In the previous post, I commented on Leandro Herrero's latest book Homo Imitans, which provides further insights into his Viral ChangeTM approach to organizational change. As I stated in my review, I agree with many of the things in it. For example, I share Herrero’s insistence that change doesn’t happen unless and until people ‘do’ things differently (although what constitutes “doing” might be up for debate). In Informal Coalitions, I also echo the importance he places on peer-to-peer influence; the powerful dynamics of organizational (i.e. social) networks; and the need for a different view of the leadership task (although, again, we might differ on what that different view might be). I wholeheartedly agree, though, how easily the momentum for change can be derailed where managers insist on applying the full panoply of textbook ‘tools and techniques’ to ‘manage’ the process. Herrero cites such things as formal, spreadsheet-based reviews; KPIs to measure the extent of interaction; bonuses for the “change agents” (who sit at the heart of his Viral ChangeTM methodology); and so on, as sure-fire ways to undermine the process. Amen to that.
So, there is much about Herrero’s description of “Viral ChangeTM in action” that meshes with my own informal coalitions perspective. At the same time, there are some important differences that I want to highlight.
- the ‘mechanism’ that accounts for the widespread adoption of new ways of working - in particular, the crucial role played by narrative and conversation in bringing about change;
- the complex social dynamics of organizational life, which belie the notion that change outcomes can be controlled in line with a predetermined plan – whether virally based or not; and
- the role played by formal leaders in the change process.
Change happens through conversation
Taking these points in order, a central tenet of informal coalitions is that change happens (or doesn’t happen) as a result of the everyday conversations and interactions that comprise the organization. As the conversations change, so does the organization. Herrero explicitly acknowledges the importance of narrative in his chapter entitled, “Accelerating a New Narrative,” and identifies the role played by talk (advocacy) in the activism-advocacy process through which Viral ChangeTM “Champions” are intended to mobilize support for the new behaviours. However, despite this, conversation seems very much to be a poor relation to behaviours in the Viral ChangeTM methodology – rather than being seen as the central dynamic of organizational change.
But behaviours are meaningless until they are made sense of through conversation.
And so, whilst agreeing that there is no change without behavioural change, it is through shifting the conversations that new behaviours become identified, validated and embedded.
Failure is an option
Comments made on the original post have echoed, in particular, the second point above. This challenges the apparent claims in Homo Imitans that Viral ChangeTM can only fail if it is not carried out ‘correctly’: “Viral ChangeTM cannot fail (it can also fail).” As consultants, we all want to help our clients to succeed (however that might be defined). But the complex social dynamics of organizations, on which viral change depends, preclude the notions of certainty, predictability and control that are implicit in Herrero’s assertion of the “cannot fail” proposition. A complex social process view also recognizes that it is impossible to link particular behavioural changes either to a specific intervention or, more importantly perhaps, to overall organizational outcomes. This also means that stepwise processes for bringing about change, as advocated in Homo Imitans, are inconsistent with the informal coalitions view, which sees organizations as socially complex “networks of self-organizing conversations” and outcomes as emergent.
It is crucial in my view to raise managers’ awareness of these underlying dynamics of organizational life – and the challenge that they make to conventional management assumptions and practice.
The role of formal leaders
Finally, I want to look at what I see as the crucial role played by formal leaders in relation to change in organizations.
Possible changes to currently dominant policies and practices can emerge anywhere in the organization, as the result of people’s everyday interactions. People coalesce informally around those conversational themes and behaviours that make sense to them and that take hold locally. Some of these responses will remain ‘in the shadows’, as local ‘custom and practice’. Others will surface as formal propositions, if and when it is judged that sufficient support exists to ‘carry the day’ in the formal arenas of the organization. This is a natural dynamic of people interacting together. Those in formal leadership positions (throughout the organization) behave in exactly the same way in relation to changes that they wish to bring about in the currently ‘legitimate’ strategies, systems and processes etc. At least they do if they are politically ‘savvy’. But, at such times, their formal ‘rank’ counts for little or nothing. As with everyone else’s attempts to influence outcomes, it is the informal power relationships - coupled with the comparative attraction of competing narratives - that determine what happens in practice.
When a proposition that has emerged in this way is formally adopted as policy, its successful implementation then depends on the emergence of active coalitions of support for the desired changes amongst those involved in making it work. In relation to organizations, it is at this point that the Viral ChangeTM methodology would be brought into play by its advocates.
As part of this, Herrero argues strongly that managers need to remain “backstage”, with the change-leadership role being exercised by a cohort of specially identified “change champions”. The latter would be drawn from the ranks of those who were judged to be most influential amongst their peers. As described in the “Viral Change in Action” chapter of Homo Imitans, the operation of this network of change champions would be orchestrated by skilled practitioners of the Viral ChangeTM methodology, following a defined process. And this process would operate in parallel to the formal line organization.
It is here that the informal coalitions perspective departs significantly from the Viral ChangeTM approach. Herrero feels that it is important for those in formal leadership positions, throughout the organization, to keep out of the informal interactional processes through which the planned changes are brought about. Their role in Viral ChangeTM is primarily to stand back from the action and create space for the change champions to carry out their role – adding reinforcement to the changes after the event, through effective use of the formal communication channels.
In contrast, I see the participative role of line manages – from the CEO to first-line supervisors – as central to the change process. In many respects, leading change (i.e. seeking to build active coalitions of support within their teams for what are intended to be organizationally beneficial changes ) is the essence of their leadership task. Like Herrero, I see the informal social networks as the real engines of change in organizations. It’s just that I would argue that it is the task of leaders, rather than an artificial structure, to seek to energize and focus these natural dynamics for organizational benefit. I feel that part of the problem here is seeing formal leadership as unavoidably locked into the assumptions and practices of what Herrero describes as “World I” principles and processes (see previous post). “World I” uses all of the conventional forums and practices of management aimed at “getting the message across” to people about the Whats, Whys and Hows of change. It is formal, structured and deliberate. In contrast, “World II” recognizes and exploits the dynamics of social interaction, with all of its informality, spontaneity, and emergence. In simple terms, he sees managers as inhabiting World I, whilst change champions (who are not managers in this formulation) are masters of World II.
The central proposition in Homo Imitans is that organizational change is all about behavioural change. To underline this point, Herrero maintains that communication is not change. By this, though, it seems to me that he means communication of the ‘World I’ variety, based on formal efforts to get management’s message across to an essentially passive and hoped-to-be-receptive audience. But the reality is that managers can’t not communicate. Everything that they say and do – including everything that they don’t say and don’t do – sends messages to people. They are unavoidably ‘on the pitch, playing’. They are not ‘sitting in the stands’, objectively observing other people’s actions before intervening ‘by design’ to reinforce the outcomes. The informal coalitions approach seeks to encourage and enable managers to participate actively and with more insight ‘in the moment’ of everyday interaction.
Sense-making conversation is at the heart of managers' participation, directed towards “proving vision” through their day-to-day interactions with staff. That is, helping people (including themselves) to ‘see better’ and seeking to build active coalitions of support for what are intended to be organizationally beneficial changes. But, even then, there can be no certainty as to what outcomes might emerge from their involvement.
Working with the natural dynamics of organizations
In conclusion, the informal coalitions perspective seeks to help managers understand and work with the natural dynamics of organizations, rather than seeking to create a separate, parallel structure to bring about specific changes (“orchestrating social change”, as it is described in Homo Imitans).