Change must be pandemic…but how?


Continuing on my path through “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Blackwell, I came upon some information that gave me a great idea: change must be pandemic, not epidemic.  While the premise behind Gladwell’s book is that there is a Tipping Point where things become epidemic it would seem that what we really want, especially in business, is a pandemic.  To understand this I think it might be best to define the difference between an epidemic and pandemic a bit more first.  Essentially they are the same thing and have much the same meaning, which is to be an outbreak of something.  The biggest difference between the two is that an epidemic is more localized, while the impact of a pandemic is more broad (generally speaking, globally).

Two of the things that Gladwell talks about in his book to help create a Tipping Point, or the moment when everything dramatically changes at once, are “the Law of the Few” and “the Stickiness Factor.”  The third is “the Power of Context.”  For this particular article, I will only be addressing the first two (I plan to have another article dedicated solely to “the Power of Context”).  All of these concepts are extremely applicable in every change that happens, and I believe that if we can understand them and be aware of them then the likelihood of a change being successful could more than double.

The first concept is “the Law of the Few.”  The way this is explained in “The Tipping Point” is that a a major change can happen from just one person, or one small group of people and still have a far reach.  This is often something that I believe is overlooked.  Imagine for a second that you have an organizational change that needs to happen in the organization.  Depending on the size of the company, it may not be feasible for one person to “infect” everyone.  But let’s say that one person takes the change, both message and actions, into one work group, team, division, or unit.  It is completely possible for that one person to make a true impact on that group of people!  Once that group has been “infected”, then they as a group can be used to “infect” others with the change.  Thinking back to change initiatives that I have been a part of in the past, I have to believe that this could certainly be an effective way of spreading a change relatively quickly, and keep everyone on the same page as it spreads.  While this is an important piece, I think it’s obvious that this can’t be the only thing to drive the success of a change, nor could it possibly be the only thing that takes a change to the Tipping Point and reach the pandemic level.

The second factor to reach pandemic level, would be “the Stickiness Factor.”  This is something that I have heard from leader’s and mentor’s through the years: you have to find a way to make the message stick.  A message must be quickly and easily remembered, as well as illicit a feeling, thought, and/or action.  This is one of the mistakes that most organizations make in some of the most important messages, such as mission and vision statements.  If no one can remember them, and they don’t illicit a response, then how in the world do you expect them to mean anything?!  Gladwell says, “The Stickiness Factor says that there are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable; there are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes.”  To me, this says that we need to simplify our message, make it repeatable, and make it something that creates a desired response.  Just as it is suggested in the book, I think an advertisement or slogan is a perfect example.  “Where’s the beef?”  “Gimme a break, gimme a break…”  “Theeeeeerrrreeeee Grrrreat!”  “Subway, Eat Fresh!” “It keeps Going, and Going, and Going.”  These are all examples of messages that I think we can all agree are memorable, and either have or still do influence reactions.   When was the last time that you used that type of message to influence change in your organization?

Being able to harness this type of power for use in organizational change could be the difference between a change being forced to happen, versus it happening on its own.  As I’m sure most of us have experienced, a change that happens organically (that is, because all parties supported it and it naturally happened) versus being forced, generally tends to happen more quickly, effectively, and efficiently (and seems to stick and spread better too!).

In my next article, I’ll take a look at the last component to keep in mind for change, “the Power of Context.”  Obviously for me it created a lot of thought, so I look forward to sharing with you then!

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