Change Through Informal Networks
Originally published in March 2019 in PeopleScience Journal
On a rainy April day in 1978, a stranger walked into a small, nondescript laboratory and cautiously whispered into a young man’s ear. The young man collected his belongings and walked out the door. That evening, the young man, after surreptitiously connecting with others like him, returned home and brought with him a forbidden item: matzo. Unleavened bread for the Jewish holidays.
That young man, my father-in-law, lived under the oppressive Soviet regime, the epitome of an inflexible hierarchy. The Soviet system systematically stamped out these types of parallel, informal networks connecting people. Informal networks posed a threat to the communist regime’s propaganda machine. Yet somehow my father in-law’s informal network not only survived, it successfully spread its cultural values, beliefs and practices.
Informal networks need not be political nor religious insurgencies. In most large corporations, informal networks are widespread. They’re sometimes called “peer groups” or “communities of practice” or have no name at all. The formation of these networks can in part be attributed to the social identity principle, in which our sense of who we are is based on group membership – especially when one’s identity seems to be subsumed by the greater, anonymous whole of a large organization. One interesting example from a large health care company was a secret whiskey tasting society that had a small, select membership. That clandestine group doubled as an informal network for organizational gossip and insider tips. Informal networks like that often fill a void in knowledge or practices.
Although informal networks usually lack structure and leadership, they endure because they share a common purpose and trust amongst the members. This common purpose and trust go a long way in building psychological safety, which is essential for groups to create meaning and lasting value. Having architected one of the largest innovation movements in the Fortune 100, I believe there are deliberate steps that can be taken to launch an innovation movement based on informal networks.
Creating an Innovation Movement at Pfizer
In 2013, Pfizer faced an uncertain future. With several blockbuster brands approaching patent expiration, the CEO, Ian Read, recognized that Pfizer had to signal that innovation went beyond its pipeline of products and extended to its pipeline of people. He was eager to spread an innovation mindset and culture across the 90,000+ employees. But there was also recognition that change cannot be easily accomplished through leadership decree. Leaders can demand that employees follow rules and regulations, but they cannot readily shift their hearts and minds. To realize the CEO’s vision, my team decided to build a very different change management model. Rather than build a traditional, top-down program, we modeled it on a decentralized, social movement, i.e. informal networks.
The Dare to Try initiative at Pfizer began with centralized support but quickly took a decentralized approach. Employees from across the various geographic regions and divisions were initially recruited as “champions” based on skill as well as their passion for innovation.
The role of these champions centered on three objectives:
(1) to evangelize the Dare to Try mindset and practices
(2) to apply these practices to solve local challenges with local teams, and
(3) to recruit and mentor members of the local network.
Although these champions operated with considerable autonomy, my headquarters-based team complemented their efforts by pulsing periodic promotion, training and resources to help support the efforts of these locally-clustered champions. Within a couple of years, these clusters began to form their own unique, group identify with branding, personalized communication channels and strategic plans. This tribal instinct created powerful internal networks and elevated the perceived influence of these individuals.
These networks proved to be an effective means of reaching employees in an authentic way. With only 600 active champions in the network, we estimated that they reached a majority of the 90,000+ employees on multiple occasions. Although they represented a minority of employees, the herding effect played an important role in amplifying the program’s reach.
After three years of the program launching, the impact of Dare to Try was evident. Performance data showed a steady increase in both the volume of innovation sessions, and more importantly, a sharp increase in new creative concepts entering team’s strategic plans. Equally as important as performance, an ongoing attitudinal survey showed a remarkable change in the collective belief in the organization’s ability to innovate, as well as individual ability to act more innovatively. Perhaps most telling were the fingerprints left all around the organization. Emails and thank-you notes regularly were sent to champions in the informal networks. Employees proudly emblazoned Dare to Try stickers on laptops and office doors. Employees were acting more entrepreneurial, as could be seen by spin out of a novel health care startup, known as Springworks Therapeutics. Even leaders routinely inserted “Daring to Try” as a new action word in their communications, including in the Pfizer annual report.
Harnessing the Power of Informal Networks
The staying power of the Dare to Try movement was more than good fortune; it was a function of deliberate experimentation and learning. Over time, several principles emerged that were major contributors to its success and can help any organization create an authentic cultural movement.
Know thy Network.
One of the lynchpins in jumpstarting your informal networks is a deep understanding of the existing network structures first. Many networks existed within Pfizer already, and these networks likely exist within every organization. At the outset, our team conducted a network analysis of the key influencers, central connectors and innovation evangelists. Initially, our method was qualitative in nature, but over time, we used more quantitative methods. By leveraging the sociological theory of centrality, we could uncover influential people and hidden networks. And we could practically apply these insights to recruit groups of champions, many of whom would later lead their own local networks.
Provide a Pulpit.
While my headquarters team stayed involved in teaching, coaching and supporting the various champion networks, the most meaningful action we took was to facilitate communication between the various champion networks. Storytelling and conversation must happen without intermediation in order for the networks to stand on their own. And to do that, my team provided multiple platforms for connecting the networks. A regular “talk show” series was held in which my team would blend late night TV entertainment together with corporate information sharing. We also designed and normalized the use of an internal social media platform that enabled members around the world to connect and share insights. By building the infrastructure and normalizing it, over time, the networks independently operated and communicated with one another, fostering familiarity and trust. Even smaller micro-networks would form as we found in Latin America, where a WhatsApp group formed to request immediate help or input from the local network of champions.
Build the Blockchain.
Quality and trust within a network are of high importance. As the informal network evolves and grows, there is a risk that members may fail to meet the desired standards of the network. This can undermine its credibility and value. It is essential that the network become rigorous and self-policed in its membership.
We saw this in action within an informal network in Canada. Network members wanted to expand their membership, so they began to recruit, design, train and coach the new members. Similar to the way a blockchain works, they took recommendations on new members, but it was up to the existing network to validate. When multiple members on the network chain validated a person, he or she could be added to and trusted by the “blockchain.”
Host a Haven.
Change makers also need physical spaces where they can plant their flag. Across the globe, Dare to Try spaces began to emerge. It started with my team creating a space in our New York headquarters and then socializing a simple manifesto on how to build your own. Within a short amount of time, there were similar spaces from Groton, Connecticut, to Zurich, Switzerland. These spaces signaled that the network was legitimate and that a haven has been created with rules and behaviors different from traditional corporate culture. They also become a capsule of the change we wanted to see across the entire organization.
Forgo the Formalization.
It is a very delicate balance to galvanize a grassroots-like movement with decentralized networks and still maintain executive support. While my team tracked and reported performance and attitudinal metrics to demonstrate the ongoing change, we also tried to avoid the formalization that would undermine the grassroots nature of the movement. While it remained important that champions received manager support, we eschewed the traditional sanctioning of the roles within the HR system. And while we worked with the champion network to set-up goals and objectives, we intentionally did not measure or report on them to allow it to be an individually driven process. Treating these professionals as adults went a long way to keeping them engaged. Perhaps most impactful, we ignored the traditional change management approach of creating “train the trainers” and leveraged the insights from the Montessori Method, which emphasizes guided choice, encouraging freedom within limits, and building a reliance on networks of experienced peers, to reinforce learned concepts.
Change does not happen in a single day, and change is rarely led by a single person. Creating real and lasting change requires a thoughtful and deliberate approach that should be led by the very people whom you want to be the change. While it is certainly much easier to build an internal public relations campaign and issue an edict, as many companies do, these efforts fail the moment the leadership team stops promoting it. Instead, by tapping into your existing structures and the nature of informal networks, you can turn your decree into a movement that transforms the entire DNA of your organization.