In the practice of organizational change, we are trying to get people to change their minds about how they are currently acting and adopt a new behavior. Well-known Harvard Professor Howard Gardner, in his book Changing Minds, offers seven “Rs” for getting people to change their minds.

  • Reason. It has to be rational and make sense.
  • Research. It should be based on research that people accept.
  • Resonance. It needs to align to their personal goals and situation.
  • Representational re-description. The same information presented different ways is more convincing.
  • Resources and Rewards. There needs to be sufficient resources to get the new task done, and sufficient rewards, or benefit, to doing it.
  • Resistances. The concerns, both imagined and real, must be dealt with.
  • Real World Events. The overall context and situation can affect the viability of the change. For example, during wars or recessions, people will have their focus elsewhere

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Dr. Morten Hansen recently stood in front of a room of over one thousand change management professionals and said “Change or die” is “dead wrong.”  I suspect most of the audience initially regarded those as fighting words, but Dr. Hansen followed up his provocative statement with some solid explanation.

Dr. Hansen’s arguments are based on the research in his recent book, Great by Choice, which he co-authored with the well known Jim Collins. I had the opportunity to see Dr. Hansen speak in Los Angeles at the 2012 Conference of the Association of Change Management Professionals. Here are some of the highlights.

  • Make controlled progress. Successful companies pursue opportunities they can manage and do not overstretch. They know how big a plate of food they can eat, and they turn down extra servings.
  • Innovators do not always win. It is true there is a threshold amount of innovation a company must do to stay in the game, and, In some industries, the threshold is very high. But innovation is wasted if you cannot deliver it and scale it to the demand.
  • Avoid big bets. Going all in on poorly understood opportunities is a recipe for disaster. Successful companies test carefully and gather evidence before investing a lot of resources. Dr. Hansen described it as “fire bullets to calibrate the aim before launching the cannonball.”
  • Manage risk. Do not change for the sake of changing. Manage change within bounds and pay a lot of attention to what could go wrong, especially where there are sharp downside risks or where a little bit of upfront expense will insure the organization against big losses.

In summary, while it is still true successful companies must change to survive, merely changing for change’s sake is not enough. Successful companies change well


One of the most powerful transformation methods does not require much support from management—in fact, it could even be hindered by a management mandate. This occurs because often seemingly insignificant changes in behavior can profoundly affect organizational performance. Yet those key, high-leverage behaviors usually cannot be determined by outsiders like management or other experts. Rather, the high-leverage behaviors are discovered by an individual or group through either learning or accident and then spread to others.

This theory of change underlies an approach called positive deviance, which was pioneered by Jerry and Monique Sternin. Positive deviance compares the behaviors of average- and high-performing groups to determine what the high-performing groups do that the average groups do not. The comparison process is done by the groups themselves, so that they are engaged in learning.

An insightful mini-case study is given in the 2005 Harvard Business Review article, “Your Company’s Secret Agents,” by Richard Pascale and Jerry Sternin. They discuss a situation that occurred at the pharmaceutical company Genentech.  In 2003, Genentech had created a drug called Xolair, which was considered a miracle drug for chronic asthma sufferers. Although the drug was superior to competitors, Genentech was unable to meet sales expectations.

An investigation was conducted, and it was discovered that within the sales force of 242 persons, not all were having equally poor results. Rather, two women were having wild success. Unlike the the majority of sales people who relied on making traditional visits to physicians and backing up their claims with data, the two women had a different approach.

The two women guided doctors and nurses through the process of readying the drug for infusion and administering it to patients. They taught administrators how to fill out the specialized paperwork. They pitched the drug’s lifestyle impact and described how children who took Xolair could own pets and participate in outdoor sports. In expanding the horizons of doctors, nurses, and administrators, the two sales people had discovered what armies of Genetech’s market researchers had missed. They were successful because they had morphed into change agents.

Wanting to get the other salespeople to follow the the new approach, Genentech management distributed it out as a best practice for others to follow. Surprisingly, this resulted in disappointment. The other salespeople were broadly not inclined to adopt the change. They felt that the two women were successful not because of their method, but because their situation was different. This was prime example of what is called psychological reactance—when people resist what they perceive is imposed on them. Consequently, Pascale and Sternin stressed that affected groups should be engaged in learning process, not just be told what to do.

A [change] design that allows a community to learn from its own hidden wisdom is, among other things, respectful. Innovator and adopter share the same DNA. Community members invest sweat equity in discovering the positive deviants, and, in the process, they become partners to change.

While there are certainly times when people need direction to pursue the strategic goals of the company, the dramatic results of positive deviance methods show us that how those goals are accomplished might be better left to the people who are pursuing them. Although it is common to ask,

     “Are they doing what I want? Are they doing what management wants?”

We we are often better off asking,

     “What are they doing that is working really well, and how can we create the conditions for others to discover things that work really well?”


Changing behavior is the heart of organizational change, so, I when I am getting started on an initiative, like to keep focused on the question, “What will people do different?” This helps sort out what matters from abstract concepts or technical conversations.

To that end, I’ve been in a lot of organizational change discussions where people emphatically called for things like “We need to be more collaborative” or “People need to stay focused on the important things.” These kinds of statements are obviously true, and they sound a bit like behavior changes: After all, they are activities people do. But, you can’t really make an announcement and say “you all to be more collaborative.” That would probably just make more people confused.

For example, suppose I am the CEO, and I say to my employees: “Be more innovative.” I have authority to make this statement, and it is an appropriate request in a business setting. What will they do? Employees who are fearful about their ability to be innovative might consider quitting their job. Others might start reading blogs and try to pick up some clever ideas to bring back to me.  Others might start wearing more artistic looking clothing to appear more innovative. Others will ignore the directive altogether. Whichever the case, when the directive is that vague, people must guess what exactly to do, and they might choose widely divergent and unexpected or unproductive things.

To make my request clearer, I could add some research (mentioned in my post here) that shows generating more options before deciding on a course of action leads to greater innovation. This is more specific. Of course, there are many other similar statements about collaboration that we could make. But is it clear yet what to do? Well, it is clearer. But many questions could still arise. Do we have to generate options every time we make a decision? Who is going to conduct the activity?

We don’t have a bona fide change behavior until it is specified as an action done by a person at a specific time. We need something reasonably concrete such as “When key decisions are being made, the project manager facilitates the exploration of other options before the group settles on one.” This produces a hierarchy like that shown in the graphiic, which I have adapted from an explanation in Leandro Herrero’s Viral Change.

As you can see in the graphic, I categorized the levels of statements and made them in a small hierarchy.  I used the three categories, called Concept, Guiding Idea, and Behavior because these fit to different levels of definition that can be useful in a change effort. Sometime later, I’ll explain it. But for now you can just know I have a reason for defining it that way.

Of course, “be more innovative” could have many other general practices and specific behaviors. The point though is that understanding at least a few key specific behaviors is critical because those are what can be understood by the people who need to do them. Also, those tangible behaviors can be measured, and effective influencing strategies can be devised to embed them in the organization.

People who are accustomed to traditional strategy making approaches that start with a vision and work down to strategies and process may feel like discussing behaviors is very “tactical.” They often want to talk about visions and organizational structures. But, those are not end results, and talking about them extensively often results in a lot of slideware and not much change.  To avoid getting caught in a spin cycle, it is important to realize that approaches like VSEMs, strategic planning, enterprise architecture, and process design are essentially just ways to get people on the same page about what to make or how to act.  They are ways to take a statement like “be more innovative” down to a concrete behavior. So, when going through those approaches, it is important to ensure the conversation is moving toward an understanding of concrete behavior changes. This is why I like the question, “What will people do different?” It keeps the discussion grounded in the end result.


By the time you were five, your mother had may have already taught you two key concepts about influencing change, without you even realizing it.

Always Say Please

Hopefully, your parents taught you to always say “please,” for example when asking for the salt at the dinner table. While this may seem at first glance to be a mere social nicety, making it a practice has real value.

In the mid 1970s, researchers James Pennebaker and Deborah Sanders conducted a study where they posted two similar but slightly different signs on college bathroom walls. One sign read “Do not write on these walls under any circumstances,” and the other sign read “Please don’t write on these walls.” A couple of weeks later, the walls without the “please” had far more graffiti on them.

So, that split second of extra etiquette might go a long way.

Because I Said So

How often did your Mom justify her position by saying “Because I told you so”? On the surface it seems like the power of this statement rests in the power of your mother, but it turns out that the power might be in part conveyed by the word “because.”

Studies have shown that using “because” in a request increases the percentage of compliance. For example, behavioral scientist Ellen Langer and her colleagues tested this by conducting as study based on requests at a copy machine. In the first part, Langer had a stranger  approach someone waiting in line to use a photocopier and simply ask, “Excuse me, I have five pages.  May I use the Xerox machine?”  In this case, 60% of the people were willing to agree to allow the stranger to go ahead of them.  In the second part,  the stranger included a reason with the request, asking “May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” Almost everyone (94%) complied.

Now, that may seem obvious enough, in that the second study offered a reason, which would logically be more convincing. But, in a shocking result, in a third run  of the study, the requester offered a largely meaningless reason, asking “May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”

The rate of compliance was 93%.

So please pay attention to this because I said so!


How often have you been in a meeting where someone, often your manager, said, “let’s brainstorm some ideas?” If you are working in a professional position, probably a lot. After the suggestion is made, people start tossing out ideas. But, did you know that research over the last two decades has consistently demonstrated that this is a relatively poor way to generate ideas?

The formal method of “brainstorming” was popularized by ad executive Alex Faickney Osborn in his 1950s book Applied Imagination. Osborn proposed some rules for generating ideas, and he asserted that the method enabled groups to double their creative output. Since then, the term “brainstorming” has come to mean all forms of generating ideas, although Osborn’s rules are often not followed.

Perhaps surprisingly, even when Osborn’s traditional rules are followed, brainstorming has been shown in research to produce inferior results in terms of both quantity and quality of ideas. Two primary reasons for this are as follows:

  • Production blocking. People with stronger, more eloquent, or more authoritative voices tend to take over the meeting and control the conversation, marginalizing people who like to think more before speaking or who are not as comfortable speaking out in the group (Kerr & Tindale, 2004). This is particularly true if the stronger voices are also higher level managers.
  • Information cascading. The initial ideas that are spoken set the tone for what is socially acceptable, and others in the group subconsciously adapt to that tone, leaving out ideas that seem at variance because of fear of being rejected by the group (Bikhchandani, S., Hirshleifer, D., & Welch, I., 1992; 1998). For example, consider a group that is brainstorming where to go to lunch. The first person to speak says “How about somewhere near, like Le Maison?” Then, the rest of the ideas will tend to other nearby places, even though other possibilities further away might have been worth the trip to the overall group.

If brainstorming is bad, what is better? Research has shown that it is better to let each person think up an idea first to themselves and then give their idea independently to the group. This is called nominal group technique. Once each person has given an independent idea, the best idea can be chosen using a variety of methods. Despite its imposing name—which is why I often call it the “roundtable” method—the nominal group technique is highly effective and fun method. Most people find it rewarding to participate in, because even though some people have to limit themselves, everyone gets to participate.

For a quick generation of ideas, like where to go for lunch, just ask everybody to think to themselves for 15 seconds and then have each person state an idea. For a more robust generation of ideas on important topics, you can use the outline below.

  1. Prior to the meeting where ideas will generated, let everyone know that it is important to show up on time and stay for the duration of the meeting. Time can be adjusted for smaller or larger groups.  Small groups with less than five people and noncontroversial issues could be done in an hour; groups of ten or more people with tough issues would take several hours.
  2. Determine a trigger question, such as “What are the main obstacles to this proposal?”
  3. Have participants think to themselves for two to three minutes. Instruct them to write down their responses to the trigger question.
  4. After the participants have had a chance to think to themselves, explain to them that you will ask for each person’s top response.  They should use these guidelines:
    • Give their single top response. If it already given, provide the next top response.
    • Do not critique the responses of others
    • Asking clarifying questions is ok
    • Do not hijack the topic on to another issue or personal passion.
    • Participant can pass if they do not have anything they want to share.
  5. Begin collecting responses. Use these guidelines:
    • Write down the responses verbatim where everyone can seem them. Try to avoid paraphrasing or putting it in your own words; rather capture it exactly as it is said and if in doubt, ask them: “Does this capture what you said?”
    • Maintain the ground rules. It is important that the person feels heard by the group. Maintaining an environment free of critique and capturing their literal statements supports this.
  6. Be prepared for the rules to be broken early on. You will have to intervene. Here are some approaches you can use.
    • Participant starts to give more than one answer:  Stop them and say, “Let us give just one answer now, so that everyone gets a chance. We’ll come back around until you’ve had a chance to give all your responses.”
    • Participant critiques another: “Can I ask you to hold that until later? Once we have all the responses out, we will have a discussion on them.”
    • Participant takes off on another topic: “Can you write that down as one of your responses, and we will come back to you and capture it when it is your turn again?”
    • Someone arrives late: Stop and explain rules to them.
    • Someone has to leave early and wants to send everything to you in email. There isn’t much you can do here. This why it is important to emphasize the time commitment up front.
  7. Go around the group several times, until most of the responses are out.
  8. Ask everyone to look at the compiled list. Ask, “Is there anything that surprises you?”
  9. Facilitate a discussion to clarify and understand the items.
  10. Multivote to prioritize the issues.  In multivoting, you give each person a number of votes (usually the number of items divided by), which they can assign to the items that they think are most important. The person can put all votes on one item or spread out the votes as they wish.


  • Bikhchandani, S., Hirshleifer, D., and Welch, I. (1992), “A Theory of Fads, Fashion, Custom, and Cultural Change as Informational Cascades,” Journal of Political Economy, Volume 100, Issue 5, pp. 992-1026.
  • Bikhchandani, S., Hirshleifer, D., and Welch, I. (1998), “Learning from the Behavior of Others: Conformity, Fads, and Informational Cascades,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Volume 12, Issue 3, pp. 151-170.
  • Kerr, L. K. &. Tindale., R. S. (2004). Group Performance and Decision Making. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 55, no. 1, pp. 623-655.
  • Tan, Hwee Hoon, and Min Li Tan. “Organizational Citizenship Behavior and Social Loafing: The Role of Personality, Motives, and Contextual Factors.” Jan. 2008. ProQuest. New Paltz, New York.

We talk about the need to innovate a lot, but what do we do to foster it?

book cover debono thinking courseWell-known creativity researcher Edward deBono says that one thing we can do is to train ourselves not to take the first option that comes up. DeBono’s research found that groups that generate more options before deciding tend to make better, more innovative decisions.

This can be done with one simple question. For example, “That sounds like a great idea, and, before we go on, what other options are there?”

When really innovative decisions are needed, taking the time and mental effort to go through creating several options can be very valuable. Often the first option is the “knee jerk” reaction that is based on the usual thinking. Later options will often be more creative.

For more ideas on how to be innovative and make better decisions in teams, DeBono’s Mindtools website has a lot of freebies.


Laugh and learn book coverThere are a lot of books of training games out there, but in keeping with the theme of fun that I have been on recently, here is a quickie review of a book called Laugh and Learn by Doni Tamblyn. Ms. Tamblyn says

“Research reveals that laughing reduces the output of negative stress chemicals in the brain, while it dramatically improves cognitive and creative thinking…More than ever, humor has become an indispensable business skill. Used appropriately, humor helps people work better, think better, and get along better. And it sure as heck makes life a lot more worth living!”

That’s a sentiment that I love.

Doni Tambleyn is an internationally-published author, a professional speaker, trainer, comedian, singer, and former commercial actor who was also instrumental in introducing comedy to California’s traffic safety classes. Her book takes advantage of that rich background to provide training and learning ideas that are not only effective, but fun. She says the reasons to use humor are the following:

  • Is easy and everyone is good at it
  • Reduces stress and threat
  • Draws people together
  • Invokes relevancy and visual memory
  • Engages emotion
  • Allows brain to take regular “breathers” for meaning-making, heightened attention, and review
  • Is intrinsically motivating

I appreciated that this book starts off talking about about adult learning theory. Then, the book continues with 95 fun-based training games. You can get a sample of it on Google Books. If you have a need for this kind of thing, its a worthy add to your collection! There is also PDF from a presentation at ASTD here, which has a few games.


Many years ago, a clever fellow named Thiagi conducted a seminar for my work group. At the start, he asked, “what are your requirements for this training?” and he had us each write a requirement on a blank piece of standard copier paper. Then, we walked around the room and compared ideas with other people in pairs. Each time, we kept the best of the two ideas and tossed the other on the floor, until we had interactively sorted out a handful of the most preferred ideas.

Thiagi’s passion was creating fun, interactive games. He used a wooden railroad whistle to start and stop activities and gave us a business card printed on the back of a playing card. I think his tie also had playing cards on it. He was hilarious, a combination magician-professor.

Many organizational change situations call for a limited scale training to be conducted. For example, you may need to explain a new process, a new policy, or new skills for dealing with clients. Although it is tempting to create some Powerpoint slides and present them, the training can be enhanced by introducing simple, interactive games that enable the learners to interact with the content. Adults will learn better and in a more lasting way if they are engaged with the content through games.

These games don’t have to be super sophisticated–just enough to make the learning a little more fun. You can get Thiagi to help you and you can also avail yourself of the database of free ideas that he has on his website. I’ve used variations of many of them over the years with great success. Or you can buy his book.


From time to time, people ask me for a reading list or how to get education as an organizational change practitioner or consultant.

For an extended path, here are some starting points.



  • Managing at the Speed of Change (Daryl Conner)
  • Leading Change (John Kotter)
  • Transitions (William Bridges)
  • Reframing Organizations (Bolman and Deal)
  • Flawless Consulting (Peter Block)
  • The Fifth Discipline (Peter Senge)
  • Diffusion of Innovations (Everett Rogers) [A Must Read]

Organizational Change

  • The Seven C’s of Consulting (Mick Cope)
  • The Dance of Change (Senge)
  • Getting Your Organization to Change (Dennis Jaffe & Cynthia Scott)
  • Leading Corporate Transformation (Robert Miles)
  • Viral Change (Leandro Herrero)

How People Change

  • Changing minds (Howard Gardner)
  • Real-time Strategic Change (Robert Jacobs)
  • Influence (Robert Cialdini)
  • Influencers (Kerry Patterson, et al.)
  • Covert Processes in Organizations (Robert Marsh)


  • National Training Laboratories, one of the oldest and most venerable institutions in the organizational development world.
  • ProSci – I haven’t tried it but a number of people in the Cisco change community like it.

Graduate Education

And if you want to take it beyond training yourself, you can get an MA or PhD here:
Saybrook University, Organizational Systems program

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