘Resilience’ (name of the shuttle) successfully took off into space with 4 astronauts.  The astronauts wore super sleek white costumes that were tapered to the body and minimalist in design.  They look quite different than the bulky spacesuits that we are all accustomed to in our heads from the 60s.  What stood out for me was that this was a diverse team of astronauts.  There was 1 female, 1 black and 1 Asian.  This was definitely not the all-white Caucasian males we are used to seeing in the past.  It made me ponder about diversity and the change journey that companies are driving.

We all know the drill with most change journeys.  It ‘must’ start at the top.  It needs to be driven by senior managers.  Then the rest of the managers need to support it and convince their people about the change journey.

So what is wrong with this?  Well, we also know that things often don’t go according to plan.  Employees may ‘resist’ the change. They would then be labeled as ‘resistors’.  The change manager on the project will then need to devise a plan to deal with these resistors to ensure the change goes smoothly despite them.

Having a diverse mindset and approach to designing the change journey means that it may be easier to anticipate potential challenges and obstacles in the way.  So how can one incorporate more diversity in the change approach? And what does this mean?

In true agile form, gathering a large diverse group of stakeholders earlier in the change journey is critical.  This not only engages impacted stakeholders early, more importantly, it ensures that the diverse inputs and thoughts are incorporated early in the change journey design.  Having a diverse audience means that you will get a range of challenges and obstacles thrown at you.  This is exactly what is needed.  It is much more efficient and productive to lay these on the table earlier in the initiative planning stage than to discover them during implementation.

This maybe in the form of ‘PI planning’ or Program Increment planning.  This is also a core part of scaled agile methodology.  The PI planning process has a set agenda that includes a presentation of business context and vision, followed by team planning breakouts where teams create their iteration plans and objectives for the upcoming Program Increment.  This means a key milestone where the project delivers a set of changes.  

By having a diverse set of stakeholders in PI planning you’re able to interact early, brainstorm, and flesh out potential push-backs from ‘resistors’.  This form of the diversity of ideas also contributes to having potential divergent forms of the solution that the project is proposing, and avoid a ‘tunnel vision’ where there is a narrow determination of the likely change journey.

The design firm Ideo (who came up with amongst lots of famous products, the mouse) proposes that during ideation stage of the initiative that one should go for quantity over quality.  Get as many ideas out in the fewest minutes possible.  It takes lots of ideating to get brilliant ideas.  One of the most important rules is not to judge the ideas.  Often the best ideas seem ridiculous.  Think Airbnb where people stay at your house when this was not a concept that people were comfortable with.

The other aspect of designing the change journey with greater diversity is about involvement.  The more different levels and types of stakeholders are involved the more successful it will become.  Going back to our initial example of a typical project that is driven top-down.  Now, imagine if the change is driven top-down, bottom-up, middle out, and across the organisation.  This change can be seen as ‘viral’ since its driven from every direction.  Such is the power of diversity.  

How good change practitioners can become invisible heroes

How good change practitioners can become invisible heroes

As change practitioners we often feel that we create the success behind the scene.  We design great change experiences, and if all goes well, then people won’t notice it.  By this, I mean that if the impacted person has a smooth experience, and that there are no negative incidents or frustrations, then he/she won’t notice the change curve that had just occurred.  I often hear this ‘gutfeel’ from change practitioners.  However, there is more to this.

Designing and executing good change experiences is not just about how skillful the practitioner is.  It is about understanding the system.  Let’s explore this further.

An effective change approach is about assessing what the change needs to be and diagnosing key components of the overall system required to transition impacted stakeholders from current to future.  What are these?

For example, you are implementing a new system and you are hearing that the last system implementation did not go smoothly.  You conduct a series of interviews with key stakeholders to understand what happened.  What you found that was there was insufficient drivership from leaders.  There were adequate communication and training as a part of the rollout.  However, the change was not sufficiently reinforced by middle managers and therefore after the first 2 months where there was good traction, things slowly faded away.  Users started to not use the new system.

In your analysis of the overall system, elements included:

  • The extent of commitment and visible reinforcement from various leaders
  • The understanding of the why and how this was communicated
  • How effective learning interventions were
  • Effectiveness of launch visibility on the behaviours of impacted stakeholders
  • Influence of manager/leader levels on the behaviours of impacted stakeholders

Learning from the previous system implementation project, you then conducted stakeholder readiness assessments to understand where they are at.  You then utilise what you have learned to tweak your initial change approach to address key levers in the system to ensure the project is successful and avoid previous mishaps.

What you are doing is problem-solving and preventing failures by looking at the whole system.  You’ve broken down the system into its elements and assessed how critical these were in contributing to the success of the overall project. 

You are what author Dan Heath calls the ‘Invisible Hero’ in his book ‘Upstream’.  You’ve saved the day by ensuring the right elements were considered in the change approach and ensured a successful outcome.  Most would not see the work you have put in and there is usually no direct attribution that you lead to the successful outcome.  You’re not a visible hero.  In fact, the Project Manager was probably the one credited with being a hero.

In Dan’s book some of the key concepts of how one can become an invisible hero by problem solving before the problem happens include:

  • Focus on changing the overall system, versus just one problem
  • Identify what has become normal and zoom in on this as a problem
  • Systems can be complicated, and therefore when you tweak elements of the system expect the unexpected
  • Design ongoing feedback to ensure ultimate success
  • Detect problems before they arise by addressing any early warning signs
  • Use key points of leverage to exert the greatest impact

By focusing on the overall system the change practitioner can start to become less reactive and more proactive.  A reactive situation is one where you are constantly fighting fires, dealing with issues raised by stakeholders, and delays in implementation timelines.  A proactive situation is one where you’ve incorporate key risks and challenges and addressed these early on prior to issues happening.  You’ve anticipated stakeholder concerns, potential embedment issues, lack of sponsorship, and ineffective reinforcement of stakeholder behaviours.  This is what Dan Heath means by ‘upstream’, that you deal with problems before they occur.

Looking at the system across the portfolio

Let’s take this one step further.  Organisations are all implementing multiple initiatives.  Stakeholders are not rats in the lab that only face one singular project.  At any one time, they are usually facing multiple changes.  Some large and some small.  To truly look at the whole system we need to consider the system from the impacted person’s perspective.

Some examples of this includes:

  • Key targeted behaviours driven across multiple projects
  • Overall change capacity impacted by operational factors such as customer work volumes, seasonal work changes, and of course any Covid implications
  • The sizes of impacts of various projects, and the priority placed on each of them
  • The nature of impacts on different stakeholder groups and how impacts on one stakeholder group could, in turn, result in an impact on another group
  • Which stakeholders are most impacted by changes and what additional tactics are required to support them through the multiple changes
  • The content of training and communication collateral across different initiatives and whether there is synergy, duplication, or clash
  • The change maturity of the impacted groups and to what extent they need additional readiness support for the project you are rolling out

At The Change Compass we focus on providing data visualisation to show elements of the system, whether it’s the relative change capacity of stakeholder groups, to what extent change saturation is exceeded, identifying key behaviour changes targeted across initiatives, identifying hotspots for potential synergy across initiatives, or assess which initiatives are at most at risk due to level of impact versus stakeholder readiness levels.

Are you ready to be an invisible hero?  To what extent are you already incorporating systems analysis and planning as a part of your change approach and implementation? With the right data, stakeholder feedback, and focus, examining the whole system does not need to be complicated, cumbersome or time-consuming.  In the post-Covid agile world where things are constantly in flux, examining the system is even more critical.  This is the ultimate test of the change practitioner in being the architect and tinker.

How to eat strategy for breakfast

How to eat strategy for breakfast

One of Peter Drucker’s famous quotes is that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, indicating the importance of culture for organisations, more than its strategy.

In this infographic we breakdown how culture can be broken down into its elements, i.e. behaviour and how we can achieve and embed behaviour change in organisations in a way that is deep and lasting.

Please click HERE to download the infographic.

The BIG gap in managing customer experience

The BIG gap in managing customer experience

Managing customer experience is in vogue at the moment. This is particularly the case for competitive industries where there is little differentiation in terms of price points and services offered such as banking and utilities. Touting the company’s focus on ‘customer experience is the new mantra for a lot of companies.

Most financial services firms and telecom companies, amongst others, have been jumping on this bandwagon and have built various customer experience teams and centres of excellence. However, for large innovative US companies such Starbucks, Apple and Intel Customer Experience has been at the heart of how products and services have been designed for over 10 years.

What are the key challenges in driving customer experience management? Research by Harvard Business Review Analytics Services in 2014 showed that 51% of companies surveyed indicated one of their top challenges to be achieving a single view of the customer. In addition, 51% of companies surveyed also indicated that building new customer experiences is another key challenge. These two are not mutually exclusive as you may point out.

This conundrum strikes at the heart of the reality for large organisations – the ability to integrate different sources of customer data across different departments, channels and systems into a picture that can be easily understood and utilised. This is necessary to truly achieve a single view of the customer. It is then through a single view of the customer that companies may be able to change or build new customer experiences.

However, there is one very large gap in this equation. The key focus on driving customer experience improvements through data has been on CRM systems that capture various customer and marketing data. CRM systems have focused on providing effective marketing automation, salesforce automation and contact centre automation. Other than data companies have also invested heavily in digital and other self service channels. What about the other side of the equation? I.e. an integrated single picture of the initiatives that the company is driving to define/change the customer experience (intentionally or unintentionally)?

These initiatives include not only marketing and promotional campaigns, but also product changes, legislative change communications, pricing changes, IT changes, and even other companies initiatives that can indirectly impact customer service or the media. Most large organisations either have no way of creating this integrated picture or have disconnected spreadsheets that track segments of the overall initiatives.

What risks does this create for companies? By not having an integrated picture of how a company is impacting and shaping its customer experience it cannot truly manage that experience holistically. Banks often experience this. One department called for a credit card to be end of life whilst another called for increased sales to meet target. The bankers and customers became very confused as you can imagine. A 2013 Ernst & Young survey found that companies are losing $720 per negative customer experience. The same research also found that 40% of households have had a negative experience with a telecommunications company, whilst 25% have had a negative experience with a utilities company. There is a lot of money at stake here as you can see.

The solution is to piece together all company change initiatives that impact customers (directly, and indirectly through employees) with specific focus on change impacts. Single view of change impact data of what type of customer, when, to what level, with what change, etc. can be integrated with other sources of customer data (e.g. CRM system data and customer experience mapping info) to create a powerful picture of:

-What the company is planning to roll out to customers at a holistic and aggregate level, and how this is shaping the customer experience?

-How aligned or misaligned these customer change impacts are with the customer strategy?

-To what extent there are clashes amongst different change initiatives from different departments in conveying the targeted customer experience?

-To what extent there is too much or too little change in shaping the customer experience within the initiative pipeline, as aligned with the strategy?

-From these powerful integrated pictures of what is happening to the customer’s experience critical decisions may be made to best design the optimal experience?

Learn how The Change Compass deliver results in managing complex, multiple changes.

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