Snowball Sampling: Identifying People with Informal Influence

Employee resistance is the most common reason executives cite for the failure of big organizational-change efforts. Companies need to develop strong change leaders employees know and respect—in other words, people with informal influence. But there’s one problem: finding them. How can company leaders identify those people beforehand to better harness their energy, creativity, and goodwill—and thereby increase the odds of success?

One way we’ve found is “snowball sampling,” a simple survey technique used originally by social scientists to study street gangs, drug users, and sex workers—hidden populations reluctant to participate in formal research. These brief surveys (two to three minutes) ask recipients to identify acquaintances who should also be asked to participate in the research. Thus, one name or group of names quickly snowballs into more, and trust is maintained, since referrals are made anonymously by acquaintances or peers rather than formal identification.

Companies can construct simple, anonymous e-mail surveys to ask, for example: “Who do you go to for information when you have trouble at work?” or “Whose advice do you trust and respect?” In shop-floor and retail-store settings where workers don’t have ready access to e-mail, companies can use anonymous paper surveys. By asking employees to nominate three to five people (or more in very large organizations) who are also surveyed, executives can quickly identify a revealing set of influencers across a company. When the names of nominees start to be repeated—often, after only three to four rounds—the survey can end.

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