For digital transformation to stick, change has to become routine. Yet most companies still struggle with implementation, particularly the sort that requires people to not only adopt new practices but also to rethink more deeply-rooted attitudes and expectations. A new, more distributed approach is needed in complex organisations.

At a previous company, I led the turn-around of a business unit that was, at the time, struggling with its product identity and delivery model. Not surprisingly, the turnaround involved both a new strategy and a big chunk of change management. I had never heard of participatory change models. Fortunately, a few members of my management team recommended — gently, but persistently — that we take a more inclusive approach.

Through that summer and into the new year, we assembled and empowered a network of both managers and individual contributors to guide and implement the change. Collectively, we built the new business.

It was not easy. It took only two months to set the strategy but two years to shift the organisation. That said, as I was leaving my role to prepare for a new gig in modern org design, my team and I received the highest compliment. In a third-party survey that rated firms across our industry, clients cited our product as a differentiator in the broader portfolio. I hope that my “guide network” recognises their role in this and are proud of their achievement. I know I am.

Why Guide Networks Work

Guide networks (or Change Agent networks as they are often labelled) are effective, because they both enact and amplify change actions. Even the most well-funded digital transformation team will struggle to drive change to the edges of a large, global organisation.

Partly, it’s a matter of scale. There is just not enough of the central team to go around. But mostly, it’s a matter of psychology. Change management efforts fail when a top-down, carefully-engineered vision is rolled out to a largely sceptical organisation. People don’t like change done to them. The failure rate only increases when you add on top people’s filters of culture, language, and beliefs.

Instead, modern change efforts require a more participatory approach, in which change emerges as part of an organic, ongoing process.

A network of voluntary change agents or “digital guides” can serve as the eyes and ears of such an effort.

Connecting with and supporting these people is an obvious first step, usually through your organisation’s social tools or a dedicated community. They can then be equipped with learning material and management techniques, so that they influence those around them to adopt new ways of working or to contribute ideas about how to achieve change goals.

How Companies Lead the Way

At Post*Shift, we have been helping our clients create and nurture guide networks to increase the success rate of their transformation. We have analysed some of the most interesting cases, from both our clients and the market at large:

  • Bosch aligns an extensive change agent network with agile transformation. Growing out of their initial digital collaborators network, they have matured and grown into their new role as guides and mentors to those undergoing change. Playing roles as diverse as reverse mentors, agile coaches, working out loud champions, and community managers, the network meets every year to share stories, hear inspiring keynotes, and learn from each other. From this group, there is a clear emergence of future digital leaders, which indicates a future area of benefit that is yet to be realised.
  • Continental picks simple, agnostic criteria to identify its most passionate guides. In 2012, the German manufacturer introduced a global, enterprise social network to its 212,000 employees. Harald Schirmer, Manager of Digital Transformation and Change, recruited a network of 800 guides to help the employees across the globe adopt more collaborative ways of working. Rather than emphasise grades, positions, functions, and education, Schirmer asked for volunteers who self-identified with three simple characteristics – curious, self-motivated, and English-speaking.
  • Nestle uses rotation to implant new behaviours globally. When Pete Blackshaw, Global Head of Digital and Social Media, first created Nestle’s Digital Acceleration Team, he had a practical need for community managers. He turned this need into an opportunity by seconding high-potential leaders in local markets to do rotations in the DAT centre. Blackshaw notes the positive impact across the regions: After eight months, [these leaders] go back to their markets and either lead digital in those particular regions, or just work on traditional marketing but have those digital vitamins as a back-up.”
  • Daimler is starting to harness a network of digitally-savvy change agents to drive internal digital programs. Gathering together for the first time in November last year, 80 passionate, highly-engaged employees spent a dedicated day learning, designing, and co-creating the future of collaboration at Daimler. Ready to engage with topics like leadership, culture, ways of working, and technology, the network forms a core component of the company’s digital strategy; and, as you see from their video of the event below, it is great to meet like-minded colleagues.

Identifying & Encouraging Emergent Leadership

As Bosch and Nestle demonstrate, there is a benefit to guide networks beyond successful transformation: the discovery and nurturing of a wider group of future leaders.

A few weeks ago, I listened to the podcast episode “My Little Hundred Million,” part of the Revisionist History series by Malcolm Gladwell. In it, Gladwell looks at elite universities and how they use their endowments. He homes in on Stanford’s “Knight-Hennessey Scholars Program” which educates 100 students each year with the mission to create the future leaders of the world.

Odds are that Stanford will achieve this goal. But is this the right way to look at things?

Gladwell does the maths. Stanford will dedicate $800 million of its endowment to the program. Assuming a 5% return on investment, 100 students, and a 3-year program, that works out to a spend of just over $133,000 per student per year.

It’s a lot of money, which kicks up all sorts of questions: How much is enough to educate a student? Even to the highest standards? In this instance, have we gone past the point of enough? Gladwell goes on to argue that a would-be philanthropist would make a larger societal impact by gifting their dollars to the University of California system instead. The UC schools collectively educate around 238,000 students, and they are not only some of the finest public universities in the world but also some of the most accessible to low-income students.

Gladwell’s argument is this: we do better by ensuring a fine education for the many than a singularly spectacular one for the few.

We need to ask these questions of conventional leadership development. Are we going to create better organisations by lavishing leadership courses, mentorship programs, and 1:1 coaching on a chosen, precious group of up-and-coming leaders? Or do we get better returns – both business and societal – by redistributing our development budget across a broader number of employees, who go on to enact change in their parts of the organisation and blossom as leaders in the process?

My bet is on the latter.

Interested in new methods for discovering and nurturing future leaders? Join us for our evening event on March 28: “Building Digital Leadership Superpowers Within Your Organisation.”