Change from within, virally
Choose lower-level, influential people to champion a shift in company culture
Leandro Herrero, a behavioural change expert, has a rule of thumb when it comes to change: "Suspend judgment!"
For Herrero, change is not just any change, but " viral change" - or a way for organisations to "reshape their cultures or transform them, where the protagonists are small groups of well-connected and influential people who, for the most part, do not belong to the hierarchical system but are asked by the leadership to lead those changes".
He puts forward viral change as an alternative to the often slow and mostly painful process of change that most organisations adopt.
One of the things that makes viral change different from other forms of change is the fact that it is not led from the front. "The traditional hierarchy is not visible upfront in viral change. It is not that the traditional leadership doesn't matter; it is more that the real engine of change is on the ground, at grass roots or distributed across the organisation. By doing this, the organisation has an extraordinary 'new' pool of leadership. We don't have a dogma against who could be those influential and connected individuals, who we often call champions. But they are not managed by their supervisors as champions. This community has a direct mandate from the top leadership. Formal management and leadership are backstage."
However, this does not give management a licence to take it easy. "Leaders and managers must continue to do their job. They must be supporters of those relatively small communities of connected and influential individuals most likely to be in lower echelons of the organisation. We call it backstage leadership."
The few people charged with influencing their colleagues can be chosen in many ways, depending on the particular aims of the project.
"When we work with the organisation, we look at all the options, profiles of influence and geography, and then we apply methods to identify and call those champions."
He says that any organisation can benefit from viral change, though larger companies will probably see more results.
"Any organisation can benefit from viral change, however, because we are banking on the power of connectivity between individuals and the existence of a social network of some kind, the organisation should be a reasonable size. A company of 20 people may have some viral activity but hardly of any impact; 200 people, however, are likely to constitute at least one network and 2000 will have several of them."
But there is much more to the process than the numbers. For change to take place on a large scale, people need to change, too.
"Cultural change is at the core of what we do. But take culture in a broad sense because we are talking about new ways of doing, new ways of operating and new behaviours. Behaviours create culture, not the other way around. Also, there is no change unless there is behavioural change."
And how easy is it to change the way people behave? "We have been taught and we have come to engrave in our brains that people are resistant to change. While it is true that we all see people who resist change, it doesn't mean that people are resistant to change. Both things are different. We as individuals are changing all the time. It is called life. We have an incredible capacity for change, not the opposite. We resist when change is imposed on us and doesn't make sense to us, or when it is not of benefit to us, or when not changing has more rewards or motivates us more. The art of extracting our incredible capacity for change (not our resistance) is the art of organisational change."
Herrero gives an example of an organisation that has used viral change: Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company, originally in the UK, managed to reshape its culture relatively quickly and during a difficult time of structural change. It began in sales, and the process was soon embraced by the entire company.
Hear from the viral master
Leandro Herrero will be in South Africa this month for a series of workshops and seminars.
The topic of the seminars is Viral Change: How to create fast and lasting sustainable change in organisations.
The Cape Town seminar will take place at the Vineyard Hotel & Spa on July 28 and the Johannesburg seminar will be presented at the Sandton Hyatt on July 30.
Two readers from Cape Town and two from Gauteng stand a chance to each win a ticket to attend Herrero's seminars.
- To enter, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, and write "seminar" in the subject line.
Please indicate whether you will be able to attend in Johannesburg or Cape Town.