McKinsey consultants tap the power of ‘hidden influencers’

SnowballA technique used to study street gangs and drug users is being used by McKinsey management consultants to identify ‘hidden influencers’ within organisations.

Known as ‘snowball sampling’ the approach was originally used by social scientists who wanted to study “hidden populations reluctant to participate in formal research.”

McKinsey consultants are now applying the same technique to the corporate context by identifying informal influencers who can be engaged to help bring about organisational change.

Tapping the energies of key influencers within a company is well-established practice, but it’s often the informal influencers who hold the real power. These are the people that employees look to for finding out what is really going on within an organisation.

And these are the people to target to increase your chances of change success, say consultants in McKinsey’s quarterly journal. But how do you find them? That’s where the ‘snowballs’ come in…

The idea is to conduct short surveys on a small number of people, asking questions along the lines of ‘who do you go to for information when you have trouble at work’ or ‘whose advice do you trust and respect?’

Each anonymous survey leads you to another person who can be surveyed in turn. You build up a big picture of the influencer network – hence the ‘snowball’.  You can then cross-reference results, see who comes up most often, and develop a good understanding of who to target.

Authors Duan, Sheeren and Weiss suggest defining a group of key influencers, and vetting the candidates as “not all influence is positive and not all influencers want change”. This group can then help communicate changes and convince sceptical employees of the need for change.

They suggest involving the group early on with directing and planning, so they don’t feel like they are just receiving messages from on high, but feel actively engaged. Not doing this could erode the influencer’s informal authority, and they could appear to be the mouthpieces of management.

The authors say early success stories have highlighted specific activities and behaviour that drive performance, thus helping companies further articulate and accelerate changes. Employee satisfaction scores have also improved sharply, largely due to increased levels of collaboration and empowerment.

For case studies and the full article, ‘Tapping the power of hidden influencers’, click here.

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