The forest fungi and the secret power of change networks

Feb 11, 2021 | Designing change

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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.

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