Viral Business Transformation

Viral Business Transformation

There are countless books, articles and papers on change and transformation management. Common for most of them is that their underlying premise is one of top-down management control. I have now come across an entirely different approach.
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The book is called “Homo Imitans” and is written by Dr. Herrero Leandro. He is a psychiatrist with a background from the corporate world. Dr. Leandro has a very different approach to change that he calls “Viral Change”. This advocates the use of distributed leadership which is based on releasing viral forces inside the organization. I have read the book and had very good conversations with Claus Maron, who is a leading Danish management consultant and part of Viral Change. So, how is this different from other models?

When the common change models don’t work

ProSci’s ADKAR model, Being First’s Change Leader’s Roadmap and similar models are all useful. They contain a number of best practice methods and techniques for change management. Their recommendations are practical to use in workshops and in designing transformation plans. However, they all seem to be based on a premise that organizational change is a top-down activity that is driven by management. Just like a comprehensive marketing plan, change can happen through a determined and well-planned process with intensive communication and education. In many cases the assumptions that these models rest on will not be there.

First, the hierarchy may not be fully effective as mechanism for getting work done. Management Science was invented in America. Inspired by military command and control structures management science assumes a hierarchy with clear accountabilities, people that give orders and people that follow. The system works well when the people within the organizations respect the structures and largely follow orders. However, in egalitarian Scandinavian countries such as Denmark people do not necessarily follow orders. This is were management science sometimes falls short. And conventional change models along with it.

Secondly, there may be falling returns to communications. Up to a certain point communications is beneficial but many companies overinvest hoping to change people through communications. Also marketing was invented in America. The discipline started out as intense communication bursts in mass media. Some of the most effective methods today are viral and based on word of mouth. The same may apply to change inside organizations.

Thirdly, education is not as effective as people think. Studies have shown that only 8-12 out of every 100 course participants actually deploy any of the knowledge in their daily work. This evidence suggests that more education doesn’t always mean more transition.

So, in cultures and organizations where hierarchies aren’t always effective and where people are overloaded with information from multiple initiatives, then there may be a need for a different approach. Viral change is an approach to transition management that is refreshingly different.

Use a change model that is focused on behaviors

Dr. Leandro makes a very clear point that “communication is not change”. Education is not even change. Too many transformation efforts are based on this (mostly) false premise. We’re both homo sapiens and primates at the same time. Our conscious thinking may be influenced by rational communications, e.g. the SVP saying that “this new process is critical to our company reaching its three year target.”  Our behaviors are based on the primate’s deeply embedded reaction patterns: Our behaviors are mostly influenced by what we see others doing.

You may not buy in to this idea: “I know people that behave like this – I’m not one of them since I’m in full control of my actions”. To this I would add that much research, e.g. on consumer behavior and within behavioral economics, contradicts this. You are not as rational as you think you are. The emotional part of your brain makes decisions before you become consciously aware of this. The rest is merely the rationalization of decisions that you have already made from emotions. (Jona Lehrer “How we Decide“).

So, if we assume that this is true then speaking to the rational part of peoples’ brains will not influence their behaviors. We need to address the emotional part of the brain to change behaviors. This is an old (often forgotten) truth within marketing but is has not found its way into mainstream change management. How do we do this? Dr. Herrero has the point that people are social animals that are much more influenced by each other than anyone cares to think. We therefore need to leverage the concept of “social copying” within transformation efforts.

Selecting change agents

Who do we copy? It is not the people usually quoted or selected as “trainers”, “super-users” or “ambassadors”. It is often not the people that management selects. I’m thinking that it is like when we were in school. If a girl (they often were) was publicly acknowledged for good behaviors, then she quickly became known as the “teacher’s pet.” From then on, no one would copy her behavior (at least where I grew up). Instead, Dr. Herrero argues, we need to select “people like us” – or slightly better than us. He quotes research that social copying is happening between friends and people that you can relate to. If your friend becomes obese, then risks are much higher that you also will.

The trick is that these people can be hard to find, since they may not be the ones that their immediate managers would appoint. You can’t go through the hierarchy to find them but must use informal channels. Ideally, these people’s roles as change agents should not be known, since that would make them formal where they need to act effectively in the informal sphere.

Two worlds of change management

In relation to his points about communication and change, Dr. Herrero separates transformation into “world I” and “world II” behaviors.

The first is the top-down model based on extensive use of push communications. It may involve ambassadors and trainers but they are mostly there to reinforce the push and help people understand how the new processes and tools work. This is the world of the formal organization where most effort is made (and resources are allocated). This is the domain of a lot of change effort.

The second world is the informal organization. Here leadership is distributed and most things are not what they seem to be in the first world. People don’t read everything they receive. They don’t always do what their managers tell them. They copy behaviors from people like them.

The trick with behaviors is to reinforce the right ones and make them visible to others. Dr. Herrero talks about the importance of storytelling. E.g. how a real story of helping a customer outside of one’s own responsibility conveys a clearer picture about customer service, than merely stating “we need to be more customer centric.” When it comes to stories then world II efforts can be used to collect stories that then can be communicated through world I communication efforts. In this way, both world I and II initiatives must be deployed to bring about change.

Using ideas from both perspectives

Dr. Herrero clearly provides a new perspective on change management. He also acknowledges the importance of best practice based approaches. The book “Homo Imitans” is valuable as a way of challenging common beliefs and providing new inspiration on the difficult topic of transformation management. However, it is not as clear in terms of practical guidance for change program managers. In this way I find it more honest than American style “recipe” books that attempt to boil down this very complex field of transition into “10 steps to…”

Lastly, I find that Dr. Herrero misses out on the potential of new web based tools to amplify the viral effect he talks about. He doesn’t fully acknowledge that in order to ensure effective transition across today’s extended company you can’t rely on personal interaction alone but need to supplement it with tools that allow people to collaborate much more closely on a daily basis. The power of online tools should be leveraged to amplify the effect of social copying.

When that is said, Dr. Herrero’s thinking provides an important perspective on behaviors and sheds light on the real challenge of changing behaviors. I believe that many people working with change could benefit from understanding this perspective and working with both World I and World II techniques to make business transformation happen.

Take a look at this video. It explains the power of viral change in a very entertaining way:



  1. Claus Maron
    October 31, 2011

    Your article provides a great summary of Viral Change TM, which is now a proven approach in several international organizations for effectively implementing behavior change- both in small as well as very large organizations.

    Your point about using collaborative technology for accelerating the “infection” amongst informal influencers as well as in creating a new organizational narrative of which new social norms and cultures are build, is very much to the point. In fact, this is why Viral Change as a “pull” and “network” based approach is becoming clear to most leaders as being the right way to orchestrate and facilitate change, in the realization that organisations can no longer “manage” change via top down driven programmes following the old paradigms of Kotter or ProSci.

  2. Viral business transformation | gluu | organizational transformation |
    November 27, 2011

    [...] Viral business transformation | gluu There are countless books, articles and papers on change and transformation management. Common for most of them is that their underlying premise is one of top-down management control. I have now come across an entirely different approach. Source: [...]

  3. Lon Blumenthal
    January 15, 2012

    While entertaining, let’s remember this was dancing, which everyone knows and can follow immediately. Organizational change initiatives around technology or process re-engineering or quality improvement or cost reduction involve skills and behaviors that are not as common and thus everyone will not / can not imitate so quickly.

    I like the process described but it is insufficient. Many activities are needed to engage people, help them think through what is happening, relate to others in a safe environment where they can admit not knowing and begin to learning the new ways.

  4. Shoshana la angioplasty
    January 27, 2012

    Nice post I’ve bookmarked it on Digg under “Viral Business Transformation | gluu”. So hopefully our friends can give you a visit. Thanks.

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