Change: It’s an infection, not broadcasting!

Again and again I hear and read that we have to meet the peo­ple on their ground and have to win them over for a suc­cess­ful change. I con­sid­er this very encroach­ing and pater­nal­is­tic. Since peo­ple don’t resist change, but being changed, as Peter Sen­ge already stat­ed, try­ing to win peo­ple over auto­mat­i­cal­ly leads to pas­sive-aggres­sive resis­tance. A com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent strat­e­gy helps to ensure that the change pen­e­trates the organ­i­sa­tion well: start­ing from a few “influ­encers”, peo­ple infect each oth­er with the new behav­iour under­ly­ing the change as if it were a virus.

Lean­dro Her­rero coined the term “Viral Change™” and made it pop­u­lar through his book “Viral Change: The Alter­na­tive to Slow, Painful and Unsuc­cess­ful Man­age­ment of Change in Organ­i­sa­tions” (Ama­zon Affil­i­ate-Link). Instead of imple­ment­ing change as usu­al through change pro­grams from top to bot­tom, Her­rero trans­fers viral phe­nom­e­na known from social media to change process­es in organizations.

Behav­iours endorsed and spread by that small group of indi­vid­u­als with­in an organ­i­sa­tion (‘activists’) cre­ate ‘social tip­ping points’ where those new behav­iours become estab­lished as a norm. ‘Crit­i­cal mass­es’ of indi­vid­u­als adopt­ing those new behav­iours are cre­at­ed via imi­ta­tion and social copy­ing in sim­i­lar ways as trends or fash­ions are cre­at­ed in the macro-social are­na. It’s an infec­tion, not broadcasting

Lean­dro Her­rero, The 15 key Viral Change™ principles

At its core, change process­es are always about chang­ing behav­ior, which is why this is also the first of the 15 key prin­ci­ples of the Viral Change™: “There is no change unless it is behav­iour­al change.” And thus his next two prin­ci­ples are: “Change behav­iors, get cul­ture; not the oth­er way around” and “Behav­iors sus­tain process­es, not the oth­er way around”. A small set of behav­iors have a dis­pro­por­tion­ate effect (cf. Pare­to Prin­ci­ple) and this has to be lever­aged. So the ques­tion is: How do we man­age to spread exact­ly these effec­tive new behav­iors in the organization?

A rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of indi­vid­u­als with­in any organ­i­sa­tion have great pow­er in the cre­ation of change. This pow­er is relat­ed to var­i­ous fac­tors such as high con­nec­tiv­i­ty with oth­ers, high trust, or moral, non-hier­ar­chi­cal author­i­ty (PS. It’s not just about ‘vol­un­teers’)

Lean­dro Her­rero, The 15 key Viral Change™ principles

The answer is straight­for­ward. Since ear­li­est child­hood we have been learn­ing new behav­ior through imi­ta­tion. First from our par­ents or oth­er care­givers, whom we (must) trust blind­ly, lat­er from friends, role mod­els and from peo­ple recent­ly called “influ­encers”. Exact­ly these peo­ple with­out for­mal pow­er and man­date, but with high influ­ence and high cred­i­bil­i­ty not only exist on Insta­gram or Face­book, but also in every orga­ni­za­tion and they play a cen­tral role in bring­ing about change. What they live and breathe con­vinc­ing­ly is imi­tat­ed and dis­sem­i­nat­ed. So grad­u­al­ly every­one becomes infect­ed with it.

The role of the for­mal hier­ar­chy, man­age­ment and lead­er­ship, is to sup­port those small groups of high­ly influ­en­tial employ­ees who ‘infect’ the organ­i­sa­tion with the changes they have endorsed. It is there­fore a role large­ly back-staged or ‘invis­i­ble’

Lean­dro Her­rero, The 15 key Viral Change™ principles

It is the task of lead­ers, in addi­tion to iden­ti­fy­ing and express­ing the need for change, to find these influ­en­tial employ­ees and sup­port them so that they can infect their col­leagues through lead­ing by exam­ple. So the role of lead­ers is not very active (unless they are seen as cred­i­ble author­i­ty beyond and in spite of their for­mal posi­tion) and there­fore Viral Change™ is not a top-down change pro­gram but a move­ment led by activists who have cred­i­bil­i­ty in the organization.

An example: Promoting a Learning Culture

I have always regard­ed agile trans­for­ma­tion as a joint learn­ing jour­ney. Agili­ty does not only need a lot of new behav­iors, but actu­al­ly starts with our assump­tions about human nature and thus with beliefs buried deep in our cul­ture. In order for this learn­ing jour­ney to suc­ceed, it is essen­tial that suc­cess­es, fail­ures or sim­ply expe­ri­ences are read­i­ly shared with­in the great­est pos­si­ble range. Oth­er­wise, learn­ing only takes place with­in more or less large silos and is there­fore too slow. This is exact­ly what Work­ing Out Loud (WOL) is all about. 

Since 2010 I myself have been intu­itive­ly using the prin­ci­ples of WOL with my blog and social media very suc­cess­ful­ly. So in my first weeks with the cor­po­ra­tion in 2015, I could­n’t under­stand why our Enter­prise Social Net­work looked more like a ghost town than a live­ly bazaar. So I changed that, through my own con­tri­bu­tions and com­ments, and unin­ten­tion­al­ly became an activist of net­work­ing (because of the way I spread top­ics) and agili­ty (because that was and is my main theme). Grad­u­al­ly, how­ev­er, it became more live­ly in our Enter­prise Social Network.

When the agile trans­for­ma­tion real­ly took off in 2017, we cer­tain­ly want­ed to accel­er­ate learn­ing. To this end, we invit­ed all employ­ees to active­ly par­tic­i­pate in this change and work on the issues at hand. The goal was an open net­work to which every­one could con­tribute instead of a closed change team, which would then delight the rest with their change mea­sures. The con­tri­bu­tions of the employ­ees were of course pre­sent­ed in the for­mal com­mit­tees as usu­al, but we had intro­duced a new rule there: Every non-con­fi­den­tial con­tri­bu­tion (and none in the con­text of the trans­for­ma­tion was con­fi­den­tial) has to be shared as a blog post on the Enter­prise Social Net­work after­wards (and I always offered my help to do so).

Through my reach in the Enter­prise Social Net­work, I have delib­er­ate­ly increased and rein­forced the vis­i­bil­i­ty of these con­tri­bu­tions and, for two years now, I have also been send­ing a week­ly newslet­ter to inter­est­ed employ­ees with the high­lights of the week. Grad­u­al­ly the gen­er­ous dis­tri­b­u­tion of expe­ri­ences with the largest pos­si­ble audi­ence, a behav­iour that was incom­pre­hen­si­ble for many (“Does­n’t he have a ‘real’ work?”) and some­times fright­en­ing (“What if some­body does­n’t like it?”), became a self-evi­dent prac­tice for many and now I’m enjoy­ing the live­ly hus­tle and bus­tle at the bazaar and our insights from the shared learn­ing journey. 

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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