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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