McKinsey Quarterly recently published an article entitled Tapping the Power of Hidden Influencers by Lili Duan, Emily Sheeran and Leigh M. Weiss. For anyone who has ever worked in a large organization (or not so large), it’s not a surprise that hidden influencers exist. For as long as anyone can remember these influencers have provided co-workers with guidance on how to get things done and how steer clear of organizational hurdles. It’s only recently that companies are looking beyond their official structure to discover this productivity underworld and explore ways to harness it to meet a future that looks hyper-competitive. A future where quickly implementing change will be essential.
They are, simply put, people other employees look to for input, advice, or ideas about what’s really happening at the company.
As you might have guessed, these hidden management structures often run counter to the published organizational chart. In fact, as part of the McKinsey report managers couldn’t consistently identify the influencers in their own locations, let alone remote sites. So it’s not surprising that it’s taken so long to explore these very real, but difficult to identify relationships. One thing is clear, these relationships are based on trust. Trust that is separate from title, tenure or volume. It will be critical that as organizations try to understand the power of these relationships that every effort is made to maintain the bond of trust that exists between team members or risk failure in the effort to realize their organizational impact. This “trust” concept was important to our own team while building Haydle. The reputation engine of the product needed to be beyond question. This is why Haydle’s reputation ranking is based exclusively on peer endorsement of the questions asked and the answers provided. There is no way to spam the system to artificially skew the results.
In the McKinsey report, the participating companies were careful about how they engaged their influencers. Efforts were made to engage a small group early in the idea cycle with expansion to a larger number as the effort picked up speed. This was done with the expectation that early engagement would provide unique insights from the influencer group. It would also assure that the trust element wouldn’t be derailed by the suspicion that the plan had already been decided and that the influencer group was just along for the ride.
All of this signals the rise of a more nuanced organization. One that uses a flatter structure to reinforce the concept that good ideas really can come from any level of an organization and that an evolved relationship between management and employee can speed acceptance of these new ideas. The results are two-fold, 1) the employee value proposition is increased by assuring that individual voices will be heard and 2) the organization benefits from the full commitment of their team to develop and implement business differentiators. This is a major step ahead of the traditional, top-down approach that relies on power point presentations, emails and CEO statements to effect change.
Many companies are experimenting with new organizational concepts by either minimizing (Apple, Google, Amazon) or eliminating (Zappos) traditional management hierarchies. But it doesn’t require an organizational makeover to realize that the world of undocumented knowledge and stealth leadership that McKinsey outlines is the organizational motor oil that exists in virtually every company. This is not to condemn the traditional org chart. That will likely be with us in some way forever. But it’s just as likely that the companies that can calculate how to tap the power of hidden influencers while strengthening the structure of trust that enables them are the companies who will realize the most powerful differentiators. The ability to change quickly, maintain high morale, and increase creativity are differentiators that will lead to fundamental increases in competitiveness and productivity. It will feel much like discovering a hidden talent that was never pursued with a conscious intent.