Is change constant or does nothing change? Such is the paradox within the ‘bad press’ that emerges around many transformational change initiatives. A chief accusation levelled at large scale corporate change programmes is that, despite levels of disruption and spend that can sometimes completely sink an organisation, a disproportionately high number of initiatives fail to demonstrate any of the economic or cultural improvements promised. If you’ve tried to lead change with enthusiasm but experienced in return only low engagement, motivation and even resistance; or if you and your colleagues have felt subjected to a change programme where you’ve lost your sense of direction and purpose and developed a kind of siege mentality that stalls your career and perhaps the change effort itself, it would clearly be hard to argue against this pessimistic take.

But this kind of perspective really does a great disservice to the process of change, since a change state can also offer abundant new opportunities to develop and thrive. Change, at its most optimistic and enlightened is a fundamental part of our individual and collective evolution – adapting to and embracing new circumstances in a world that would otherwise always stay the same or even stagnate. So my challenge to any business, leader or team stuck in a negative perception about change, would be to pause and examine whether your change began with the structure and ingredients it needed to succeed? And it’s from this perspective that this month’s blog considers the concept of viral change and how it promises corporate leaders and their people considering a large scale change greater success, more of the time.

The problem with traditional large scale behaviour change

Viral Change is an approach to organisational transformation built upon building stronger social ties, where people observe and duplicate the positive actions of those they trust. It’s first principle is that there is no change without behavioural change and it therefore explicitly prioritises ‘behaviours’ at the heart of its design and processes, unlike traditional hierarchical models of organisational change. Changing behaviour is not a revolutionary or counterintuitive concept because it is entirely common in a corporate (or any) workspace, to be expected occasionally to have to do something differently (better) in order to achieve a different (better) outcome; plus even the most poorly conceived or executed transformation effort is at least built around a wish list of desirable behaviours that promise to enhance attitudes, communication, relationships and trust in order to unlock future success.

The problem arises as much in design as in intention and execution. The structure and methodology of many traditional change programmes assumes that new behaviours will automatically follow a linear and ‘top down’ process of strategic planning, then system and process implementation. This is not without evolutionary logic in many cultures, where the power dynamics of our management hierarchies and associated relationships can default to mirroring the way many of us spent our formative years, being raised to comply to the instructions of authority figures, be they parents, teachers or other caregivers. But when our instincts compel us to comply, for fear of the risk of consequences, or to expect others to ‘do as they are told’, these are challenging, often subconscious, preconditions from which to tackle some of the nuance of what we mean by ‘positive and negative behaviours’ in the workplace and how to adapt and replace them. Without some practical understanding of why people behave the way they do and a clear and proactive idea of how you transition sustainably towards the ‘success’ behaviours you seek, you may not recognise why people are not motivated to help, and why your change effort risks going nowhere.

Viral Change – what is it and how is it different

A concept introduced by Dr Leandro Herrero, the viral change approach believes that ‘system change’, per se, does not produce widespread or sustainable new behaviours (for example, introducing an organogram outlining new departments and reporting lines). Without considering existing relationship behaviours and the way they influence how new ideas and attitudes travel around the organisation, it can become a constant enforcement battle, grappling to get people to buy into what they may see as a ‘fait accompli’.

A behaviourally-led viral change approach prioritises what behaviours are needed to sustain the change (and how best to embed them) before any planning, process and systems mapping and implementation work has begun. An early strategic focus on a simple set of non-negotiable behaviours (that are going to be key to the life of the organisation you want to become), will set the stage for how you articulate those behaviours across the business. A viral change approach then articulates this strategic course by emphasising the impact of storytelling, influence, social networks, and distributed leadership.

The tools of viral change

Storytelling is a longstanding and uniquely human way of transmitting knowledge and creating emotional connection, shared identity and social cohesion. In an organisational change context, the enduring influence of storytelling is perhaps best expressed in a distilled form, through the culture of the corporate vision and mission statement. When done well, a vision and mission statement help to simplify complexity and anchor people to a shared idea. However, they lack that ‘every day’, incremental storytelling around small successes and overcoming challenges that is the kind of feedback that stimulates and reinforces self-belief and a ‘can do’ spirit. Viral change encourages a way of doing things that enables a style and culture of meaningful, active storytelling that paints a picture that enlightens people about what the change is and why its benefits are worth their individual and collective effort.

It achieves this broad culture of storytelling by discarding our ingrained belief that influence can only be ‘top down’ and taking a non-linear approach that looks for colleagues across the organisation who, irrespective of their role or position in the hierarchy, are the sorts of people who other colleagues naturally gravitate towards and get along with, as these are the people who get asked questions such as: ‘What do you honestly think about the new system?’ and: ‘Do you actually agree with this?’. This style of peer-to-peer influence has many advantages, not least because this type of questioning can establish authentic feedback and potential warning signs much earlier in the change process; but also because peer influencers tend to be chosen because they are well connected and trusted (either through their role or personality). They are well-positioned to role-model new behaviours and see those behaviours adopted within their ‘circles of influence’, because their credibility and legitimacy mitigates the sense of personal risk that prevents people copying and imitating new behaviours.

Ideally, these circles of influence strengthen people’s grasp of complex change; their emotional connection to that change and each other; and their sense of purpose within robust, “fishing net” shaped informal social networks. Such networks fuel and reinforce positive change through the informality of authentic relationships, transparent feedback and opportunities to experiment, rather than via the more traditional ‘diktat’ of a linear hierarchy. Successful transformation is best expressed when informal social networks also become entrusted with appropriate levels of decision-making and develop into a supportive and reinforcing form of distributed leadership, diffusing a greater sense of ownership, engagement and accountability towards the adopted change across all levels and all staff in the organisation.

Tips to begin your viral change journey

  • Get your change strategy to a point where you can tell a good story about it – one that paints a picture and enlightens key influencers about what it is, its benefits and the set of non-negotiable behaviours needed to demonstrate that change.
  • Map your informal social networks as well as your formal structures, so you have a clear understanding of both who is going to be most affected and who is most socially connected around and within that group, so you can get them in a room and start talking through the changes and required behaviours (for example, open communication, proactive collaboration, adaptability, resilience and positive attitude).
  • Consider cohort-based leadership development, a process that mirrors viral change by bringing people together in smaller learning groups that reduce conflict, build trust and create stronger and more meaningful social ties around a pressing organisational issue.
  • Introduce formal process and systems mapping and implementation after establishing your peer-to-peer influence network, to maximise the chances change positive knowledge and behaviours have already begun to seed.
  • Keep it simple. At any one point we are all being asked to change in a dozen different directions at the same time. People get confused. Complexity reduces chances of straightforward adoption.

Conversations cost nothing and it’s always good to hear from people – contact me to find out more and book an initial 30-minute call.

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