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Change Can Come From Anywhere

2023 December 10
by Greg Satell

In the small town of Alamogordo, New Mexico in 2002, a plan was hatched to pass a no smoking ordinance. The wife of a City Council member, a strong no-smoking advocate, orchestrated the campaign. She recruited activists from the next town over, twisted arms and, in a show of force, pushed for a quick vote. It failed.

Compare that to a similar effort in El Paso, Texas around the same time. The central advocate in this case was not anybody with great clout, but a student on an internship assigned to do research on the issue. As he quietly gathered facts, he became a local authority, spreading what he learned. The ordinance passed by a vote of 7-1.

People often say that change has to start at the top, but that’s not really true. Change isn’t top-down, nor is it bottom up. It emanates from the center of networks. Ironically, the way you get to the center is by connecting out to small groups, loosely connected and uniting them with a shared purpose. To really drive change, you can’t overpower, you need to attract.

Change Always Comes From The Outside

Whenever we see a successful transformation we look to the actions of leaders. We see a CEO who gave a speech, a marketer who came up with a big product idea or an engineer who took a project in a new direction. These events are real, but they rarely, if ever, appear out of nowhere. They are products of webs of influence.

When we look more closely, we inevitably find that the CEO was inspired to give the pivotal speech from a conversation he had with his daughter. The marketer got the initial idea for the campaign from a junior team member, who saw it somewhere else. Or the engineer changed the direction of the project after a fateful encounter on vacation.

One of the things we know from the earliest studies of how innovations spread is that change always comes from the outside. For example, the first Iowa farmers to adopt hybrid corn were the ones who visited Des Moines most frequently and the early adopters of tetracycline were doctors that most often attended out of town conferences.

So change doesn’t have to start at the top. What is true is that culture starts at the top. Leaders determine what gets rewarded and what gets punished. If people feel free to experiment with new things, more innovations will be adopted. If, on the other hand, there is an atmosphere of strict regimentation, then little will ever change.

The truth is though, most organizations are somewhere in between. There is a certain amount of freedom within agreed upon guardrails. What was striking about the two no-smoking ordinance examples is that the successful effort worked within the culture, while the unsuccessful effort tried to break established norms. Successful change efforts don’t overpower, they attract.

Working At Every Level

Once you realize that change doesn’t have to start at the top, it becomes clear that every level of the organization has a role to play. Leaders tend to be enthusiastic about change, because they want to be seen as dynamic and leading somewhere rather than standing still. People at the bottom are often open to change because they aren’t invested in the status quo.

It’s the so-called “muddy middle” where you tend to get the most resistance. They are high enough in the organization to have some attachment to the current state of affairs, while at the same time they, unlike senior leadership, will actually have to do the work to implement changes. For overworked executives, that can be a tough sell.

Yet it is precisely those middle level executives that are absolutely essential to any change effort. They usually have enough authority and resources to get an initial Keystone Change started and can help recruit others. They also usually have been around long enough to have some political savvy and know where the pitfalls and tripwires in the organization lie.

So the truth is that every level of the organization can be helpful. The most junior people are the easiest to recruit. Senior people have clout and are usually predisposed to want to see change (if, for no other reason than they can take credit if it is successful). The middle-level executives can actually help you get stuff done.

Identifying Your Apostles

What’s first striking about the two no-smoking ordinance efforts is the power differential. In Alamogordo, the wife of the City Council member had significant power and relationships in another town, where the student with the internship had none. It almost seems like having power can be a disadvantage.

As counterintuitive as that may seem, it is often the case. Decades of research show that change follows an S-curve, meaning that it starts out slowly, hits an inflection point and then begins to accelerate exponentially. The same research shows that the inflection point is usually hit when the participation rate is between 10%-20%.

If you try to overpower, you will begin to draw resistance before you’ve hit the inflection point and your effort will likely be sabotaged before it ever gets off the ground.  But if you quietly gain support, without doing a lot to draw attention from detractors, you’re less likely to incur resistance early on and will have a much better chance of reaching the inflection point.

When we begin to work with an organization on a transformational initiative, one of the first things we work on is building a recruiting strategy for the initial group. Often, they know exactly who to approach. Other times it’s not as obvious. One tactic that’s often effective is to create an introductory workshop and then wait to see who comes up afterward.

What’s most important is that you identify people who are enthusiastic about the change you want to see. They will be the ones who will help you get to that 10%-20% tipping point that unlocks a cascade.

Going To Where The Energy Is

Discussions about change tend to gravitate to one of two poles: Either change has to come from the top or it has to be grass roots. As I explain in Cascades, transformation isn’t top-down or bottom-up, but happens from side-to-side. You can find the entire spectrum—from active support to active resistance—at every level.

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. The truth is that it is small groups, loosely connected, but united by a common purpose that drives transformation. Effective change leaders help those groups to connect and unite them with a sense of shared values and shared purpose.

What’s important is that you go to where the energy is, not try to create or maintain it by yourself. Go out and find those who are enthusiastic about change, who want it to work and will not only work to bring it about, but bring in others who can bring in others still. You need to recognize that the urge to persuade is a red flag. It usually means you have the wrong people or the wrong change.

Change never happens all at once and can’t simply be willed into existence. The best way to do that is to empower those who already believe in change to bring in those around them. That’s what’s key to successful transformations. A leader’s role is not to plan and direct action, but to inspire and empower belief.


Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto and on LinkedIn.

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Photo by Garrett Jackson on Unsplash



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