Why Good Change Projects Fail: ‘Critical Connectors’ Might Be Key

Change isn’t easy. Organizational change projects are no exception. 

Maya Townsend knows firsthand how difficult such changes can be. Maya is the founder and lead consultant of Partnering Resources

Her practice is grounded in knowledge of organizational networks — the complex, interrelated, and often messy webs of relationships that drive all organizational activity. She has spent more than 25 years helping companies realign to increase collaboration, break down silos, and increase transparency. 

Experience has taught Maya that sometimes even the best realignment efforts just don’t stick, especially in change projects.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Maya says. “You do a great project, you leave the organization, and then you look back a year later, and it's all gone. Sometimes the organization's worse than before.”

What steps can companies take to make sure their organizational change projects succeed? In her appearance on the Dreams with Deadlines Podcast, Maya discussed the importance of uncovering and understanding the informal network of influence in organizations and how to use that knowledge to make positive, lasting changes.


10-Second Summary

  • Every organization has an informal network of influence operating beneath the surface. Approximately 10 to 15% of the people have disproportionate influence over the whole. These “critical connectors” can influence the organization in ways others cannot in change projects. 
  • Mapping, identifying and engaging the organization’s three types of critical connectors — Hubs, Gatekeepers, and Pulse-takers — is critical to the success of organizational change. 
  • Realignment efforts that fail to account for or engage the organization’s critical connectors are far less likely to succeed because they fail to address resistance or gain buy-in.


Network mapping to uncover key relationships in your organization 

Power is determined by hierarchy. The higher up an individual is on an organizational chart, the more power that individual formally possesses. 

But power isn’t the determining factor in the success of a change project. It’s influence. 

Influence isn’t hierarchical. It doesn’t sync up to the org chart. Influence is informal. It’s based upon relationships. It’s distributed among all levels of an organization, often in ways that executives might find surprising. 

Creating a network map of this informal organization can reveal who possesses the influence within an organization, which is critical to any good change project. The network map is a concrete problem-solving tool executives can use to better understand how the organization’s relationships are wired. 

The network map is likely to uncover a common pattern. In any network between 10 and 15% of people have disproportionate influence over the whole. These influencers — “critical connectors” — are who tend to be most trusted by their peers. They tend to have broader reach because of their position in the network. 

“They can get to more people than others,” Maya says. “They can spread the word. They can make things happen in ways that others cannot.

To create the network map, Maya recommends creating a web-based survey in which employees are asked about to whom they go for specific things. 

“This gives an incredible amount of information about how knowledge spreads through the organization, where change happens quickly, where it happens slowly, where collaboration is working,” Maya says. 

“If people don’t have the funds to engage in one of those surveys, the easiest way to do it is just to walk around the organization and start to ask people who are really trusted in their area.”

“The names that come up over and over again are probably your [critical connectors].”

What executives should not do, according to Maya, is attempt to identify the organization’s influencers based solely on their own perceptions. Executives often don’t have line-of-sight that reaches far beyond their own direct reports, and their assumptions are often flawed.

Types of critical connectors in change projects

There are three types of critical connectors, according to Maya:


1. The Hub

The hub is someone who has more connections than anyone else,” Maya says. “This tends to be a person who is interested, curious, and tends to want to gather information.” 

Hubs are who others turn to for the juicy office gossip. They know who is dating whom, who’s on the outs with their division’s boss, and so forth. 

Hubs also know who to go to for expertise. They have connections that can provide them with the information they need. People who don’t know how to track down this information often rely upon hubs. 


2. The Gatekeeper

Gatekeepers control the flow of information from one group of people to the rest of the organization. 

“The reason why they are important, particularly during change or strategy implementation, is that without them opening that gate, information can't get through where it needs to get through,” Maya explains, noting that it can be a helpful way to guard against distraction. 

“But it can also be harmful when you're trying to align an organization,” she adds.


3. The Pulse-taker

The pulse-takers may not have the most connections, but they have the quickest methods to navigate the network. 

Pulse-takers are tougher to spot because they tend to be the quiet employees, the behind-the-scenes operators. They understand where the backchannels are and how to use them. They know how to quickly find the information they need. 


Finding resistance and gaining buy-in for change projects

No matter how well-thought-out and well-intentioned, reorganization or change project efforts are highly likely to fail if they fail to account for the dynamics of influence within the organization. 

“You go into a room, you do all the hard work of thinking through how to rearrange the boxes, and what makes logical, rational sense,” Maya says. “Then you've got it and you feel like you've accomplished something. 

“But then what happens is they introduce that to the organization, and people … continue to use the relationships that they've always used. One of the biggest challenges I see: So they've redrawn the boxes on a piece of paper, maybe they've changed a few of the reporting relationships, but they haven't rewired the networks. The networks are still doing what they did before.”

The key is to get critical connectors on board with any proposed organizational change projects. These influencers can assess and provide useful feedback regarding proposed changes, and they can communicate these changes to the rest of the organization. 

People who are resistant to a given change are unlikely to out themselves. By addressing the organization’s critical connectors before implementing changes, leadership gets an opportunity to identify and address resistance to their proposals. 

“Resisters get a bad rap in organizations … but they are resisting for a reason,” Maya says. 

“There's something there that's missing. Listening to those people — especially if they're critical connectors because they do have so much influence — is really important because they may be identifying something you're missing. I've actually seen this happen.” 

And once critical connectors have bought in, they’ll do the heavy lifting to bring along the rest of the organization.


This article is based on an episode of Dreams With Deadlines by Gtmhub — the strategy-meets-execution podcast where you'll hear of real trials and victories in business. The show is hosted by Jenny Herald, VP of Product Evangelism at Gtmhub. Subscribe via Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts to hear their discussions with thought leaders and learn how to shrink the gap between strategy and its day-to-day implementation. 


Top quotes: 

[04:20]: “Every single organization has a network. It's what we do as human beings. We create instinctually the relationships that we need in order to get our job done. If you were to visualize all those connections, you'd have a network map. … What we know from studying many network maps is that there's a common pattern, which is that in any network, about 10 to 15% of the people have disproportionate influence over the whole.”


[09:03]: “A network map … gives an incredible amount of information about how knowledge spreads through the organization, where change happens quickly, where it happens slowly, where its collaboration is working and where it doesn't.”


[16:58]: “One of the best things to do is get those influencers on board. I work with a lot of organizations on change. What we talk about in change is, if you want to make a change in an organization of 100, you can go and talk to each of your 100 people. But that takes time. If you instead reach out to your 10 to 15 critical connectors, you bring them in, you say, hey, here's what we're thinking. What do you think? … If you do that work, then they do a lion's share of the work of bringing along the other 85 to 90% of people in the organization.”