Hidden Influencers

Good read today from the McKinsey Quarterly – an article called “Tapping the Power of Hidden Influencers” by Lili Duan, Emily Sheeren and Leigh Weiss.

The article introduces a surveying technique used by social scientists to get data from sex workers, drug dealers and other “hidden populations” who might not be all that thrilled or motivated to contribute to research. Basically, the technique is to keep the surveys very short and include the question “who else should I be talking to?” – it’s called snowball sampling because one name or group of names quickly snowballs into a high-quality cohort.

The authors suggest that this technique can be adapted by business leaders to identify who the “hidden influencers” in their organization are. Because their research has shown that the biggest hindrance to organizational change efforts is employee resistance, the authors encourage using this survey technique to identify influencers throughout the organization and involve those people in change efforts. They share examples of two companies that are using this method, and a few key takeaways from the early results of their efforts.

The research and recommended steps make sense to me – I think the hardest sell is to get senior management to admit their ignorance about who employees actually listen to. The authors address this point as well:

Moreover, we find that even when company leaders believe they know who the influencers will be, they are almost always wrong. At one large North American retailer, for instance, we compared a list of influencers that two store managers created before the survey with its actual results. Between them, the managers overlooked almost two-thirds of the influential employees their colleagues named; worse, both managers missed three of the top five influencers in their own stores. The retailer’s inability to recognize its influencers is no anomaly; we’ve observed a similar pattern in every other industry and geography we’ve studied.

Some of their recommendations include thinking broadly (don’t stop at middle managment – sometimes it is a well-connected and respected cashier that may be the biggest influencer in a store), vetting results (with thoughts on how to deal with the “bad eggs” who are nevertheless strong influencers), and cocreating rather than dictating (involving the influencers early and providing support later).

Good food for thought. While many of the nonprofits I’ve worked in/with are too small for such processes to be relevant, I think that the model could be adapted to include service recipients and other stakeholders.

 

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