The influence of trees, webs, and clouds

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There’s the influence described in formal organizational charts. Executives influence middle managers, who influence managers, who influence front-line employees. It’s like the way a tree‘s roots affect the trunk, which affect the branches, which affect other branches, which affect the leaves. People rise in organizations depending on their political savvy and the way they handle situations. The influencer’s relationship to the status quo is clear: managers might be good at keeping everything running smoothly (preserving the status quo), while leaders are good at inspiring people to change (seeking a new status quo). People have a mix of both traits, of course, but favour one or the other. The relationships are clear, and you can work with them.

This isn’t the only way influence works. Social network analysis may show you that the most influential person isn’t Bob, the manager, but Sally, the receptionist, who knows everyone and who can nudge people to support new initiatives. This is the influence of webs, where pulling on one strand affects the other. Change management initiatives take this kind of influence into account when they use social network analysis to find the key influencers and early adopters by asking people to identify who influences them in particular situations. Then they can work with those people to encourage change. These relationships may not be immediately obvious, but they can be determined from communication patterns or surveys. People can intentionally influence their social network, working to either support or resist change.

But there’s another kind of influence that I don’t quite understand, although I’ve had many experiences of it. People do things that influence strangers in ways they don’t expect. I think of it as the influence of clouds . You could write a blog post that someone in Australia reads, enjoys, and thinks about, but you don’t know about that potential relationship and you don’t do it because you want to change other people’s lives or help them stay the same. You do it just because it helps you think, and yet things happen. How do you plan for or measure that kind of influence?

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