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Why Change Does NOT Have To Start At The Top

2023 June 4
by Greg Satell

In 2004 I found myself running a major news organization during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. It was one of those moments when the universe opens up, reveals a bit of itself and you realize the world doesn’t work the way you thought it did. What struck me at the time was that nobody with any conventional form of power had any ability to shape events at all.

One of the myths that is constantly repeated is that change needs to start at the top. Clearly that is not true. It wasn’t true of the Color Revolutions that spread across Eastern Europe. Nor was it true of social movements like the fight for LGBT rights. Despite what you may have heard, it doesn’t hold true for organizations either.

What is true is that if you are going to bring about genuine change you need to influence institutions and that means you need, at some point, to involve senior leaders, but it rarely starts with them. The myth that change has to start at the top is a copout—a reason to do nothing when you can do something. Make no mistake. Change can come from anywhere.

Weaving Webs Of Influence

Movements, as the name implies, are kinetic. They start somewhere and they end up somewhere else. That’s one reason why why so many successful change efforts become misunderstood. People look back at an event like the 1963 March on Washington and think that’s what made the civil rights movement successful. Nothing could be further from the truth. That wasn’t what built the movement, it was part of the end game.

Consider that the first “March on Washington,” the Woman Suffrage Procession of 1913, was a disaster. None of the others since 1963 did much either. The civil rights march came after nearly a decade of boycotts, sit-ins, Freedom Rides and other tactics that built the movement before it finally found its moment. Still, it’s the moment that people remember.

In much the same way, 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. Or the engineer changed the direction of the project after a fateful encounter he had in the cafeteria.

Our decisions are the product of complex systems. Anything can start anywhere. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Going To Where The Energy Is 

Transformations, in retrospect, often seem inevitable, even obvious. Yet they don’t start out that way. The truth is that it is small groups, loosely connected, but united by a common purpose that drives transformation. So the first thing you want to do is identify your apostles—people who are already excited about the possibilities for change.

For example, in his efforts to reform the Pentagon, Colonel John Boyd began every initiative by briefing a group of collaborators he called the “Acolytes,” who would help hone and sharpen the ideas. He then moved on to congressional staffers, elected officials and the media. By the time general officers were aware of what he was doing, he had too much support to ignore.

In a similar vein, a massive effort to implement lean manufacturing methods at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals began with one team at one factory, but grew to encompass 17,000 employees across 25 sites worldwide and cut manufacturing costs by 25%. The campaign that overthrew Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević started with just 5 kids in a coffee shop.

One advantage to starting small is that you can identify your apostles informally, even through casual conversations. In skills-based transformations, change leaders often start with workshops and see who seems enthusiastic or comes up after the session. Your apostles don’t need to have senior positions or special skills, they just have to be passionate.

There’s something about human nature that, when we’re passionate about an idea, makes us want to go convince the skeptics. Don’t do that. Start with people who want your idea to succeed. If you feel the urge to convince or persuade, that’s a sign that you either have the wrong idea or the wrong people.

“You have to go where the energy is,” John Gadsby, who built a movement for process improvement inside Procter & Gamble that has grown to encompass 60,000 employees, told me. “We’ll choose energy and excitement and enthusiasm over the right position, or the person at the right leadership level, or the person whose job it is supposed to be to do that.”

Mobilizing People To Influence Institutions 

In the early 1990s, writer and activist Jeffrey Ballinger published a series of investigations about Nike’s use of sweatshops in Asia.  People were shocked by the horrible conditions that workers—many of them children—were subjected to. In most cases, the owners lived outside the countries where the factories were located and had little contact with their employees.

At first, Nike’s CEO, Phil Knight, was defiant. “I often reacted with self-righteousness, petulance, anger. On some level I knew my reaction was toxic, counterproductive, but I couldn’t stop myself,” he would later write in his memoir, Shoe Dog. He pointed out that his company didn’t own the factories, that he’d worked with the owners to improve conditions and that the stories, as gruesome as they were, were exceptions.

The simple truth is that change rarely, if ever, starts at the top because it is people with power that create the status quo. They are attached to what they’ve built and take pride in their accomplishments, just like the rest of us. That’s why, to bring about genuine change—change that lasts—you need to mobilize people to influence institutions (or those, like Knight, who yield institutional power).

Eventually, that’s what happened at Nike. The protests took their toll. “We had to admit,” Knight remembered, “We could do better.” Going beyond its own factories, the company established the Fair Trade Labor Association and published a comprehensive report of its own factories. Today, the company’s track record may not be perfect, but it’s become more a part of the solution than a part of the problem.

Change Is Never Top-Down Or Bottom-Up

At a pivotal moment during the height of the civil rights movement, Robert Kennedy, Attorney General of the United States and brother to the President, would turn to the activist John Lewis and say, “’John, the people, the young people of the SNCC, have educated me. You have changed me. Now I understand.”

Lewis, just a young kid in his twenties at the time, was himself the product of webs of influence. He was shaped by mentors like Jim Lawson and Keller Miller Smith, as well as by peers such as Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette and James Bevel. They, in turn, influenced others to get out, protest and shape the minds of people like Robert Kennedy.

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.

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

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