viral changeViral change is a change management concept introduced by Leandro Herrero in his books “Viral change” (2008) & “Homo Imitans” (2011). His core idea: change is only sustainable if it changes behavior of people & behavior doesn’t change in a top-down, large scale, push mode.

A more effective approach applies these six principles:
1. Choose a very specific behavior or practice that you want to change in a organisation. It’s behaviors that make the difference.
2. Make the change easy scalable and applicable for influential role models.
3. Use informal networks and channels to spread the change.
4. Accelerate new narratives. Use story telling, images, symbols to spread the change.
5. Viral change needs servant leadership. It are not the formal leaders who are in charge of “pushing” new habits.

This approach to cultural change fits well with the leadership thinking of The Future Leadership Initiative. The understream in an organisation makes it possible to swim in a certain direction. Building trust, developing social capital, having a clear story & knowing how to bring it, sensing & listening: these are the leadership skills that fit organisations that need flexibility and creativity.

Last monday we gathered change champions of 6 large organisations to discuss the practice of viral change and share their insights. Here are some of the conclusions.

1) Growing awareness of the importance of reinforcing informal ways of changing culture & leadership in an organisation. Old change habits loose their magic. Not only because ‘top-down, planned & based on rational analysis’ doesn’t win the hearts of people, but also because there’s no more time and money to do it in a large scale way.

2) A lot of variety in viral change practices. Common is the use of ambassadors: people who commit themselves out of free will to a desired change.

3) Key lessons learned: emotion & free will are key and it takes time for people to trust the organisation that it’s for real. Therefore a long term perspective is necessary. Key stakeholders at the top need to favor this long term & viral strategy and define the boundaries. Results take time and are less predictable. Appreciate the small changes. No big, large project teams, but a small crew facilitating the dynamic & injecting energy pills in the process. Make it visible in an emotional way (using images, walls of fame, stories, gadgets…). Provide room for reflection. Limit restrictions, top-down interventions to a strict minimum.

4) A lot of questions remained unanswered: How to measure success? How to balance ‘letting go/trusting the process’ and ‘organizing & pushing the progress’? How to go beyond the coalition of the willing? How much commitment of the top is needed?

5) Discussing these questions, it became clear that they are closely linked to the personal belief systems of the viral change agents. Initiating viral change is risky and raises personal issues: How much do I trust the organisation & the change ambassadors? How convinced am I of the need for change? How willing am I to let go personal objectives and ambitions? How much energy do I have or want to inject in the process and how sustainable is my energy investment strategy?

Changing virally is closely related to developing leadership. Once a leader or change champion lets go the idea of top down command and control, he or she opens the door for doubt, never ending questions, endless checks and balances. The change agents in the TFLI workshop acknowledged that having a safe place to discuss these more personal doubts and fears, is a critical success factor for continuing their journey of changing their organisation in a viral way.

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