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.


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.


The problem with getting people to change might be that we don’t make it fun enough. Check out this video below, where some people wanted to get more people using the stairs rather than the escalator.


This was part of a contest called “The Fun Theory.”

Here are the winners.

And here is a list of all the other entries.


Organizational change initiatives need active change leadership. While they also need strong engagement from all levels of the organization, several studies have indicated that absence of vigorous change leadership, often called sponsorship, is one of the prime causes of the failure of change initiatives.

Often, the problem is that while there is named sponsor, the named individual is quite busy and relies on staff to do the work of putting the organizational change into practice. But lack of involvement by the sponsor seriously weakens the influence of the change initiative, because employees need to see active management support and commitment for the change to believe the change going to remain in place. Otherwise, they will assume that the commitments and reaction that they are used to are still in place.

So, being a strong change leader is more than being a name in a box. It involves the skillful application of leadership skills, some of which are summarized below.

1. Create a simple, compelling vision. Frame the change in terms of results for the organization as a whole as well as the effect on the individual.

2. Reinforce the need for change. Take steps to help people understand what is required and why. Clearly and consistently remind people that transformation is required in order to gain a competitive advantage.

3. Challenge others to get on board with the change. Interact with individuals and groups in the organization to explain the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the change.

4. Utilize every opportunity to interact with others. Encourage challenges and answer questions.

5. Confront colleagues when they are not supporting the change. Keep colleagues honest by connecting back to group decisions

6. Face up to people’s expressions of negativity. Allow people to express concerns and to discuss them. Avoid stamping out issues. Instead, “exhaust them out”  by listening and discussing.

7. Mediate strong conflict among key people in the organizations.

8. Allow people at lower levels in the organization freedom to discover their own way to align with the new direction. Foster and create an atmosphere that enables people to test the new change, generate recommendations, experiment with new ways of operating, and exhibit some dysfunctional behavior while the change is taking root in the culture.

9. Create and sustain energy for transformation—keep the focus on the change and make sure sufficient resources are available. Change consultant Robert Miles says, “resistance to change builds in direct proportion to the perceived lack of resources.”

10. Take a total system perspective. Organizations are complex systems where transformational change requires changing many interrelated parts at once.

11. Use a systematic implementation process. Ad hoc processes like brainstorming recommendations and assigning people do execute the recommendations rarely result in transformational change. Robust change methodologies that are grounded on solid principles of organizational behavior often seem counterintuitive or overly difficult, but they mediate the strong emotions and seemingly commonsense objections that actually subvert the change.

12. Display a constant dedication to making change a reality. Focus on results, success, analyzing failure to determine why it occurred, and constantly encouraging others to try again.


Surveys, interviews, and questionnaires are important tools for gathering feedback from stakeholders during organizational change. An organizational change plan always involves some form of stakeholder analysis or research, so asking good questions is critical. As a result, I get asked for a lot of advice on designing surveys, so I thought would list some of the things that I normally say. This applies broadly to surveys, interviews, and questionnaires, and I will use survey to refer to all of them.

1. Treat the survey as a design project, not just a listing of desired questions.

Designing and Using Organizational Surveys

Ninety-percent of survey design efforts begin with an individual or a team brainstorming a list of questions to ask. A better approach is to hold off on the questionnaire portion and to first create a design document that covers the following:

  • What is the overall purpose or guiding question of this survey? Identify the overall question or questions that you want to know because they provide a purpose and a gauge to determine if the specific questions are valuable.
  • How many people will be surveyed? Is it a sample or the total population? What is the expected response rate? It is often difficult to get a response from the overall population, so survey designers want to use the results from a sample to represent the whole population. However, care must be taken when drawing such conclusions. For small populations, such as 300 or 400 people, a high percentage of the target population must respond to make the results significantly meaningful. Be particularly careful when subdividing results by demographics. Sometimes the overall sample size is sufficient but the size of the subgroups is not. For example, an employee satisfaction survey for the whole company might get a 40-percent response rate, but in one location only 10 percent of the staff might have responded. Interpreting the responses in that location as representative of others at the location is not statistically valid. There are a number of sample size calculators on the web that can be used to determine the appropriate sample size.
  • How will the survey be administered? For example, do you plan to use an email template, web-based survey tool, or interview? Each method introduces special considerations.
    • Live interviews enable the questioner to provide clarifications for the respondent or to ask follow up questions. However, live interviews are time consuming and require skilled interviewers to get accurate responses. Complex dynamics also come in to play between the interviewer and interviewee, where the interviewer can subconsciously bias the results, especially when the interviewee does not feel safe to respond openly.
    • Emailed templates provide little anonymity and often require tedious compilation of the responses.
    • Survey tools, such as surveymonkey, can provide anonymity, relatively easy response compilation, and the ability to scale the survey to many respondents.
  • See Designing and Using Organizational Surveys: A Seven-Step Process (Jossey Bass Business and Management Series)

2. Set the context setting the respondent.

The questions should be prefaced with an introduction and context. Sometimes, it is even advisable to contact them ahead of time and get their agreement to complete the survey. Even when the group is selected at random, there should be an introductory message that includes such items as the following:

  • What will be done with the survey results?
  • Will confidentiality will be protected?
  • How the survey results will be used?
  • Will respondents receive a copy of the final results or report?

You may also wish to offer an incentive for completing the survey, or a note from a senior manager urging them to take the survey.

3. Review your questions.

Asking Questions

Once you have determined the overall research questions or purposes for the survey, you develop specific questions designed to gather data. The problem is surveys are notorious for providing ambiguous results. The questions get answered, but the responses mean different things. Bradburn, Sudman, and Wansink wrote a book called Asking Questions: The Definitive Guide to Questionnaire Design — For Market Research, Political Polls, and Social and Health Questionnaires that covers these issues thoroughly.

Additionally, here are some key points to look for,

  • Asking two questions at once. For example, “Do you get all the direction you need to do your job from your manager on a timely basis?” This question could be interpreted as being either about the sufficiency of the direction or the timeliness of it.
  • Questions with list items. Avoid questions like, “Are newspapers like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post interesting to read?” The respondent might find The Wall Street Journal interesting and The Post not interesting, making the answer problematic.
  • Questions with no answer. When respondents can select from a list, make sure the possible selections cover everyone. For example, when using the question “Which department are you located in?” the list could include Engineering, Marketing, Manufacturing, and Information Technology. But if the survey happens to hit a few people who work in Finance, what will they answer? Make sure there is an “Other” or “Not Applicable” selection for those cases. This type of question can be tricky, because the frequent renaming and reorganizing in large companies results in many employees who are unsure what their department name is at a higher level. Lists should always be tested to ensure the categories are sufficient and understandable to the respondents (see below).
  • Novelty questions. When teams brainstorm questions, questions are often generated that are fun to know but have no real purpose. Check to ensure all the questions produce useful data. One way to check is to create a mock up of the intended report and see how the imagined results fit into it.
Psychology of Survey Response

Psychology of Survey Response

Another informative book on how people respond to survey questions is The Psychology of Survey Response. Tourangeau, Rips, and Rasinski discuss the biases and subconscious reactions people have when answering questions. They also discuss the ways that faulty memory plays into how questions are answered and how questions should be constructed to get the most reliable results.

4. Good surveys are the result of a good survey design processes.

One of the most commonly overlooked steps in designing a good survey is testing the instrument (questions). As suggested in item #3, respondents can interpret seemingly simple questions in different ways, leading to poor results. Moreover, it is very difficult, due to biases and assumptions we all make, for a single person or small team to come up with a robust set of questions that will get reliable answers from the target group. To mitigate this, testing is essential.

Here is a recommended test procedure:

  1. Choose five or ten people to do a cognitive walk-through of the survey. This is done live, even if you are using an electronic method to administer the ultimate survey. Read each question to the test respondent and ask them to describe their thought process as they answer the question. What came to mind? What did they recall? What words in the question did they struggle to understand? What other interpretations did they think of? You will probably find this highly enlightening. See Cognitive Interviewing: A Tool for Improving Questionnaire Design for a comprehensive discussion of the test process.
  2. Once the question set is stable, send it to a test group exactly as planned for the actual survey. Then follow up with members of the group after the survey is complete to get their reactions. Did they receive the survey smoothly? Could they access it? Were the instructions self-explanatory?
  3. Finally, take the results from the test group and compile them into the sample report. See if all the responses were useful and how difficult it was to compile them. Make adjustments to the survey.

The procedure above is just an example. Depending on the size and scope of the survey, the test process should be adjusted to include more or less test participants and, perhaps, even other iterations.

5. Organizational change surveys are usually not science.

Survey design is a deep and complex topic, and survey designers should really have taken classes and read some books on it before trying to design and conduct a survey. With surveys, it is easy to get answers but difficult to get accurate answers.

That said, organizations use many kinds of internal and external surveys. Some are used for casual inquires with small groups while others involve a hundred questions sent to thousands of customers. However, most surveys used for organizational change planning are not for advancing science. Thus, the way they are used and the rigor required is a little different.

Organizational change surveys are not standalone. They are just one more viewpoint, used in conjunction with ongoing stakeholder engagements, follow-up interviews, process consultation, and other methods are used to get a picture of where stakeholders stand with respect to the planned changes. Often the best use of surveys is to provide a sort of “heat map,” or a rough indicator to where further inquiry is needed. That is, having obtained an indication of where stakeholders stand, further investigation such as interviews or focus groups can be designed to more fully understand the responses.

This post has offered a few suggestions to help you design a better survey and be more effective at organizational change. Gathering feedback using questionnaires and surveys is used at many points in an organizational change plan, from stakeholder analysis through readiness assessment and evaluating success indicators. Developing the skill to design a survey well, and to ask questions effectively, is thus essential to an effective change process, because success will usually not happen otherwise.


Frequently, the intention to change and organizational inertia clash so that nothing ends up actually changing. Smart people spend a lot of time coming up with the change, but comparatively little time on the change plan, which so often involves only a launch email and an announcement that training is available. But the study of organizational change has taught us that an effective change plan must be carefully thought out and embody an understanding of organizational psychology. So this post will give you a sort of checklist for bullet-proofing your change plan.

Communicate Repeatedly and Creatively

Marketing and branding experts advise that between 6 to 30 contacts with a piece of information are required before the content sinks in. The exact number is debatable and also the reach and quality of the message are important, but the key is that the average employee is deluged by emails and other demands of varying urgency, so any single message is likely to be quickly filtered out and forgotten. Think about putting some of the following elements in your organizational change plan.

  • Frequently communicate the desired change and the reasons for the change over prolonged period of time (for example, 3–6 months). Advertisers don’t run a commercial just once. Even when you are sick of the message, many people will still not have heard it. People need time to process the message—even more so if it is a message that they don’t want to hear.
  • Use different methods (eg., voice, email, staff meetings, videos, etc.). Some people are more responsive to text than audio and vice versa.
  • Be creative in devising ways to catch their attention. People program themselves to filter out the messages that don’t seem to fit what they are expecting. Communicating the way they expect might actually trigger a programmed response to filter out the message.
  • Reinforce the reasons why the change is important, how employees are supposed to act in the new model, and the organization’s commitment to the change.
  • Have communications come from trusted people.
  • Ensure that, to the extent reasonable, change messages communicate clarity on what is expected (to reduce anxiety) and a sense of fairness. Studies have shown that these two elements have the most effect in reducing resistance to change.
  • Engage sponsors in communicating the change and their commitment to the change—through emails, appearances at staff meetings, and 1/1s with managers.

Create Community

One of the most powerful influences on behavior is the community, or the group of people with whom we interact. Through interaction with our associates, we shape the meaning of the change and what to expect from each other. We create a culture of shared meanings and values.

Culture emerges from the interactions of the community: it cannot be mandated. Information that is presented in powerpoint file or on a website is inherently incomplete and must be translated working knowledge in the manager’s and employee’s minds. Studies in adult learning have shown that presentations and reading alone have limited effect—for learning to occur, people must interact with the material. Change planning should include methods for facilitating the learning.

Numerous previous efforts have shown that embedding the change in the culture requires the community to interact with each other to learn the material and develop specific knowledge about how it will be applied. However, natural human tendencies and outmoded beliefs often discourage such interactions. We are used to interacting a certain way, which we often believe is the best way, and it is difficult to start new ways of interacting. So, in the beginning of an organizational change management effort, it is important to facilitate the opportunities for people to interact together with the content, to translate the explicit procedure into tacit knowledge of how to work together and what to expect from each other. Some ways to include this aspect in your change plan include the following:

  • Create forums for sharing best practices. Hold joint sessions with managers and analysts to discuss expectations, answer questions, and talk through concerns.
  • Enable people to be heard and to ask questions to clarify their understanding.
  • Hold periodic sessions to reflect on what is working well and what could be improved about how career discussions and career planning are conducted.
  • Have managers of managers emphasize the importance of career planning and make sure to allow their managers time for the development discussions.
  • Hold brown bags—perhaps invite experts in to talk, or bring in people who have done it before to share their experiences.
  • Identify ambassadors or change champions who keep the conversation going by initiating discussions, keeping up to date on the best approaches, and generally evangelizing the change.

Celebrate Wins, Big and Small

People tend to do more of what is most recognized and rewarded. Within any organization, there is always an existing set of both overt and covert incentives that support the current state. To shift the culture to one where career development is the norm will require shifting both formal and informal incentives.

Some ideas to include in your change plan are

  • Recognize first movers with incentives.
  • Have a group lunch or afternoon party.
  • Share success stories of people who have used the new change
  • Have executives send voicemail thanks to the first adopters.

1001 ways to reward employeesThe possibilities are endless for appreciating people who adopt the new process. These don’t have to be financial—the opportunity for creativity is huge. Consider such things as thank you cards, tickers with names, and small gifts. The incentive doesn’t have to be big: often the symbolism is the most powerful part of a communication. For example, if an executive makes a personal phone call, it conveys that the organization has a high degree of support for the change. The book 1001 Ways to Reward Employees gives many ideas.

Cultivate Feedback

Knowing exactly how a change initiative will unfold is impossible. So, it is critical to gather feedback and adjust as you go. This should be in the following forms:

  • Stakeholder perceptions: Create regular opportunities for both analysts and managers to provide candid feedback. This could be through forums and brown bags, mentioned above, as well as selective surveys and interviews.
  • Success indicators: It is critical to know if the change is being adopted. Find meaningul things to track that indicate success.

Maintain an environment for open and honest feedback. Although there is a limit to how much venting is useful, discouraging the expression of negative perceptions pushes the reaction into more covert forms. It is far better to surface discontent and misperception and deal with it rationally and fairly than to let it simmer beneath the surface. The urge to discourage open feedback is often fear of losing control on the change initiator’s side rather than an effective change technique.

Coordinate Training

A change plan often includes a training component. Besides the common areas of training on new tools or processes, consider training key sponsors and managers to carry the change effort forward. A lot of time can be saved by preparing managers with the skills they need to be successful. Do managers have the skills to execute the change? For example, if you are introducing a new career development process, are managers prepared to have development discussions with their staff? If not, encourage them to take appropriate courses or find a mentor.

Final Thoughts

Although these ideas may seem like a lot of work, incorporating at least some of them into your change plan will shorten the overall time for organizational change to take place and improve the chances of your change plan being successful.


“Philosophy” is word you don’t hear all that often in the business world. So, a few days ago, when I was asked to consult a project team that wanted to improve the client’s experience of the IT department, I was intrigued when the project manager said, “We want to create a philosophy of paying attention to what the client wants.”

Few people would dispute that paying attention to the client is a good thing. The problem is how we get there. By philosophy, it is probably safe to say that the project manager in this example was talking about the values, beliefs, and assumptions of IT employees. He was using the word “philosophy” to discuss what is often called “organizational culture.” But we cannot really change a person’s values and beliefs. More importantly, planning change activities as though we can leads to ineffective approaches.

Only an individual can change his or her beliefs, values, and assumptions. Although some core beliefs and values may remain fairly stable, others shift as we experience life. The beliefs that we have are based on a lifetime of experience lived in certain societies, with certain occupations, friends, encounters with managers, and so on.

When we think of beliefs as something that can be altered through a change initiative, the resulting plan is heavy on communications and training. We assume that telling a person to believe differently, especially when that telling is done by upper management, will cause it to be so. But when we understand beliefs as a product of temporal sociocultural experience, our understanding leads to different ideas about change. We start thinking in terms of how to create experiences for others that will lead them to different learning and different decisions about beliefs and values. We do not know exactly what they will change their beliefs and values to, but we can provide the conditions for change and have confidence that the change will be along certain lines.

managing change through conversation

Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block

I’ve always liked Peter Block’s statement, “To change the organization, change the conversation.” Creating organizational change is largely about organizing the right conversations between the right people—that’s how relationships and ways of working together are altered. Deepening that notion, I was at a dinner with Peter at a friend’s house the other night, and I got a new insight into what Peter really means.

Peter was careful to distinguish that his change approach applies when “you want tomorrow to be distinctly different than today.” In other words, it is not the approach for when you think things are going well and just want to improve them. Rather, Peter’s advice is directed toward radical change.

His approach focuses on changing the conditions of the conversation. In particular, he stresses the importance of the arrangement of the physical space and of organizing people in small groups that will encourage more intimate connections than are typically created in standard business practice.

Small group collaboration
One my insights from the evening was that, although Peter often expresses a general disdain for training, performance reviews, and 360-degree feedback, he’s not suggesting that we convince others to drop those methods. Instead, where possible, he says we should architect small, intimate gatherings that will enable people to relate to each other more authentically. From these, innovation and new insights will emerge.

Peter has for some time also offered Six Conversations that can be used to develop the right conditions for authentic conversation. These conversations, detailed in a pdf on his website, are

  • Invitation. What is the invitation we can make for people to participate in and own the relationships, tasks, and process that lead to transformation?
  • Possibility. This conversation creates a framework for focusing on the future, not the past. It is about postponing problem solving until the the interests of the group are “spoken with resonance and passion.”
  • Ownership. We must see ourselves as the cause of the present situation and “believe in the possibility that this organization, neighborhood, community, is mine or ours to create.”
  • Dissent. We must also respect diversity and differences of opinion. Peter says that “‘No’ is the beginning of the conversation for commitment.” Until we can express our true beliefs and perspectives, we are not ready to form real commitments. He says, “The leadership task is to surface doubts and dissent without having an answer to every question.”
  • Commitment. Once the conditions are right, we can discuss “What promise am I willing to make?”
  • Gifts. And finally, Peter calls for a focus on the gifts that each person brings. “The leadership task is to bring the gifts of those on the margin into the center.”

I’ve met with Peter several times, and I’m always struck by the similarities between his view and that of my mentor and dissertation chair, the late Dr. Bela Banathy. Dr. Banathy was also strong advocate for creating dialogue groups and transcending the current system by focusing on an ideal future state. Like Peter Block, Dr. Banathy believed that focusing on the current problems only led to more of the same.

There are strong parallels between the notions of participatory systems design and the conditions for forming community that Peter Block discusses. In each, we seek to unleash the “expert” that is in each of us and bring it together to form a new and mutually inspiring vision of the future. Once the community is formed, and only then, it has the potential for engaging in a design conversation that works out how we will organize our human systems for a better future.


If you are are interested in organizational and societal change, you are probably also interested in the dynamics of epidemics. And chances are good that you have read Malcolm Gladwell’s widely popular book, The Tipping Point, which postulated three rules that determine the rise of an epidemic.

After publication in 2000, The Tipping Point was its own minor epidemic, quickly becoming an international best seller. As a result, Gladwell’s three rules compelled many marketeers and organizational development practitioners to take new approaches toward influencing people to buy products and to adopt organizational changes. However, over the last few years, there have been some studies that cast doubt on certain elements of Mr. Gladwell’s theory, and I am going to review some of them below.

The Law of the Few

Gladwell’ first rule was “The Law of the Few,” which holds that there are unique individuals in society who are extremely good at linking people to each other and to information. Of these indviduals, there are three types, as follows:

Connectors, who are people that just seem to know everyone and who keep in contact with many people. Connectors enjoy understanding how people are related to each other and in providing value by introducing people who can help each other.

Building on the the six-degrees of separation notion, Gladwell envisioned that a few of us communicate with each other until the communication hits one of these “super nodes” in the network that then broadcast the message to many others.

Mavens are people who accumulate knowledge and know how to share it.

Salesmen are the persuaders. These are charismatic people who most people want to be like and agree with. They presumably have greater influence than the average person, and it is the belief in this type of connector that causes advertisers to seek out celebrities as spokespeople.

Gladwell’s theory suggests that connectors, mavens, and salesman are particular individuals who use their unique skill to trigger the epidemic. Clive Davis in the February 2008 issue of Fast Company says,

In modern marketing, this idea—that a tiny cadre of connected people triggers trends—is enormously seductive. It is the very premise of viral and word-of-mouth campaigns: Reach those rare, all-powerful folks, and you’ll reach everyone else through them, basically for free. Loosely, this is referred to as the Influentials theory, and while it has been a marketing touchstone for 50 years, it has recently reentered the mainstream imagination via thousands of marketing studies and a host of best-selling books. In addition to The Tipping Point, there was The Influentials, by marketing gurus Ed Keller and Jon Berry, as well as the gospel according to PR firms such as Burson-Marsteller, which claims “E-Fluentials” can “make or break a brand.”

However, in contrast to the mainstream view, Davis discusses his interview with Duncan Watts, a network theory scientist. According to Watts, epidemics aren’t necessarily started by a handful of highly influential or connected people Rather, Watts’s studies and computer models suggest that epidemics are more likely to be started by a random person than a handful of super nodes.

[Watts] found that highly connected people are not, in fact, crucial social hubs. He has written computer models of rumor spreading and found that your average slob is just as likely as a well-connected person to start a huge new trend. And last year, Watts demonstrated that even the breakout success of a hot new pop band might be nearly random. Any attempt to engineer success through Influentials, he argues, is almost certainly doomed to failure.

The implications of this are somewhat exasperating for those looking for the new and innovative methods of speeding up product adoption curves. According to Watts, who has tested his ideas with some success, the best way to start an epidemic is still with traditional mass media blasts. Davis says, “The ultimate irony of Watts’s research is that, if you really buy it, the most effective way to pitch your idea is … mass marketing. And that is precisely what the wizards of Madison Avenue, presiding over our zillion-channel microniche market, have rejected as obsolete.”

The Stickiness Factor

Gladwell’s second rule was “The Stickiness Factor.” This rule stated that messages that “stick” tend to get transmitted more quickly and more thoroughly through the network. Examples of sticky messages include popular jingles, catch phrases, trendy clothes, and viral videos. Usually, these messages must be simple, easy to remember, easy to communicate, and interesting.

The Stickiness Factor is similar to work done in memetics , which seeks to understand why certain elements of cultural meaning (memes) tend to be transmitted and others do not. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in The Evolving Self the persistence of memes depends (a) mostly on their simplicity in terms of low psychic energy to remember and replicate, (b) occasionally on their logic or internal consistency, and (c) occasionally on their utility.

The Power of Context

The third rule from The Tipping Point was “The Power of Context.” Gladwell explained, “Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.” Citing Kelling and Wilson’s “broken windows” theory of crime prevention, Gladwell recounted the lore around a dramatic drop New York crime that was allegedly precipitated by a vigorous campaign to clean up graffiti on the subway. Based on that example and others, he asserted that “an epidemic can be reversed, can be tripped, by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment.”

Although quite a lot of attention was paid to the “broken windows” theory over the years, much of the attention became critical as it was discovered that crime also fell in  other cities across the United States at the same time, including those that did not practice the broken windows theory. There are several other compelling explanations for the drop in crime rate during that time period. One of the most powerful has been Steven Levitt’s claim, in his book Freakonomics, that the decrease in crime was probably best attributed to legalized abortion.

That is not to say that context doesn’t matter. But its impact may be more of providing a nurturing soil for the change rather than stimulating it. According to Davis,

Watts believes this is because a trend’s success depends not on the person who starts it, but on how susceptible the society is overall to the trend–not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded. And in fact, when Watts tweaked his model to increase everyone’s odds of being infected, the number of trends skyrocketed.

“If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one–and if it isn’t, then almost no one can,” Watts concludes. To succeed with a new product, it’s less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public mood. Sure, there’ll always be a first mover in a trend. But since she generally stumbles into that role by chance, she is, in Watts’s terminology, an “accidental Influential.”

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