"Lasting change in the modern organization has less to do with massive ‘communication to all’ programmes and more with the creation of an internal epidemic of success led by a small number of non-negotiable behaviours."
The book was easy and enjoyable to read. And it was like a breath of fresh air to come across an approach to change that doesn’t advocate the top-down, project-based, all-singing-all-dancing methodologies that tend to dominate current management thinking and practice. Although Viral Change is not written from an informal coalitions perspective, much of Herrero’s commentary on how organizations work and how leaders need to act to bring change about is consistent with the ‘complex social process’ view of organizational dynamics which underpins the informal coalitions approach.
Overview of the book
Central to Viral Change is the proposition that it is people’s everyday behaviours that determine an organization’s ‘culture’, not the formal statements, structures and processes that usually emerge from conventional ‘cultural change’ programmes: “There is no ‘change’ in the organization until there is behavioural change in the individuals”.
Having established this as a key principle of the Viral Change approach, Herrero identifies 15 conventional assumptions about organizational change. He then sets out to debunk these in the remainder of the book, which is usefully arranged into three complementary sections:
- In the five chapters that make up the first section, “In Theory, for the Pragmatists”, Herrero sets out his argument for the Viral Change approach. Here, he explores some of the conventional wisdom on organizational change. He then puts forward his own insights into how organizations work and the implications of these for change-leadership practice. These are based on his early background in psychiatry, and his later experience in business leadership and consultancy.
- Section 2, “In Practice for the Theorists”, comprises seven chapters which deal with the four main components of Viral Change. These are described as language, new behaviours, tipping points, and rules and rituals (or ‘culture’). The framing of the change, the identification of a small set of “non-negotiable behaviours”, and the propagation of these behaviours through the organization’s informal influence networks provide the main focus of this section.
- Finally, Herrero summarises the approach that he tends to use when applying Viral Change in organizations, and ends by revisiting the 15 change management assumptions from a viral change perspective.
Parallels with Informal Coalitions
As suggested above, there are many parallels between Viral Change and the informal coalitions approach to organizational change. In particular, the use of natural relationship networks throughout the organization to build active coalitions of support for change echoes Herrero’s statement that Viral Change “spreads by influence and connectivity”. In Viral Change, “Networks of people are [its] primary conduit … [in which] change is created by social imitation in networks of influence and driven by a few individuals who act as key nodes.” According to Herrero, “there is no point in communicating to all and cascading down as the only mechanism of spreading change.” Similarly, the informal coalitions approach calls on leaders to ‘go where the energy is’ and to ‘push at half-open doors’, rather than relying on organization-wide roll-outs of centrally driven messages, programmes and processes.
From a Viral Change perspective, change is achieved by the complex interaction of “four drivers”, namely language; new behaviours; tipping points; and rules and rituals (‘culture’).
Language is equally fundamental to the informal coalitions approach. Viewing organizations as ongoing networks of self-organizing conversations, places sense-making talk and interaction at the core of change-leadership practice. Helping people to frame, or make sense of, activities and events in particular ways is an especially critical aspect of this. It is a powerful part of change leadership that is also highlighted by Herrero.
Behaviours and, in particular, the embedding of a small set of “non-negotiable behaviours” are the primary focus of the Viral Change approach. This is based on the belief that “behaviours have an enormous capacity to trigger and create organizational change”. Herrero argues that behaviours are spread through a combination of such things as the influence of certain individuals, mechanisms of social influence and the personal characteristics of people throughout the organization (such as their individual receptiveness to new ideas and the extent to which they are connected to others). If the efforts to create an “internal epidemic of success” are successful, a tipping point will be reached at some point at which the new behaviours become take-for-granted ways of working. To bring this about, Herrero advocates the establishment of an internal group of “change champions” to help spread the change, through their individual and collective influence of people within their own, local networks.
Informal coalitions similarly recognises that macro-level outcomes emerge from the interplay of the micro-level behaviours that constitute everyday organizational life. These behaviours arise from the ‘local’ conversations and interactions that individuals have with others in their personal networks. The challenge of change leadership is therefore to influence the content and patterns of these conversations; that is, the way that people make sense of things and decide how to act. If the conversations change, so will the behaviours and so, in turn, will the outcomes. Building active coalitions of support around particular change objectives therefore depends on similar dynamics to those that underpin Viral Change:
- The de facto content of the ‘change’ will be determined by what people share in their local conversations and express through their everyday behaviours. If leaders want to ‘shift’ the patterns of these conversations and change behaviours, it is important that the ‘story’ that they share with staff (directly and indirectly) makes sense to them and resonates with their own personal frames of reference. Within this, as Herrero suggests, the way that the change itself is framed in people’s minds is critical.
- The nature and number of connections that each person has to the organization’s natural influence pathways will have a powerful effect on their engagement with the change and resultant behaviour. Being aware of these patterns of connections, and tuning into the themes that are organizing everyday conversations, interaction and behaviours, provides another important input to the coalition-building process.
- The conduct of the process is the third key element of coalition-building. This centres on the quality and nature of leadership communication. Most particularly, success depends on the extent to which leaders are able to engage with the informal conversational networks mentioned above. It is in this way that the principles of coalition building take practical effect. The informal coalitions approach strongly emphasises the primary role of line managers in the coalition-building process, whereas Viral Change advocates the deliberate creation and education of a separate (and therefore ‘structured’) network of “change champions” to ‘infect’ the organization.
In both cases, role modelling is seen as a very powerful influencer of people’s behaviour, as individually and collectively they make sense of what they see and decide how to act. In any event, if the new behaviours are to take hold, the informal coalitions view of organizational dynamics would insist on the need for active sponsorship of the change throughout the line. This is also recognized as an important role for managers to play in Viral Change: “Support of the champions network is done backstage, protecting their space and time, facilitating and enabling their possibilities for infection.”
- Finally, leaders need to pay continuing attention to the context within which change is taking place. As part of this, it is important to ensure that the formal structures, systems and processes enable (rather than work against) the desired changes in behaviour. In Viral Change, Herrero refers to this task as one of aligning “the plumbing system”.
From an informal coalitions perspective, though, the patterns of underlying, cultural assumptions are particularly important. These arise from – and at the same time tend to channel – the everyday sense making and action taking through which individual behaviours and collective outcomes emerge. Because of his deliberately behaviourist framing of ‘culture’, Herrero dismisses cultural dimensions other than visible behaviours because he sees these as being largely un-actionable. Paying attention to the ‘global’ patterns of assumptions is therefore one dynamic of organizations that does not feature overtly in the Viral Change methodology.
I agree that formal artefacts of culture, including statements of values, processes and rules etc, are only made real through the ways in which people make sense of them and decide to act (behave) through their local interactions. The ‘global’ patterns of taken-for-granted cultural assumptions similarly only have any meaning through the in-the-moment impact that they have on specific sense-making and use-making conversations. At the same time, though, the “thinking culturally” element of the change-leadership agenda recognises that the observed behaviours of leaders (i.e all line managers) have the most significant impact on the underlying patterns of cultural assumptions that emerge. Remaining alert to the likely impact of their own words and actions, including silence and inaction, is therefore a critically important aspect of change leadership.
And in the end …
Viral Change is presented as “the alternative to slow, painful and unsuccessful management of change in organizations.” To achieve this, it takes the power of the informal organization seriously. Most importantly, it seeks to engage with this in ways that recognize its self-organizing dynamics; calling on management to “manage the ambiguity, discomfort and possible conflict arising from a distributed leadership model”.
Overall, I found the book an extremely valuable resource as well as an enjoyable and entertaining read. Although it resonates strongly with my own perspective on the dynamics of change, it approaches the subject from a different viewpoint. This provided a healthy mixture of challenge to, and support for, my own thinking, as well as provoking further questions and insights.
More information on Viral Change can be found on Leandro Herrero’s own blog.