Skip to content

We Need To Take A More Evidence-Based Approach For Transformation And Change

2023 October 1
by Greg Satell

In The Knowing Doing Gap by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton, the two Stanford professors show, in painstaking detail, that most enterprises fail to act on what they know. They point out that many are set up to reinforce the status quo, because mastering conventional wisdom is key to advancement.

There is a similar gap when it comes to transformation and change, but for somewhat different reasons. Decades of research and insights are largely ignored. Transformational initiatives are seen as exercises in persuasion, with practitioners designing slogans to “create a sense of urgency around change” and shift attitudes, assuming that will change behaviors.

Today we are in a change crisis. Businesses need to internalize new technologies like AI and adapt to new realities like hybrid work, but still struggle to adopt decades old skills related to lean manufacturing, agile development and cultural competency. If we are going to drive the transformations we need to compete, we need to take an evidence based approach.

The Diffusion Of Innovations

In 1962, Everett Rogers published the first edition of his now-famous book, The Diffusion of Innovations, which contained hundreds of studies of how change spreads. These ranged from the seminal study of the adoption of hybrid corn and the spread of hate crime laws in the US, to the doctors use of the antibiotic tetracycline and the uptake of mobile phones in Europe.

In some instances the same subject was studied in a number of different places. The spread of family planning methods was researched in a number of developing nations, including Taiwan, Korea and Egypt, among others. In others, the same effect was observed in very different contexts, like the importance of social ties in both recruiting civil rights activists during “Freedom Summer” and the spread of air conditioners in the 1950s.

The difference between this type of research and the case studies that underlie much change management thinking is that they are much more rigorous and transparent. In a typical case study, researchers interview a limited number of participants and interpret what they see and hear. These sometimes lead to genuine insights, but people often interpret events differently.

In the diffusion studies, there are typically hundreds of people surveyed, sometimes over a number of years. The questionnaires and data are published along with the findings, so that others can re-examine conclusions. Studies can be compared side by side. In some cases, such as this one, data from earlier work is made available to colleagues to see if they can come up with alternative insights.

There is a remarkable consensus on the basic principles of diffusion. Overwhelmingly, these studies find that new ideas come from outside the community and incur resistance; that there is a common and persistent KAP-gap, in which a shift in knowledge and attitudes do not result in changes in practice; that change follows an s-curve pattern (meaning it starts slow, hits a tipping point and accelerates) and ideas are transmitted socially.

Clearly, any change program needs to take these principles into account.

Changing Societies As Well As Organizations

In the early 1960s, around the time that Rogers began publishing his writings about the diffusion of innovations, Gene Sharp began to formulate his theories about changing societies. Sharp saw change as a strategic conflict in which the weapons weren’t military, but psychological, social, economic and political.

Sharp’s key insight was that the status quo isn’t monolithic, but derives its power from specific sources, such as legitimacy, popular support and institutional support. If you can undermine those sources of power, he reasoned, you can bring change about. To do that, however, you need focus strategically on bringing down what supports the current regime.

While there’s no evidence that Sharp and Rogers ever met or were aware of each other’s work, there are striking similarities. For example, the Spectrum of Allies framework that is central to nonviolent conflict is eerily similar to the adoption groups in Rogers’ diffusion curve. Like Rogers, Sharp found that change was transmitted through social bonds.

The main difference is that Sharp and his revolutionary disciples focus, perhaps not surprisingly, on overcoming resistance, which isn’t emphasized in the diffusion research. For example, the global activist Srdja Popović developed the concept of a dilemma action, which has been the subject of increasing interest by researchers.

While Sharp’s legacy doesn’t have the intense academic rigor of the diffusion research, it has proven itself through the work of practitioners. Movements such as the color revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring in the Middle East were based on Sharp’s work and his ideas continue to be developed at his Albert Einstein Institution as well as the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS).

A Network Mechanism For Spreading Change

In the late 1990s, a young graduate student named Duncan Watts began to study coupled oscillation, how certain things, such as crickets, pacemaker cells in our hearts and electrical power grids can, under certain conditions, synchronize their collective behavior. That work led to his discovery of small world networks, a concept so important that in 2018 the prestigious journal Nature published a 20-year retrospective on it.

Where Rogers and Sharp both found that change spreads through social ties, Watts discovered the mechanism through which an idea travels. Many assumed that there were special “opinion leaders” that propagated change. Yet Watts found that it was the structure of the network that determined how far an idea could travel. In effect, it is small groups, loosely connected and united by a shared purpose that drive transformational change.

We know that people tend to conform to the opinions of those around them. The best indicator of what we think and do is what the people around us think and do. Moreover, this effect extends out to three degrees of influence, so it’s not just people we know personally, but the friends of our friends’ friends that shape how we see things.

Practically speaking, the emergence of small-world networks means that change leaders need to focus more on shaping networks than shaping opinions. It is by empowering small groups, helping them to connect with and inspiring them with a sense of common endeavor that you can bring a change initiative to the exponential part of the s-curve and break out.

Acting On What We Know

The biggest misconception about change is that once people understand it, they will embrace it. That’s almost never true. If you intend to influence an entire organization, you have to assume the deck is stacked against you. The status quo always has inertia on its side and never yields its power gracefully.

The good news is that we have over a half-century of research and practice that can inform our efforts. Yet to be effective, we have to put that learning to work. It makes no sense, for example, to “create a sense of urgency” around change when we know that transformation follows an s-shaped curve, starting slowly and then accelerating after a tipping point. Doing so is more likely to trigger resistance than to move things forward.

In much the same way, if we know that shifts in knowledge and attitudes don’t necessarily result in changes in practice and that ideas about change are transmitted socially, we should focus our efforts on empowering enthusiasts rather than wordsmithing and broadcasting slogans. People tend to adopt the ideas and actions of those around them.

We need to think about change as a strategic conflict between the present state and an alternative vision. The truth is that change isn’t about persuasion, but power. To bring about transformation we need to undermine the sources of power that underlie the present state while strengthening the forces that favor a different future.


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

Like this article? Sign up to receive weekly insights from Greg!

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS