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Here’s Why “Creating Awareness” Is Usually A Waste Of Time

2024 April 28
by Greg Satell

I recently posted something on LinkedIn that drew a lot of angry comments, mostly from change professionals lashing out. What struck me was that while my comments were based on extensive evidence, my interlocutors seemed completely unaware of any of the facts. They even claimed that I was “using headlines to gain attention.”

The statement that mostly drew their ire was that “creating awareness is usually a waste of time.” While this is contrary to how most change management professionals are trained, the simple fact is that decades of research show that shifts in knowledge and attitudes usually don’t lead to a significant change in practice.

The truth is that change management has a startling track record of failure. McKinsey has found that 69% of transformation efforts fail. A more recent study by Bain found that only 12% succeeded and 75% had mediocre results. Misguided communication efforts are a big part of the problem. We desperately need to take a more evidence-based approach to change.

How 5 Kids In A Belgrade Cafe Changed The World

In 1998 a group of five kids met in a Belgrade cafe to discuss how they would bring change to Serbia by ending the regime Slobodan Milošević. The next day six friends joined them and the Otpor movement was born. It spread slowly through social ties over the next year to number a few hundred activists . A year later, Otpor had grown to 70,000, Milošević was overthrown and on his way to trial at The Hague, where he would die in his prison cell.

It didn’t stop there. The Otpor members went on to train activists in the Georgian Republic and Ukraine, leading directly to the Rose Revolution and the Orange Revolution, respectively, which continue to reverberate even now. As I explain in Cascades, these and other change movements largely spread organically through social ties.

While the protestors in each of these efforts were media savvy and certainly had effective communication strategies, the main thrust of their efforts was empowering activists by recruiting, training and empowering them to act. This social effect was noticed in early change diffusion covering subjects such as the spread of air conditioners in the 1950s and recruiting civil rights activists during “Freedom Summer” in the 1960s.

Thanks to some breakthrough research into small world networks in the late 1990s, we know how ideas spread socially. It is not the mode of communication of even the individual influence of early adopters but the structure of the network that determines how fast and far an idea travels. In effect, it is small groups, loosely connected and united by a shared purpose that drive transformational change.

Majorities Don’t Just Rule, They Also Influence 

Probably the greatest misconception about change is that it’s about persuasion. This often manifests itself in what’s known as the information deficit model. Practitioners assume that if others had the same information that they did, that they would hold similar opinions. Yet the preponderance of the evidence suggests that’s a false assumption and that change is much more of a function of collective dynamics.

Consider a famous set of conformity studies performed by the psychologist Solomon Asch in the 1950s. The design was simple, but ingenuous. He merely showed people pairs of cards, asking them to match the length of a single line on one card with one of three on an adjacent card. The correct answer was meant to be obvious.

However, as the experimenter went around the room, one after another gave the same wrong answer. When it reached the final member of the group (in truth, the only real subject, the rest were confederates), three quarters conformed to the majority opinion at least once, even if it was obviously wrong!

The idea that people have a tendency toward conformity is nothing new, but that they would give obviously wrong answers to simple and unambiguous questions was indeed shocking. Clearly the ideas we try to communicate in everyday life are far more complex and ambiguous, which is why the best indication of what we think and do is what the people around us think and do.

The truth is that majorities don’t just rule, they also influence, even local majorities. So if you want people to adopt an idea or partake in an action, you need to take into account the communities they are already a part of—at home, at work, in their neighborhood and in other aspects of their social circles. That’s where their greatest influences lie.

The 3 Degrees Of Influence Rule

In 1948, Congress authorized funding for the Framingham Heart Study, which would track the lifestyle and health habits, such as diet, exercise, tobacco use and alcohol intake, of 5209 healthy men and women. It was originally intended to last 20 years, but the results were so incredibly useful, it lasted for decades and even included the children of early cohorts.

More than a half century after the study began two researchers, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, began to suspect that the Framingham Heart Study could be used for a very different, but important purpose. What they noticed was that the data included not only information about people’s habits, but their social networks as well.

So they set out to see if they could identify causal links between people’s health and their social connections. Using 32 years of data, they were able to establish a strong effect in areas as diverse as happiness, smoking and even obesity. As it turns out, the people around us not only help to shape our opinions, but our most ingrained behaviors.

The really astounding discovery, however, was that the effect extended to three degrees of influence. So not only our friends’ friends, influence us deeply, but their friends too—people that we don’t even know. Wherever we go, we bring that long, complex web of influence with us and we, in turn, help to shape others’ webs of influence too.

So when set out to shape someone else’s opinion, we need to account for social networks. We may, for example, be able to play on a target’s emotions, give them all the facts and evidence and demonstrate strong social proof, but their communities—extending out to three degrees of influence—will always factor in. While we’re working to persuade, those invisible webs of influence are often working against us.

Breaking Away From A Track Record Of Failure 

In one of my favorite essays the physicist Richard Feynman wrote, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.  So you have to be very careful about that.” I can think of no greater example of this simple axiom than the practice of change management, especially with regard to communication.

There is an enormous track record of failure—study after study finds that the vast majority do not succeed. These efforts frequently devolve into transformation theater that goes nowhere, but wastes enormous amounts of resources. Consider that, after decades of trying, skills like lean manufacturing, agile development and overcoming unconscious bias are woefully under-adopted in most organizations and you begin to understand the scale of the challenge.

Part of the problem is that the most predominant change management models are not based on rigorous research, but rather case study interviews that are subject to high levels of bias. Executives are strongly motivated to spin yarns about how effective their strategies were and interviewers interpret what they hear through the lens of prior assumptions. Seldom, if ever, is any rigorous social science research referenced.

Yet when more serious research is examined, many of the change management narratives about “promoting awareness” and “creating a sense of urgency” are undone  Comprehensive research of the civil rights movement, to take one example, finds that messaging from passionate, mission-driven activists often backfires. It’s hard to see how poorly trusted corporate communication campaigns fare any better.

Communication about change needs to trod a narrow, perilous path that attracts supporters but does not ignite resistance campaigns by detractors. The good news is that we have decades of research that also show that you only need a small minority of advocates for change to hit a tipping point and trigger a cascade.

Change isn’t about persuasion, but collective dynamics. People adopt the changes that they see working around them, not the ones they just hear about. Change can’t be mandated and it can’t be wordsmithed or smart-talked. It can only be empowered.

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,, follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto, his YouTube Channel and connect on LinkedIn.

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