How ‘Viral Change’ can bring you closer to the transformation you are seeking

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  Margaret Mead, Anthropologist

You, your CEO and your HR Director need to become experts in infectious diseases. Believe it or not – it will make implementing change in your organisations much, much easier.

The concept of viral change was pioneered by Dr Leandro Herrero1, a psychiatrist who applies his medical and academic background to solving leadership and change challenges in organisations around the world. His concept has now been transformed into the Viral Change™ platform. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I want to share my take on the concept and some practical considerations for isolating the vehicles for viral change.

The conventional approach to change assumes that the system is linear: that large change requires large-scale efforts. This requires extensive forward planning, and that resistance to change must be anticipated and overcome with persistence, determination and skill. I think many people intrinsically know it is more complicated than that and requires something else. Viral change adopts a fundamentally different point of view: that change is non-linear. It is a view where the successful management of change is not about preaching about the need for change, how important it is or the consequences of not changing; nor is it about massive communication and training programmes.

It is about a small set of non-negotiable behaviours and the actions of a small number of people who produce revolutionary change via a type of butterfly effect.  My recent article ‘Change is inevitable – progress is not included a few examples of this and highlighted the need to change the way we think, speak and act regarding a change to remove the suffering and ensure changes result in progress.

Viral change is essentially about contagious behaviours that spread, perhaps slowly at the beginning, but then suddenly reaching a tipping point where they become the norm. It involves something that all leaders can do: adopt small, concrete, key meaningful actions that can be seen, imitated and copied.

This concept is an antidote, and partner, for the tired, over-managed, predictable, command and control corporate change programmes so commonly prescribed. I must stress that it needs to run parallel to top-down change – one is certainly not a substitute for the other. The viral change will happen anyway – it’s a matter of understanding and utilising it to ensure the change is the one you want!

Who should be spreading the virus?

After identifying the behaviours you desire, you need to look for the people who are critical for viral change: the infection carriers, if you like. But who are they? Your senior leaders should certainly be considered. But you need to seek out the sorts of people that others gravitate towards, the people who seem to congregate around the coffee machine. They are the ones who are asked: “What do you really think about this?” They are well networked into the organisations ‘plumbing’, and this high degree of connectivity can facilitate the rapid spread of behaviours.

They possess authority, but not necessarily due to their organisational rank: people look for them for opinions and endorsement. They may have been there for many years, giving them an aura of hard-earned wisdom. They are early adopters who move things forward, question the status quo and stimulate ideas and conversation. These people sometimes irritate, but they don’t stay still and work to make things happen. Think of them as ‘reasonably unreasonable’ people.

There is a danger in choosing those who tow the company line, rather than the disruptors. Those who typically agree with all decisions and messages won’t be listened to. Those who will carry the virus best are those who people go to when people really want an opinion.

Working with ‘virus carriers’

Once you have identified these people, create a group of ‘change champions’ who will:

  • Declare themselves as early adopters of the change (in their own way)
  • Use personal and social mechanisms of influence available to them
  • Reinforce new behaviours
  • Spot ‘fault lines’ and help repair them if needed.

I believe business organisations are somewhat over-designed, with their organisational charts, reporting lines, divisions, functions, groups, teams and task forces. However, there are also the non-designed associations within an organisation (the smart mobs). My advice – leave well alone. Watch them, notice them – provide communication within your organisation but don’t interfere with them.

Tell your change champions what you expect of them, what challenges they face and how you are going to support them. Explain the approach will be unconventional and light-touch. Encourage them to set up their own wiki’s or blogs and social groups, and get them to call the meetings with you as needed. My greatest piece of advice is to encourage very long coffee breaks! The ‘open space’ methodology for interventions with large groups was born in the break room.

Please don’t (and I cannot emphasise enough) get them on stage to stand next to the CEO. This will kill it stone dead! They are not substituting the formal leadership but are acting in parallel. The mandate for their role comes from you and top leadership – it does not come from their own manager. You are not aiming to promote who these ‘change champions’ are; however, you aren’t going to hide them.

On some days, there may be some discomfort and apparent conflict between formal management and this informal group of change champions as they go about spreading change in their own way. Questions may be raised, such as: “What are they doing?”  Welcome this challenge, it is an opportunity to teach ‘ambiguity management’.

As a leader working in this world full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (known as VUCA) your role is to get better at being comfortable in this uncomfortable space. I’ll elaborate more on that in a future article. Stay tuned…

Stephen Fortune is Principal Consultant at The Oxford Group, a global organization, providing management training, leadership development and executive coaching to the world’s leading companies.

1  Dr Leandro Herrero Website