How Informal Networks Are Driving Innovation and Change at Allstate and Vodafone


If businesses want to successfully create organizational change, they need to take the time to understand and embrace informal networks. Traditional, top-down change management approaches aren’t agile enough to cope with the ongoing change organizations face in today’s world.

Formal organizational charts can’t begin to capture the variety and extent of the informal relationships and networks that exist within a company. And contrary to the suspicion that these networks are inefficient and weak, they’re actually key to getting things done and creating change.

The informal and formal don’t need to work against each other. Indeed, in a successful organization, they should support each other so that the company can benefit from the pros of the formal (for example: efficiency, quality, scalability) and the pros of the informal (for example: speed, flexibility, innovation). The trick is learning how to balance them well, along with mobilizing and influencing the informal networks for the good of the whole organization.

Let’s take a look at how two organizations, Allstate and Vodafone, are using informal networks to drive innovation and change.

Intrapreneurs @ Allstate

“Your intrapreneurs, those are the mavens in the organization, these are the believers, the ones that are making things happen. Help find them and bring them together.” – Maria Odiamar Racho, Allstate

After a lot of research and a few false starts, that’s precisely what Maria and her colleagues did to form the group I@A, Intrapreneurs at Allstate.

Maria Racho - Allstate
Maria Racho – Allstate

Maria works in an internal consulting group at Allstate, supporting senior leaders with strategic change. Her journey into intrapreneurship started when helping a client led her to the concept of lean startup within corporates. She was quickly hooked on the ideas. At a lean startup boot camp, she met Ali Ismaili, who at the time was from Allstate’s innovation team. Later, they set up an internal Facebook group of people from all over the company interested in agile, lean startup and intrapreneurship. This group grew quickly and organically and began meeting once a month.

“We came from all different parts of the organization, all different tenures, all different roles and functions. But we came in the room together and we got each other and we connected and we had rich insights and could share our frustrations,” says Maria.

The monthly meetings became what was called the Agile Community, which eventually developed a focus on scrum and sprints – useful for the people interested in that, but not so much for those looking to keep the focus on corporate entrepreneurship.

It was at this point that Maria and a few of her colleagues decided to investigate the possibilities of forming the group that became Intrapreneurs at Allstate. 

A new start

With this, they began their search for their fellow intrapreneurs. “We got a great response. About half of the people we talked with were ready to sign on,” says Maria. Executive leaders signed up to be sponsors – at one point 11 executives across the corporation had signed up, and some offered to be sponsors without even having to be asked. “So that was evidence for us that there’s something special here. So we decided to diversify a little.”

Up until that point they’d focused on approaching people they recognized as fellow change makers and intrapreneur spirits and the response had been overwhelmingly positive. But when they decided to diversify and reach out to people beyond that network, they had a different experience.

“We learned a key thing. Not everybody gets it and some people, they think it’s stupid,” says Maria. “So we pivoted our approach and we kept our focus on the believers.”

This included deciding to postpone a mass marketing campaign because they didn’t believe the organization was prepared for a full onslaught of intrapreneurial ideas. Instead, they stuck with good old-fashioned word-of-mouth marketing. “So we have the intrapreneurs out there looking for other intrapreneurs.”

But now that they’ve built the ecosystem, as Maria puts it, they’re starting to also market more broadly with flyers and even a visit by Gifford Pinchot III (who coined the term in the 1970’s).

A formal informal network

The group began as a grassroots venture, but it’s grown beyond this informal network to become an employee resource group. Even though this comes with compliance issues and rules, Maria and her colleagues decided to take this step when a sponsor suggested the legitimacy that comes with formality would be helpful for sponsors when advocating for the group.

Maria recommends being clear about the why behind your actions, finding your niche and understanding the impact you want to make.

“We want to be able to build bridges across the organization, across people, across ideas and we also want to bring people together who just want to get shit done,” says Maria. “If we don’t respond fast enough, we’re going to lose out.“

Building bridges and relationships throughout the organization helped Maria’s team when confusion cropped up between I@A and the company’s existing innovation teams.  Instead of competing with each other, they worked together to get clear on their unique and shared value propositions to the company.

“Find those connectors because those relationships and being able to navigate the organization are so critical.”

The group’s sponsors have been critical to their success by providing practical help with navigating pitfalls, pointing them in the right direction when needed, and pushing them to think carefully about their role and objectives.

They’ve also been a friendly source of inspiration when the group has felt frustrated and defeated. “Just the words of encouragement or the time with your sponsors and mentors are so uplifting and get us back on track,” says Maria.

“Our hope is to build a strong foundation and light many fires in intrapreneurs all throughout the corporation,” says Maria. With over 280 members around the world, it sounds like they’re well on their way.

Maria Odiamar Racho (Allstate)
Check Maria’s talk as recorded during Intrapreneurship Conference Chicago, June 2016


Vodafone’s Innovation Champions

Vodafone Global Enterprise, part of the Vodafone Group, delivers communication services directly to giant multinationals around the world. Its team of more than 3000 people work with over 1700 corporations. And within that team of 3000 is a small but mighty team of 4, who head up the Innovation Program. Together with about 50 champions – or intrapreneurs – worldwide, the Innovation Program helps develop innovative ideas and opportunities to meet their clients’ business needs.

The Innovation Program is about five years old now and has been a tremendous success so far. During its initial development, their founder, Juan-Jose Juan, pitched the idea with a four-pillar platform: customer focus, thought leadership, an innovation culture and an execution arm. The champions are involved in all four pillars. For example, in terms of developing an innovation culture within the organization:

“The Innovation Champions become the magnifying tool, the evangelists throughout the organization helping the people slightly behind them in the adoption curve to understand why we need to do innovation and how we do innovation,” says Shannon Lucas, ‎Director of Innovation at Vodafone Global Enterprise.

How they found their intrapreneurs

The Innovation Program finds champions in a variety of ways. Some champions are nominated internally by their units, while others are recruited during innovation boot camps where people with the desirable skills are identified.

Shannon Lucas - Vodafone
Shannon Lucas – Vodafone

But the process has also been more organic, tapping into personal networks. “We started really small. So, if you think about an innovation or early-adopter curve, for us we wanted to find the people who were already innovating and incorporate them first into the program and then we would expand that. And that’s very much how the journey has progressed,” says Shannon. “Year after year the team has expanded.”

Growing pains

At times, the team and the program have expanded too quickly. “Every time that we’ve hit a bump in the road it’s been because of the success of the program and the demand from the organization to expand non-organically,” says Shannon. “We’ve been much more intentional as we’ve gone forward about what targets that we could commit to year over year and making sure we were delivering quality first and then expanding the quantity.”

Part of the demand for expansion has come from the champions themselves. Shannon says they’ve learnt the importance of making sure you have the right roles for the right people. “A lot of people originally were raising their hands saying that they wanted to be involved. But we didn’t always have, before we went out and found them, the right ways to engage their talents.”

Creating a strong global community

One challenge the Innovation Program has faced is a practical, logistical one. How do you cultivate community and connection with champions spread out all across the world?

Being a digital technology company means that Vodafone obviously knows something about using digital tools, but, says Shannon, this was still a significant challenge.

They run ideation challenges online, and also use tools like Chatter, an online community, to create safe places for sharing ideas.

“We created a closed group, so this team of intrapreneurs has a safe place to share their ideas with no senior management in the room,” says Shannon. “We want people to be able to explore ideas and sometimes that means failing. And so we wanted to create a safe place so they could bring the crazy ideas to the table.”

Despite the usefulness and popularity of digital tools, Shannon still believes that nothing replaces bringing people together in the same physical location.

“Whenever anyone from the central team goes to a different region or a different office, we bring the intrapreneurs together,” she says. “There’s this massive uplift in the skill development and a sense of community.”

Aside from encouraging open communication to help with developing a strong sense of community, the team has also worked to create a cultural identity for the champions. One example: they created alternate business cards just for the champions, which have become extremely sought after across the organization.

“We get senior leaders actually asking if they can have them and the answer is no, these are only for the innovation teams. And when we go around the world, this is something that people recognize. It’s a badge of honor.”

Shannon says one of the key things they’ve learnt is to keep the community small enough to allow for authentic engagement. “I speak with all of the champions on a regular basis and so they feel a strong sense of connection to the community.”

The intrapreneur’s personal journey

The champions also gain a lot from their involvement in the program. Shannon says they’re always looking for ways they can help their champions develop personally and professionally. Sometimes that might be skill development opportunities like facilitating a workshop, or it might be a chance to engage with senior leaders. Other times it’s about increasing their visibility by getting them involved in publishing or high profile customer events.

“We want them to be in the spotlight. It’s really important that they are seen as being the people who are driving it because they really are. And that’s how we get the commitment from the organization to continue to support this community.”

So far, the champions have all been volunteers but Shannon and the core team are creating new positions that will come with compensation. These new roles will be differentiated in part by their title: innovation managers, instead of champions.

“We’re building the subsets so that everyone can participate according to their need and desire,” says Shannon. “And for us, the biggest thing that we have done and we will continue to do is support our champions on their personal journey because that’s how we build success for the program and also change the culture across the organization.”

Check Shannon’s talk as recorded during a webinar, 2015


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *