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To Create Real Change That Lasts, Start With A Majority

2021 February 28
by Greg Satell

“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas,” said the computing pioneer Howard Aiken. “If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats,” and truer words were scarcely ever spoken. We tend to think that if an idea has merit, everybody will immediately recognize its value, but that’s almost never true.

Ignaz Semmelweis, quite famously, advocated for hand washing at hospitals, but was ostracized, not celebrated, for it and would himself die of an infection contracted under care before his idea caught on. William Coley discovered cancer immunotherapy over a century ago, but was thought by many to be some sort of a quack.

Good ideas fail all the time. Part of the problem is that people who believe passionately in an idea feel compelled to win over the skeptics. That’s almost always a mistake. The truth is that the difference between success or failure often has nothing to do with the inherent value of an idea, but where you choose to start and the best place to start, is with a majority.

The Fundamental Fallacy Of Change Management

Pundits tell us that change is inevitable, so we need to create a sense of urgency about it. They say we must “innovate or die,” because those who don’t “get it” are dinosaurs and, much like their reptilian brethren, they are bound to die an awful, painful death once the asteroid hits (and, the implication is, they will deserve it too).

History, however, shows us exactly the opposite. People like Ignaz Semmelweis and William Colely had truly groundbreaking ideas that could have saved millions of lives if they were adopted earlier. Nevertheless, those in the medical establishment that thwarted their efforts thrived while the innovators themselves suffered greatly professionally and personally.

It’s not just the medical profession either. Take a short tour throughout history and it becomes clear that unjust and incompetent regimes can have remarkable staking power. The status quo always has inertia on its side and rarely yields its power gracefully. A bad idea can last for decades, or centuries even.

The fundamental fallacy of change management is that it is essentially a communication exercise, that change fails because people don’t understand it well enough and if you explain it to them in sufficiently powerful terms, they will embrace it. The truth is that change fails because others oppose it in ways that are devious, underhanded and deceptive.

That needs to be your primary design constraint.

The Power Of Local Majorities

Merely telling someone about change, no matter how artfully, is unlikely to be effective, but that doesn’t mean that people are immune to persuasion. In fact, there are decades of studies that show that people naturally conform to ideas that are widely held by others around them.

Consider this famous series of conformity experiments conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s. The design of the study was simple, but ingenious. Asch merely showed a group of people pairs of cards like these:

Each person in the group was asked to match the line on the left with the line of the same length on the right. However, there was a catch: almost everyone in the room was a confederate who gave the wrong answer. When it came to the real subjects’ turn to answer, most conformed to the majority opinion, even when it was obviously wrong.

Clealy, most ideas are not nearly that unambiguous, which is why, despite having made breakthrough discoveries, Semmelweis and Coley had so much trouble getting traction for them. The majority of the medical establishment was resistant and Semmelweis and Coley found themselves in the minority. Majorities routinely push back against minorities.

The Threshold Model Of Collective Action

One important aspect of Asch’s conformity studies was that the results were far from uniform. A quarter of the subjects never conformed, some always did, and others were somewhere in the middle. We all have different thresholds to adopt an idea or to partake in an action, based on factors like confidence in our ability to make judgments and expected punishments or rewards for getting it right or wrong.

The sociologist Mark Granovetter addressed this issue with his threshold model of collective behavior. As a thought experiment, he asks us to imagine a diverse group of people milling around in a square. Some are natural deviants, always ready to start trouble, most are susceptible to provocation in varying degrees and the remainder is made up of unusually solid citizens, almost never engaging in antisocial behavior.

You can see a graphic representation of how the model plays out above. In the example on the left, a miscreant throws a rock and breaks a window. That’s all it takes for his friend next to him to start and then others with slightly higher thresholds join in as well. Before you know it, a full scale riot ensues.

The example on the right is slightly different. After the first few troublemakers start, there is no one around with a low enough threshold to join in. Rather than the contagion spreading, it fizzles out, the three miscreants are isolated and little note is made of the incident. Although the groups are outwardly similar, a slight change in conformity thresholds can make a big difference.

It’s a relatively simplistic example, but through another concept Granovetter developed called the strength of weak ties, we can see how it can lead to large scale change in the final graphic below as an idea moves from group to group.

The top cluster is identical to the one in the first example and a local majority forms. However, no cluster is an island because people tend to belong to multiple groups. For example, we form relationships with people in our neighborhood, from work, religious communities and so on. So an idea that saturates one group soon spreads to others.

Notice how the exposure to multiple groups can help overcome higher thresholds of resistance, because of the influence emanating from other groups through weak links. When you start with a majority, even if it is a small, local majority, an idea can gain traction, move from cluster to cluster and almost infinitely scale.

As I explain in my book, Cascades, there is significant evidence that this is how ideas actually do spread in the real world. The crucial point here is that it makes a really big difference where you choose to start. If you start with people who are enthusiastic about your idea, you are much more likely to succeed than if you choose people who are resistant.

So rather than trying to convince everybody at once, you are much better of identifying people who are likeminded and working on a Keystone Change that can for them basis of a larger transformation.

Working To Attract, Rather Than Overpower

When we look at the stories of Semmelweis and Coley through the prism of local majorities and resistance thresholds, we can see the mistake that they made. Having made truly breakthrough discoveries, they naturally assumed that others would see value in them. Instead, they ran headlong into a highly resistant majority and got squashed.

In my work helping leaders drive organizational transformations, I see this happen all the time. People who believe passionately in an idea naturally assume that others will “see the light.” Not surprisingly, they want to move quickly and overpower any resistance. This is especially true if they feel that they have institutional power behind them.

Yet that is almost always a mistake. There is a reason why the vast majority of organizational transformations fail, even though they typically have big budgets and C-Suite support behind them. To drive meaningful, lasting change you can’t rely on overpowering resistance, but must work to attract and empower genuine support.

That means you need to start with a majority. In the beginning, that may mean starting with a small, local majority— say, three people in a room of five. You can always expand a majority out, but once you find yourself in the minority, you will immediately feel pushback. The secret to overcoming resistance to an idea and driving it forward is understanding that you get to choose where to start.

Revolutionary change always starts with the art of choosing wisely.

– Greg


Feature Image: Unsplash


2 Responses leave one →
  1. March 7, 2021

    Hi Greg,
    Your blog post makes a lot of sense. We get arrogant thinking that if we see it, others will come around it too. But as you point out that rarely happens.

    What do you advice? Develop political skills, as Otto von Bisrmarck was known to have quoted, “The art of the possible.”
    How do you go about doing that?

  2. March 7, 2021

    Hi Jay,

    Great question. The short answer is that you want to start by empowering people who already believe in your idea and help them succeed.

    The long answer is… well I wrote a book about that:-)


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