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True Transformation Isn’t Top-Down Or Bottom-Up, But Side-To-Side

2019 July 14
by Greg Satell

In a disruptive era, the only viable strategy is to adapt and that is especially true today. With change seeming to accelerate with each passing year, every organization must transform itself. Those who are unable to change often find that they are unable to compete and soon disappear altogether.

There has been a long running debate about whether change should be top-down or bottom-up. Some say that true change can only take hold if it comes from the top and is pushed through the entire organization. Others argue that you must first get buy-in from the rank-and-file before any real change can take place.

As I explain in Cascades, the truth is that transformation isn’t top-down or bottom-up, but happens from side-to-side. Change never happens all at once and can’t simply be willed into existence. It can only happen when people truly internalize and embrace it. The best way to do that is to empower those who already believe in change to bring in those around them

Identify your Apostles 

All too often, change initiatives start with a big kickoff meeting and communication campaign. That’s almost always a mistake. In every organization, there are different levels of enthusiasm to change. Some will be ready to jump on board, but others will be vehemently opposed. To them, change is a threat.

So starting off with a big bang may excite some supporters, but it will also mobilize the opposition, who will try to undermine the effort—either actively or passively—before you have the chance to gain momentum. Before you know it, your initiative loses steam and change dies with it.

So a better strategy is to start by identifying your apostles—people who are already excited about the possibilities for change. For example, when Barry Libenson first started his movement to transform Experian’s digital infrastructure from a traditional architecture to the cloud, he didn’t announce a big campaign right away. Instead, he found early allies that he could start with.

They weren’t enough to drive change throughout the organization, of course, but they did allow him to start small-scale initiatives, such as building internal API’s. The success of those brought in others, who brought in others still.

Don’t Try To Convince — Empower

Anybody who has ever been married or had kids knows how difficult it can be to identify even a single person of something. Trying to convince hundreds or even thousands is truly a fool’s errand, which is why those kickoff meetings and communication campaigns have so little effect. Everybody brings their own biases and prejudices.

However, once you’ve identified your apostles, you can empower them to bring in others around them. Unlike top-down or bottom-up efforts, people generally have a pretty good idea which of their peers may be receptive. As the network theorist Duncan Watts put it to me, viral cascades are largely the result of “easily influenced people influencing other easily influenced people.”

The revolutionary movement Otpor put this principle to work through its strategy of recruit-train-act in their effort to bring down the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević. First, they would recruit new members, usually through tactics like pranks and street theatre. Then they would train those recruits. Finally, they would encourage new members to take an action, no matter how small, because action is how people take ownership of a movement.

Wyeth Pharmaceuticals took a similar approach in its effort to bring lean manufacturing techniques to 17,000 employees in its manufacturing operation. Rather than try to indoctrinate everyone all at once, it started with just a few teams in a few plants. Once those initiatives were successful, other teams were brought into the fold.

In both cases, the results were extraordinary. Within a few years, Milošević was ousted and would later die in his prison cell at The Hague. Wyeth Pharmaceuticals would cut costs by 25% within a year (the company was later sold to Pfizer).

Constrain Your Movement With Values

While peer-to-peer movements can be immensely powerful, they can also spin dangerously out of control. The Occupy movement, to take just one example, inspired thousands of people in over 951 cities across 82 countries to protest income inequality, but then fizzled out almost as fast. It accomplished little, if anything.

In a similar vein, Circuit City’s Superstore electronic store format spread like wildfire in the 1980s and gained a well-earned reputation for exceptional service. As Jim Collins reported in Good to Great, the company went to great trouble and expense to ensure that its salespeople were factory-trained. By 2000, however, the firm began to falter. It went bankrupt in 2008.

In both cases, a failure to indoctrinate values was at the core of the collapse. The Occupy protesters, while passionate, were also often vulgar and undisciplined, which turned off many others sympathetic to their cause. For Circuit City, investing in training was a strategy, not a core value, and was easily abandoned when profit margins were under pressure.

Values are important not because they are nice things to say, but because they represent constraints. If you value inclusiveness, you don’t shout down those that don’t agree with you and turn off others that do in the process. If you value service, then investing in training is more than just a line item on an income statement.

Make no mistake. Values, if they are to be anything more than platitudes, always come with costs. If you are unwilling to incur those costs, then it isn’t something you truly value.

Surviving Victory

In 2004 and 2005, I found myself in the middle of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. At the heart of the issue was a falsified election and millions took to the streets to see that the rightful president, Viktor Yushchenko, was put in power. Yet even though it was truly a grassroots movement, its ethos was top-down.

“In 2005 everybody just disappeared and let Yushchenko do what he wanted,” Vitaliy Sych, editor of the popular newsmagazine Novoye Vremya, told me. “They thought he was some kind of magician and things were going to happen right away.” The movement soon flamed out and Ukraine descended once again into chaos.

In 2013, a similar uprising, called Euromaidan, erupted in Ukraine. But this time, rather than centered on any one person or objective, the movement was rooted in adopting European values. While the country still faces significant challenges, democratic norms are no longer in question. Its most recent election saw a peaceful transfer of power, rather than turmoil.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger made a similar point about  IBM’s historic turnaround in the 1990s. “Because the transformation was about values first and technology second, we were able to continue to embrace those values as the technology and marketplace continued to evolve,” he told me.

That’s what’s key to successful transformations. The answer doesn’t lie in any specific strategy or initiative, but in how people are able to internalize the need for change and transfer ideas through social bonds. A leader’s role is not to plan and direct action, but to inspire and empower belief.

– Greg



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