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Forget About Influence And Change Management, It’s Time To Lead A Revolution!

2013 March 24

Technology pioneer Alan Kay famously said that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”  It’s the kind of inspiring quote that can completely change your outlook on things.

That is, until you remember the sorry plight of failed geniuses, from Gregor Mendel to Vincent Van Gogh to thousands of others who are long forgotten and whose ideas only took hold long after their death.  Inventing the future, it seems, is no panacea.

The truth is that ideas don’t change the world, people do.  From the American Revolution to Civil Rights Movement to the Arab Spring, most of their names are lost to history, but their accomplishments stand testament to the power of what can happen when people act as one.  It’s not the nodes, but the network that makes great things possible.

Seek Out Receptivity, Not Influence

In Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway bestseller, The Tipping Point, he outlined a vision in which great change can be created with just a few people who are especially influential. Why go to the trouble to convince entire populations when, if you can identify those magic few, you can create a movement of many.

Unfortunately, influentials are a myth.  It’s not that some people don’t have more influence than others (they do), it’s just that the difference is much less than you’d think and the costs of identifying them and winning them over to your side nullifies, if not exceeds, their benefits.

Sure, having a celebrity like Oprah Winfrey on your side is invaluable, but it certainly isn’t easy or cheap.

So rather than try to find a big shot to support your cause, actively recruit those who will be passionate about your idea.  Chances are they know some others who’ll like it as well. Study after study has shown that influence is not a function of individuals as much as it is the effect of chains of people – not the nodes, but the network.

So take Seth Godin’s advice:  If you want to change the world, start with a tribe.  Look to find people who are passionate rather than influential.

Form Local Majorities

Spend some time in another culture, whether it is a foreign country or even a different corporate environment and you’ll notice that people have much different ideas that you do.  Even your most seemingly self-evident assumptions will seem strange to them.  Pretty soon, you’ll realize that you have begin to have doubts as well.

That’s because majorities don’t just rule, they influence, to a much greater extent than most people would think.  Back in the 50’s, Solomon Asch documented just how much with his famous conformity experiments, in which he showed research subjects who were told that they were in a “perceptual experiment” this pair of cards.


He then asked subjects which line on the right was equal to the one on the left.  In reality, it wasn’t their perception that was being tested, but their malleability.  The others in the room were confederates who would give an obviously wrong answer (such as line A).  75% of the subjects would agree with the majority, even if it was clearly wrong.

There’s a reason why revolutionary movements so often originate in closed systems like college campuses.  You don’t need to convince everybody, just a local majority.  Once you’ve attained that, the idea can spread to other clusters through the strength of weak ties and before you know it, the movement is gathering steam.

The Importance of Internal Links

Since the advent of social media, community building is all too often confused with growing the number of followers.  Not surprisingly, services have sprung up that can do it for you.  Want 10,000 followers? No problem, have them for you in the morning.  Want a million?  We’ll take care of it.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way.  The strength of your community isn’t a function of the number of your followers, but in their relationship to each other.  Once again, it’s not the nodes, but the network that’s really important.

The effect of network structure has proven to be substantial and might even be determinant.  In a study of Broadway musicals, researchers found that internal linkages were the most important factor of success; more than the production budget, the marketing budget, the track record of the director or any other variable.

So while attracting a lot of followers might be impressive, what’s vastly more important is the value that they derive from the community.  There’s a significant difference between a tribe and a hoard.  Density matters.  If you aren’t encouraging internal connectivity, your movement will go nowhere.

A strong community is more than the extension of the will of its leaders.  It’s more like a living organism than a machine or a tool.  It needs to be nurtured.

Creating Viable Vectors

Building and nurturing a tribe are viable aims, but the vectors you choose to carry your message are just as important.  In the Arab Spring, Facebook and Twitter played a large role because they were familiar to the protestors, but still somewhat foreign to the authorities.

In much the same way, Internet chat boards and SMS messages played a powerful role in the Color Revolutions and fax machines helped take down the Soviet Bloc in the ‘80’s. Even today, subversive groups like Anonymous use Internet communities like 4chan and private chat rooms to recruit and plan activities.

However, proximity trumps technology.  Successful movements need more than just online tools, they need face-to-face human interaction (which is one reason why Anonymous has difficulty producing sustained, long-term actions).

During the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, students formed an organization called Pora! (It’s time) and set up communication lines with earlier groups such as Otpor! (Resistance!) in Serbia and Kmara (Enough!) in Georgia, from which they learned to set up the tent city which proved pivotal in the outcome.  The Occupy movement applied similar techniques in the US.

In the corporate world, grassroots techniques are just as important to network the organization.  Training, best practice programs and hackathons are more than just educational; they are also viable vectors for collaboration.  Externally, firms like eBay, Apple and Harley Davidson have used physical gatherings to build cult-like followings.

The Problem With Change Management

A generation ago, corporate leaders began to understand the need for change management and various models were devised to help communicate the need for corporate transformations and create the vision, systems and skills required to make change succeed.

However, today change management is becoming increasingly difficult to execute in the real world.  Technology cycles are becoming shorter than corporate decision cycles, so even if you are able to communicate and execute a clear vision, it might not still be relavent by the time you’re finished.  Strategy is becoming both more emergent and Bayesian.

These days, more than ever, the lunatics run the asylum.  Control is an illusion.  Power resides less in the C-Suite and more in the invisible bonds that tie individual actors together.  The role of enterprises is becoming less to organize work than to focus passion and purpose.

So forget about change management.  Create a revolution instead!

– Greg

16 Responses leave one →
  1. March 24, 2013

    Great. Thank you. That is why political parties are important part of the political process – “You don’t need to convince everybody”.

  2. March 24, 2013

    “Forget About Influence And Change Management, It’s Time To Lead A Revolution! | Digital Tonto” was a great blog post and also I really was truly joyful to read the blog post. Thanks,Marlys

  3. March 24, 2013

    Yes it is. Lobbyists too:-)

  4. Margriet permalink
    March 25, 2013

    Great blog post that sparks some thinking about how messages spread and people get connected. I particularly liked the linkage you’ve made to ‘The tipping Point’ a book I loved to read.

    Though I follow in large extent your arguments I do not agree with your final conclusion to forget about change management. It may be we just have a different view on what change management is all about; but I think change management is extremely valuable to focus passion and purpose as you describe.
    Change Management as purposeful activities taken to take people(s views) from one position to the other is not per se about organizing work but all about unlocking value from people/systems/organizations.
    You end with ‘create a revolution instead’ – I see value in using change management to do that exactly: create.

  5. March 25, 2013

    Thanks Margriet,

    I do see your point. However, change management, at least as I have seen it practiced, tends to focus on getting the organization to buy into a solution that is already set by management, with concerns addresses, but little opportunity for self organization.

    While I realize that everybody practices change management differently, that, all too often, has been my experience. Leadership trying to get people to do what they want instead of inspiring them to want what they want.

    Recruiting, of course, plays a role as well. Alas, that is a subject for another time…

    – Greg

  6. Scott Smith permalink
    March 25, 2013

    Greg, you nailed it with one an incredibly compelling, researched, and motivating (I guess that is the point) conversations I’ve read in the past few years. It’s your blend of pragmatism and vision. A few of my favorite examples:

    – The limitations of tipping points who are only successful if they reach others who are also connectors who spread the message;
    -The reality that “the strength of your community isn’t a function of the number of your followers, but in their relationship to each other;” and
    – “Traditional” change management often failed based on the weakest link in the executive and middle management communication flow.

    Again, this is a very insightful thought, and I look forward to sharing more with you over time.

    Thanks, Scott (@smith13sj)

  7. March 25, 2013

    Thanks Scott. Glad you thought so.

    – Greg

  8. gregorylent permalink
    April 3, 2013

    the heck with “leading”, simply revolt.

  9. April 3, 2013

    I think you’ve been reading too much Camus:-)

  10. April 21, 2013


    Phenomenal article. I’m planning to put together a strategy for getting my office on board with a new Lean initiative in our company. I plan to find people who are already on board and excited, work with them to both produce results, and to share the excitement with others.

    There’s also a tribe at our company that’s pretty resistant to the culture management is trying to get going. They have a great amount of influence and I want to come alongside them to bridge the gap, but they don’t have the highest view of me or my department.

    If anyone has advice on this I’d appreciate it!

    Found your blog from “What is Innovation” from Innovation Weekly #29. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  11. April 21, 2013

    Thanks Brent. Good luck with your initiative!

    – Greg

  12. May 3, 2015

    Hi Greg,

    Thanks for the great post. A question here :

    1. Is it possible that the Influencers have an effect but it is not as significant as espoused ?

    2. On Linkedin, we see Jeff Weiner liking the posts of his employees and it does increase visibility. Is there no correlation with how those propped up by influencers get slow visibility. And Visibility can be converted into Influence with some work ?



  13. May 8, 2015

    Sorry for the late reply Rohit.

    The short answer is yes. Influence does exist. Oprah Winfrey, for example, can sell a lot of books. President Obama can change healthcare policy, deploy troops and order drone strikes. Bill Gates can use his fortune to improve the lives of millions (And Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers can use their fortunes to influence people in other ways).

    What’s not true is that there is some mysterious class of people that have special powers of influence. There is also a form on influence called network centrality (e.g. executive assistants and smokers have outsized influence in offices), but again, this has nothing to do with mysterious personality traits, but their position in the network.

    Incidentally, a quirk of network math makes our friends for influential (and richer) than we are. So be nice to them:-)

    – Greg

  14. May 8, 2015

    Hey Greg,

    Thanks for the reply and now it takes more sense :). Have a good weekend.

  15. David Gutierrez permalink
    February 13, 2016

    Are there any courses or online training on how to influence others through social media? Do you know of any positions or jobs for part time social media influencers?

  16. February 14, 2016

    You can try “Contagious” by Jonah Berger, a professor at Wharton who has studied influence.

    Good luck!

    – Greg

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