Wednesday, 16 September 2009

New Viral Change short summary

Many people has asked for a short(er) text to summarise the Viral Change philosophy. Here is one:

Viral Change™

Decades of mechanistic ‘change management programmes’ in organisations, based upon the sequential following of ‘step’s and ‘initiatives’ have not accrued much success. The rate of failures or ‘below expectations’ results is high across industries. There are many reasons that explain this but the conventional assumption that it is mainly due to lack of strategy doesn’t hold water. Besides the standard logic of the need for leadership, three factors are key for the success of change in organisations

One is that change is behavioural based. There is effectively no change unless it is a change in behaviours. Process and system change, or structural change, are usually the easy part. The key is to ensure that people, from top to bottom, do things in a different way.

The second factor is the choice of influence mechanisms. Whilst top management hold the hierarchical power, this does nor necessarily correlates with degree of influence in making changes for the ‘new ways of doing’. Peer to peer influence is far more powerful and sustainable.

The third factor is conceptual. The real organisation is not the ‘plumbing system’ represented by the organisation chart but a series of overlapping collaborative spaces, networks of individual and group connections, some of them visible, most of them invisible to the management activity. In this network of connections, a relatively small number of individuals hold a disproportionate high number of connections, and therefore influence potential, whilst the majority of individuals have few connections.

However, many traditional change management processes are neither behavioural based nor using peer to peer influence enough, if at all. They also are biased towards the top-down hierarchical organisation where the only clusters of connections that count are the visible ‘collaboration by design’ of teams and committees. The flattening of the organisation or the abandoning of the command and control language is not guarantee of true shift in the mental model.

Viral Change™ is the only alternative to the traditional, mechanistic, process driven, top down change management. It delivers sustainable change faster; it is a far less painful process and is by far more cost-effective.

In the traditional models of ‘change management’, a set of initiatives (usually many of them) are cascaded down form the top of the organisation and communicated to all employees via massive communication programmes. All layers of management are involved and the higher ranks ‘communicate’ and ‘present’ to lower ones in an orchestrated communication cascade. Workshops take place, actions are decided and implementations are expected following what amounts to an often colossal effort of rational appeal: ‘B is better that A, we should go B, this is how’. It all makes sense in the context of an organisation understood, consciously or unconsciously, as a top-down designed system with visible ‘communication pipes’ and ‘recipients’ of the information. Unfortunately, change that has this model embedded doesn’t work well at all.

In Viral Change™, a small set of behaviours is spread by a relatively small number of individuals (those with higher connectivity) via their own networks of influence in the same way as a virus spread or ideas are adopted in the form of fashions or new social norms. Those non-negotiable behaviours are ‘uncovered’ case by case as the ones which will be needed to support the desired changes: cultural change, effectiveness goals, redesign of working processes etc. In Viral Change™ mode, that small percentage of influencing individuals is the true engine of change. They do not correlate with positions of management and usually you find them across all layers and ‘job descriptions’ within the organisation.

Whilst the spread of factual information (‘These are the 5 goals of the strategic plan’) sits well in formal communication channels, the spread of behaviours doesn’t happen via stacks of Powerpoints. Behaviours are imitated, consciously or unconsciously. Once the initial spread and imitation has taken place via the small community of people with high degree of connectivity and influence, other people follow and adopt, suddenly creating organisational tipping points when ‘the new way becomes the norm’. Social fashions follow the same mechanism – there is no top level command an control that dictates them. In Viral Change™, the terminology of ‘let’s make a,b,c within the company fashionable’ is used normally. Viral Change™ is truly about creating ‘an internal epidemic of X’, ‘a (social) infection’.

An additional factor that contributes to the highly effective and successful Viral Change™ is the use of stories. Stories travel extraordinarily well within the organisation, carrying ‘behavioural models’ in them. Stories are the real currency of Viral Change™.

The viral spread of new behaviours that create the new ways of working, a new culture or a radical improvement in productivity, for example, is magnified if the process is relatively silent. Viral Change™ is not another form of programme but a system of engineered informality where the focus of attention and energy is on the peer-to-peer spread and infection.

Viral Change™ inevitably challenges traditional assumptions such as the role of management and leadership, which for Viral Change™ to work requires a greater form of ‘back-stage’ in the form of support and facilitation of the work of the ‘highly connected’. These individuals are usually called ‘change champions’ – however the existence of the ‘change champions’ terminology in a given organisation doesn’t make it per se a Viral Change™ way of life.

Viral Change™ has been pioneered by The Chalfont Project, an organisational consulting group led by Dr Leandro Herrero, author of the book of the same title, now in its second edition[1] .Additional insights can be found in and

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