Early in 2008, I set out my thoughts on Leandro Herrero’s book Viral ChangeTM (here). Much (though not all) of his thesis on ‘how change happens’ resonates with my own informal coalitions view of organizational dynamics. In his latest book, imaginatively titled Homo Imitans, Herrero further emphasizes his view that social copying and social imitation (hence “Imitans”) can play a powerful role in an orchestrated approach to organizational (and wider social) change.
Homo Imitans is a good read. Herrero presents his arguments in a way that successfully marries some challenging propositions and background research with a conversational style. It is far removed from the superficial ‘one-minute-management’ genre of books. But it is also highly accessible. And it’s easy to see how adoption of the approach could itself become infectious – after all, I’m blogging about it here! At the same time, there are some differences between Viral ChangeTM and informal coalitions that I feel are important. But I want to address those in a forthcoming post. Here, I want briefly to outline the content of Homo Imitans and attempt to draw out some of Herrero’s main points.
The fundamental proposition of the book is that “the only change is behaviour change” and that this is brought about primarily through people copying the behaviours of others. It is through this process, according to Herrero, that cultures are formed and that change is achieved. People become ‘infected’ with new ways of behaving as they imitate the behaviours of influential others in their social networks. Importantly, from the perspective of Viral ChangeTM, this process can be orchestrated to bring about specific outcomes.
After providing an overview in Chapter 1 of what is to come, Herrero uses Chapter 2 to introduce us to what he describes as the “social life of Homo Imitans.” His main aim here is to challenge the predominantly rational, ‘thinking man’ view of the world and to supplant it – at least in relation to social change – by the view that man is, in essence, an “unsophisticated imitator”. He re-casts Descartes’ proposition, “I think, therefore I am,” with his own, “We are because we copy.” This propensity to imitate what others are doing – especially those whom we consider to be significant amongst our peers – is increased by such factors as emotional connection, a common goal, being part of a crowd, group self-regulation and ritualistic behaviour. Interestingly, though, Herrero cautions against overestimating the impact that role models have on behavioural change - although he appears to be interpreting this in the limited sense of high profile people, whether these are senior managers in organizations or ‘celebrities’ in the wider world.
Contrasting ‘worlds’ of organizational change
Herrero carries this theme forward into Chapter 3, where he provides contrasting descriptions of “two worlds.” These, he believes, are characteristic of two fundamentally different approaches to organizational (and wider social) change. The first, which he labels “World I” is ruled by Homo Sapiens. It is the “world of communication”, in which messages are sent in a range of sophisticated ways, to “push” people towards the desired changes. “World II” is the “world of behaviours,” in which the Viral ChangeTM methodology can be applied to “pull” people towards the desired goal through the dynamics of social infection. This is where we can find Homo Imitans. After contrasting the two approaches in relation to a number of issues, he concludes that “Change is a world of social infections [World II], not of broadcasting [World I].” He goes on to say, “If you are a leader, you should be in the infection business, not the broadcasting business.”
Chapter 4 is structured around what Herrero calls the “five disciplines of Viral ChangeTM.”
The first of these reiterates the centrality of behaviours to the approach. Because of the pivotal role that these play in Viral ChangeTM, Herrero spells out five characteristics of behaviours, as he uses the term – or “five tests that they need to pass” to qualify as behaviours. He cites “collaboration” as an example of a ‘behaviour’ which, in Viral ChangeTM terms, isn’t one. As it stands, it isn’t immediately actionable; attributable to an individual; unequivocal in its meaning; and so on. He also provides some advice on ways of uncovering the behaviours needed for change in a particular context. Finally here, he repeats his proposition that only a small set of non-negotiable behaviours is required to effect change in organizations and other social settings.
Since Viral ChangeTM is about orchestrating a process of social imitation around a number of influential individuals, understanding the nature of social influence and its scalability is crucial. Herrero identifies and explores this as the second of his five disciplines. The related chapter discusses a number of models of social infection, before pinpointing the one that he sees as being best suited to creating the desired social infections. It is here that he introduces the idea of a community of “change champions,” whose role it is to engage others in the desired changes, through their personal modelling of the specific behavious and informal ‘peer-to-peer’ interactions.
Next, Herrero makes the case for seeing informal social networks as the third discipline of Viral ChangeTM. He outlines ten functions that he sees these networks performing in all organizations, and argues why a focus on networks rather than team work is fundamental to change. His thoughts on how such networks might be nurtured (rather than domesticated), and how change champions might best engage with them to create the desired social infection, complete the chapter.
Discipline No.4 is defined as “accelerating a new narrative.” This is the area that comes closest to challenging Herrero’s fundamental premise that change needs to focus on behaviours rather than mindsets: “I can’t find mindsets,” he repeats on several occasions, “But I can see behaviours.” However, it seemed to me that there was an unacknowledged concession here, with recognition of the powerful effect that beliefs, including people’s self-belief, can have on the likelihood of success. Since he sees these beliefs being sustained – or potentially shifted – through stories, Herrero concludes the chapter by setting out the characteristics of a “good” story from a social change perspective.
The fifth discipline of Viral ChangeTM is what Herrero describes as “leaders outside the chart.” These people (his change champions) are chosen because they are particularly influential with their peers; not least because they are seen by their peers as being “people like us.” They are activists themselves and are able to turn others into activists. He sees this as the core dynamic of social infections. One implication of this emphasis on informal, distributed leadership is that those in formal leadership positions need to change the way that they view and practise their role. Herrero, describes this as “backstage leadership” and the overall process as “designed informality”. This means supporting the champions by creating the space for them to interact with others, whilst generally keeping a low profile.
Making it happen
In Chapter 5, Herrero describes the process that he uses to apply the above disciplines to specific organizational changes. He describes the “Viral ChangeTM Roadmap” in terms of five distinct phases. To counter the anticipated charge that the process looks worryingly linear (Herrero’s Five Steps to contrast Kotter’s eight, perhaps) he stresses that these phases “frequently overlap”. After outlining the elements and sought-after outcome of each phase, he concludes the chapter by reprising the key points of the Viral ChangeTM approach (his “Viral ChangeTM manifesto”) and showing three examples of how this has been applied in organizations.
Wider still and wider
Herrero devotes Chapter 6 to what he describes as “the art of social infection.” Here, he explores the application of his Viral ChangeTM approach to issues in the world beyond organizations. His main message is that the dynamics of social change are the same, whether we are considering these at a micro (organizational) or macro (societal) level. He also argues that each can learn lessons from the other. The chapter provides some reinforcement for his earlier discussion, by casting the ‘five disciplines’ in a different (non-organizational) light. At the same time, it usefully underscores Herrero’s point about the futility of trying to achieve widespread social change through formal, structured, “World I” approaches.
Does it work?
In a brief final chapter, Herrero addresses the obvious “Does it work?” question. The chapter is cryptically titled “Viral ChangeTM cannot fail (it can also fail).” In it, he argues firmly that its logic cannot fail “because it has to do with real people engaging with other real people doing something tangible and reproducing it again.” At the same time, he acknowledges that, as a methodology for getting from A to B, it all depends on how well that methodology is applied (in relation to the guidance provided in this and his earlier books).
Herrero would like to see Viral ChangeTM become a way of life in organizations - that is, the normal, everyday way of doing business. And he argues that whether or not it ‘works’ in that sense is very much in the gift of those involved – nobody else.
Homo Imitans and informal coalitions
Leandro Herrero makes a persuasive case for leaders in organizations to adopt his Viral ChangeTM methodology. And, as I said in the introduction to the post, much of what is written in Homo Imitans would find echoes in my own, informal coaltions view of organizational dynamics. Although there are some important differences, which I will explore in a future post, Homo Imitans provides many valuable insights into the process of organizational change that challenge conventional practice. I thoroughly recommend it.
You can buy a copy of Homo Imitans here