The prevailing frame of reference for change programmes continues to be a linear, programmatic version of change that has its roots in the process and technology re-engineering of large consulting firms. John Kotter’s Change Model is one that I learned as a change leadership consultant at Deloitte in the 1990s. At the time, aspects of the model were a welcome addition to the engineer the process and the people stuff will sort itself out approach that was standard in my early consulting days. Kotter’s model incorporated purpose (urgency and vision), leadership (powerful coalition and communication), engagement (empowering action) and embedding (build on the change and make it stick). It also brought the term quick wins into the business lexicon which seems to be one of its more lasting legacies.
However there has been, for at least a decade, growing frustration with Kotter and other available change models because of the massive failure of major programmes to deliver planned benefits. Many people are seeking alternatives. One such alternative is something called Viral Change developed by Leandro Herrero. I am grateful to Jeremy Keeley for introducing me to it. This approach comes out of the observation of social change. Herrero’s background as a psychotherapist led him to a more behavioural starting point.
The simplest principle at work in the idea of Viral Change is that of social imitation. We humans, great apes as we are, copy those who we perceive as influential in our tribe. Similarly, people follow opinion leaders and influencers within their organisation. Therefore, if you can get the influencers role modelling something new, the rest will follow. We have a prevailing metaphor of a cascade down a traditional organisation chart. This metaphor is replaced by the image of a network map. When well-connected nodes light up with a new behaviour, other lights start to twinkle. What is more, if you think of the behaviour you want to see change as a viral infection, you have an outcome to track; how many people have caught the bug? This beats the measuring of input activities on a gantt chart (who knows whether or not the inputs achieved anything?) as a method of assessing progress.
Of course, the approach has its challenges. Imagine turning up at a hierarchical organisation and telling them that first you want to find out who the real leaders are! Imagine that you might only invest your change programme budget on the group of leaders with the highest engagement scores or who shine brightly as nodes on a network map of e-mail traffic? It’s a culturally brave move. Commercially though it has an upside. It’s cheaper, quicker and stealthier than the project office-heavy change programmes that have a low track record of success. Worth a pilot at least?