Influence: There is no spoon.

Changing Corporate Behavior through an Influence Map

Walmart changesMarc Gunther just reviewed Force of Change, the story of Walmart’s conversion to sustainable business practices. When the world’s largest public corporation makes any big change, it’s noteworthy. But this change could very well help save the world. It’s not just the direct environmental impact of Walmart’s new business practices, but the ripple these changes make in the company’s massive supply chain and the signal they send to other companies about the critical importance of sustainability.

What I believe is particularly interesting about this story is that the company’s decision to shift it practices was influenced by the personal experiences of the company’s top leadership.

We often think of institutions like Walmart as huge, soulless machines. But it’s important to remember that there are real people running these organizations, and that personal experiences and personal relationships can have a very large impact on these people and the decisions they make about the institutions they lead.

In this case we find Peter Seligmann, the founder of Conservation International, opening the door for consultant Jib Ellison through a relationship he had with Walmart’s chairman, Rob Walton. Ellison is the influencer who creates some of the personal experiences that help Walmart initiate its big shift. Seligmann is the connector who gets Ellison in the door.

Though we may not see it this way all the time, each of us have a huge stake in our ability to create change. The type of change we seek will vary considerably. For some, our aim is large-scale social change that takes years or even decades to carry out. For others, it’s motivating customers to adopt a new technology or a new ways of doing things.

Change can be personal or institutional in nature, and usually it’s a bit of both. Personal change is powerful and important, and as the Walmart story illustrates, it’s usually an essential ingredient in institutional change. What makes institutional change so important though, is that, when we change an institution, we also change the behavior of its employees, customers and other stakeholders. It’s tough to do, but institutional works like a huge lever, capable of moving very large objects…

…Like Walmart.

5 Steps to Influence Mapping

Influence MapAs Walmart’s move to sustainability illustrates, when you scratch below the surface of most institutional change, there’s usually a handful of relationships that play a disproportionately large role in bringing those changes about. That’s part of the reason it’s hard to truly separate institutional change from personal change.

Each of us depends on our ability to create change, and quite often that change is happening within an institutional context.

Imagine how effective you’d be in your organizational change efforts if, before you even lifted a finger, you could consult a magic map that looked into the future and laid out exactly how the key decisions that affect your goals were going to be made. This magical, mystical map would tell you who the key decision makers were, who influenced them, and who you knew who could help you get to those influencers.

Wouldn’t a map like that make your change efforts much easier?

Of course, but most of us haven’t quite mastered omniscience so what we do instead is project our best guesses at what the flow of decision making and its influences will look like in the future.

This process goes by either “influence mapping” or “power mapping” and here’s a quick look at how this incredibly important tool for influencing change works. There are five steps:

  1. Articulate your desired outcome.
  2. Identify the decisions that lead to this outcome and the decision makers who make them.
  3. Map all the people who influence these decision makers on this particular issue. Include people who support your outcome, oppose it, as well as those who are neutral on it.
  4. Prioritize this list of influencers based on a composite of their importance and your ease of reaching them.
  5. Follow their social networks until you connect with people who you believe will be willing to advocate for your desired outcome.

The result of this exercise is an influence map that you can use in lots of different ways, though the end goal is always getting the people you know to network into positions of influence with decision makers in order to help you achieve your desired outcome.

Influence: the Flip Side of Permeability

Self ReferenceDoing effective influence mapping isn’t easy, just as creating effective geographic maps isn’t easy.

To be useful, the map needs to describe the actual terrain – and for that, you need people who understand how the decisions that impact your desired outcome actually get made. Not how you wish they get made, mind you, but how they actually get made.

The reality of how decisions get influenced usually depends a great deal on context. A senator might lean heavily on a small handful of business leaders to decide on innovation policy, but be heavily influenced by her brother who happens to be a school principal when it comes to education policies.

Understanding these nuances doesn’t happen through research on the web; you need to talk to people who actually know the decision makers and their influencers.

Often, that’s not easy because the institutions we seek to influence are opaque and impenetrable by outsiders. This is one of the reasons lobbyists earn so much and why so many of them have former affiliations with the very institutions they now seek to influence. Within private sector organizations, it also explains why “old boys” networks have disproportional influence on how decisions are made.

This kind of opaque decision making can be a real problem for organizations; when left unchecked, it can lead to the kind of groupthink the United States government famously experienced with the Bay of Pigs. When decision makers are surrounded by influencers who are too homogenous, their institutions become vulnerable to environmental factors that fall outside of their influencers’ awareness. This is a very dangerous place for organizations; one that often leads to insularity, failed alignment with the outside world, and eventual obsolescence.

So, while each of us has different reasons for wanting to be able to influence institutions, it truly is in the interest of these organizations to be influenceable. When people on the outside can’t find ways to provide signals to an organization, it slowly but surely loses its grip on reality.

Permeability and transparency are important tools for reducing that kind of institutional risk because they expand the range of influences on an organization. By opening the door to Jib Ellison, Walmart lessened the likelihood of getting thumped down the road by the future consequences of its unsustainable business practices.

Influence truly is the flip side of permeability.

How to Strengthen Your Organization’s Influence Mapping

Organizations that are permeable are more open to influence from their external environment. That makes them more resilient and able to align themselves with market forces.

Being open to influence is only one aspect of permeability, however. The other crucial aspect of permeability is being able to exert influence.

As I’ve noted, influence mapping is an important means to increasing our influence. Lobbyists can help build an accurate influence map, but they’re not really set up to map decisions in the private sector, and they’re expensive.

How can organizations build their own capacity to map influence? Doing so is an integral aspect of their ability to exert influence and change the world around them. Part of the answer lies in investments in systems and part lies in organizational processes.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) databases are the logical information systems in which to manage organizational influence maps. All it takes are some tweaks to the CRM so that it includes database fields for tracking decision makers, their influencers and the connections between them. It also helps to modify the database so it can track desired outcomes and connect those outcomes to the decision makers who impact them.

It turns out, that’s the easy part though.

The hard part comes with adopting new organizational processes for gathering and managing intelligence that feed these influence maps. Much of this work is similar to organizational processes for managing a CRM database, but there are a few special additional considerations.

Employees need to be constantly on the lookout for information on decision makers who are connected to the organization’s desired outcomes. That also means staying vigilant for information about the people who influence these decision makers and tracking the relationships between them.

Part of what’s needed is an ongoing effort to systematically capture information, but there are also times when organizations need supplement these ongoing efforts with concerted pushes – typically at the outset of setting up influence tracking and whenever the organization takes on major new desired outcomes.

One simple approach to concerted influence mapping entails periodically convening staff for brainstorming sessions to identify points of influence for key decision makers. Once the influencers are identified by a group, staff then breakout to make connections between them and individuals in the organization’s CRM database as well as with their own personal connections on social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook.

This kind of networking with specific targets in mind, or “directed networking,” isn’t restricted to staff. With some coordination, it can be scaled out to other stakeholders who care about the organization’s success. Putting customers, partners and other stakeholders to work in building an organization’s influence map is a wonderful example of third-order engagement. Think of it as crowd-sourced influence mapping; it helps build loyalty to the organization and dramatically expands the probability of finding connections with important influencers over the decision makers your organization needs to influence.

People truly are the best way to find other people. This is another important example of people acting as the “membrane” that connects the organization with the outside world. This membrane of people is what gives it the organization its intelligence in listening to, and in this case, influencing its external environment.

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