Many say that people fear change, but everywhere I go in the world speaking, advising executives and conducting workshops, I find most are excited about it. Senior leaders tell me about their inspired visions for their enterprise, but complain that they can’t get employees to buy in. Middle managers gripe that they have transformational ideas, but can’t get the bosses to go along.
The problem is that while people are passionate about their own ideas, they tend to resist other people’s initiatives, especially when they feel change is being imposed upon them. That’s a key reason why the vast majority of transformations fail, because in their desire to create a “sense of urgency” and make change seem inevitable, leaders try to convince everybody at once.
Even for relatively small- and mid-sized enterprises, that’s a mistake. Starting with a big kickoff campaign is more likely to activate resistance than it is to win over a majority. It’s also unnecessary. Decades of research shows that you don’t need to convince everybody for an idea to take hold. That one simple principle can help bring about impactful and far-reaching change.
The Burning Platform Myth
Traditionally, many managers launching a new initiative have aimed to start big. They work to gain approval for a substantial budget, recruit high-profile executives, arrange a big “kick-off” meeting, then look to move fast, gain scale, and generate some quick wins. All of this is designed to create a sense of urgency and inevitability, but can often be seen as heavy-handed.
Consider a 2014 report by PwC that revealed that 65% of respondents in corporations cited change fatigue, 44% of employees complained they don’t understand the change they’re being asked to make, and 38% say they don’t agree with it. A more recent study by Gartner in 2020 suggests that propensity for change fatigue doubled during the pandemic and a 2022 survey by Capterra found similar results.
The good news is that you don’t have to convince a majority for change to take hold. In fact, we have decades of evidence that a significant minority is completely sufficient:
- Sociologist Everett Rogers’ “S-curve” research showed that it takes only 10%-20% of a system to adopt an innovation for rapid acceptance by the majority to follow.
- Professor Erica Chenoweth’s analysis of over 300 political revolutions in the past century finds that it only takes 3.5% of the population in a society actively participating to succeed, and many campaigns have prevailed with less.
- Recent research by sociologist Damon Centola at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the tipping point for change is getting 25% of people in an organization on board.
So rather than trying to convince the skeptics from the outset, a much more effective strategy is to identify people who are already enthusiastic about the idea and want transformation to succeed.
Start with a small local majority.
In 2014, when Russell Lowery-Hart took over as President of Amarillo College, he set out to fundamentally transform the two-year institution employing 1,700 faculty and staff. Yet he didn’t begin with a lot of fanfare. In fact, he started with just six students and a handful of staff. By 2021, the previously struggling college was named a finalist for the prestigious Aspen Institute Prize for Community College Excellence and then won it this year. [Disclosure: I did a workshop for Amarillo College in April of 2022.]
In the context of the entire organization, that initial group was a small minority. But in the context of the room, the majority wanted to see the initiative succeed. We can always expand a local majority out — say, three people in a room of five — and from that seemingly insignificant base transform an entire organization, but once we’re in the minority we will feel immediate pushback.
In a similar vein, when Enyinnah Okere at Edmonton Police Service in Alberta, Canada started the innovative HELP Program, designed to reduce crime by helping at-risk citizens get access to social services before they got into trouble, he didn’t try to convince everybody at once. Instead, he started with just the officers who thought the plan could work. Within a year, the program was showing results*.
Decades of scientific research suggests that the best indicator of what we think and do is what the people around us think and do. Majorities don’t just rule, they also influence. We can always expand a majority out, but once we’re in the minority, we’re likely to get immediate pushback. That’s why it’s always better to start with a small local majority and, while we can’t control everything, we can control who we start with.
This strategy not only works at mid-sized organizations like Amarillo College and the Edmonton Police Service, but is also effective at even the largest global enterprises. When John Gadsby, a middle manager at Procter & Gamble started his PxG initiative for process improvement, he started small. “We didn’t look to make an immediate impact. We just looked for people we could help. And helping people, we built a small community,” he told me. Today, 4 years later, 60,000 employees have signed on.
Sell success rather than an idea.
Many think that driving change is about persuasion, so they focus on how to sell the idea, wordsmithing slogans and creating fancy presentation materials. The truth is that feeling the urge to persuade is a warning sign. It means you’re either starting with the wrong people or you have the wrong idea.
A much more effective approach is to leverage early enthusiasts to focus on a keystone change which has a tangible goal, involves multiple stakeholders, and paves the way to greater change. This isn’t necessarily a “small win,” but it should be low-risk enough that a failure won’t be noticeable enough to impede the overall change effort.
For example, at Amarillo College, Lowery-Hart learned that many new students were so fearful of institutions that they would arrive at the parking lot and drive right back out. So, he started posting faculty members as greeters for the first few weeks of the semester. At the Edmonton Police Service, Okere began with two social agencies, Boyle Street and The Mustard Seed that were focused on homelessness and eager to collaborate.
Focusing on a keystone change allows you to get out of the business of selling an idea and into the business of selling a success. At Amarillo College, faculty immediately began to notice that their classes were more full than usual. At the Edmonton Police Service, it turned out that some officers were, in fact, pulling their own private strings to get help for people and the program helped facilitate and magnify those efforts.
When people see that something is working, they want to be involved, and they bring in others who can bring in others still. That’s how you can grow your initiative to reach the 25% participation threshold that tips the system toward widespread change.
Build on your success.
One of the most important things I learned about change while researching my book Cascades is that it is non-linear and transmitted socially through networks. That’s why it’s so important to proceed carefully in the beginning, protecting an idea that is unproven and vulnerable, because failure of an initiative will proliferate and discredit the idea of change itself.
Yet it also means that success can lead to even greater success, widening and deepening through those unseen connections in the ecosystem. It was with that idea in mind that Amarillo College set up the Innovation Outpost to build on its success and spread change throughout its community.
“Small- and medium-sized businesses are the economic engine in Amarillo, and we’ve found that many share our values of learning, innovation, and outcomes,” says Todd McLees, Managing Partner of the center. “They also need a skilled workforce. So, we’re partnering with organizations like the Amarillo Global Food Hub to ensure that businesses have the workforce they need and people in the community have good jobs. It’s having a transformative effect.”
In a similar vein, thanks to the astounding success of the HELP program in Edmonton — during a global pandemic and in an environment of racial strife no less — police services from across Canada are coming to learn how they can implement similar ideas. And John Gadsby is increasingly asked to bring the transformational DNA he developed at PxG to other parts of the enterprise.
People tend to notice transformation once it’s already happened, and often get the impression that because it became big that it started that way. That’s almost never true. Initiatives become transformative through building success upon success. You don’t need to convince everybody all at once. You need to start with a small group that’s enthusiastic about change. That one small principle can make a big difference.
*Editors’ Note: This sentence has been updated
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