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Real Change Requires a Majority

Real Change Requires a Majority

GUEST POST from Greg Satell

“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas,” said the computing pioneer Howard Aiken. “If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats,” and truer words were scarcely ever spoken. We tend to think that if an idea has merit, everybody will immediately recognize its value, but that’s almost never true.

Ignaz Semmelweis, quite famously, advocated for hand washing at hospitals, but was ostracized, not celebrated, for it and would himself die of an infection contracted under care before his idea caught on. William Coley discovered cancer immunotherapy over a century ago, but was thought by many to be some sort of a quack.

Good ideas fail all the time. Part of the problem is that people who believe passionately in an idea feel compelled to win over the skeptics. That’s almost always a mistake. The truth is that the difference between success or failure often has nothing to do with the inherent value of an idea, but where you choose to start and the best place to start, is with a majority.

The Fundamental Fallacy of Change Management

Pundits tell us that change is inevitable, so we need to create a sense of urgency about it. They say we must “innovate or die,” because those who don’t “get it” are dinosaurs and, much like their reptilian brethren, they are bound to die an awful, painful death once the asteroid hits (and, the implication is, they will deserve it too).

History, however, shows us exactly the opposite. People like Ignaz Semmelweis and William Colely had truly groundbreaking ideas that could have saved millions of lives if they were adopted earlier. Nevertheless, those in the medical establishment that thwarted their efforts thrived while the innovators themselves suffered greatly professionally and personally.

It’s not just the medical profession either. Take a short tour throughout history and it becomes clear that unjust and incompetent regimes can have remarkable staking power. The status quo always has inertia on its side and rarely yields its power gracefully. A bad idea can last for decades, or centuries even.

The fundamental fallacy of change management is that it is essentially a communication exercise, that change fails because people don’t understand it well enough and if you explain it to them in sufficiently powerful terms, they will embrace it. The truth is that change fails because others oppose it in ways that are devious, underhanded and deceptive.

That needs to be your primary design constraint.

The Power of Local Majorities

Merely telling someone about change, no matter how artfully, is unlikely to be effective, but that doesn’t mean that people are immune to persuasion. In fact, there are decades of studies that show that people naturally conform to ideas that are widely held by others around them.

Consider this famous series of conformity experiments conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s. The design of the study was simple, but ingenious. Asch merely showed a group of people pairs of cards like these:

Asch Experiment Greg Satell

Each person in the group was asked to match the line on the left with the line of the same length on the right. However, there was a catch: almost everyone in the room was a confederate who gave the wrong answer. When it came to the real subjects’ turn to answer, most conformed to the majority opinion, even when it was obviously wrong.

Clearly, most ideas are not nearly that unambiguous, which is why, despite having made breakthrough discoveries, Semmelweis and Coley had so much trouble getting traction for them. The majority of the medical establishment was resistant and Semmelweis and Coley found themselves in the minority. Majorities routinely push back against minorities.

The Threshold Model of Collective Action

One important aspect of Asch’s conformity studies was that the results were far from uniform. A quarter of the subjects never conformed, some always did, and others were somewhere in the middle. We all have different thresholds to adopt an idea or to partake in an action, based on factors like confidence in our ability to make judgments and expected punishments or rewards for getting it right or wrong.

The sociologist Mark Granovetter addressed this issue with his threshold model of collective behavior. As a thought experiment, he asks us to imagine a diverse group of people milling around in a square. Some are natural deviants, always ready to start trouble, most are susceptible to provocation in varying degrees and the remainder is made up of unusually solid citizens, almost never engaging in antisocial behavior.

Threshold Model Greg Satell

You can see a graphic representation of how the model plays out above. In the example on the left, a miscreant throws a rock and breaks a window. That’s all it takes for his friend next to him to start and then others with slightly higher thresholds join in as well. Before you know it, a full-scale riot ensues.

The example on the right is slightly different. After the first few troublemakers start, there is no one around with a low enough threshold to join in. Rather than the contagion spreading, it fizzles out, the three miscreants are isolated and little note is made of the incident. Although the groups are outwardly similar, a slight change in conformity thresholds can make a big difference.

It’s a relatively simplistic example, but through another concept Granovetter developed called the strength of weak ties, we can see how it can lead to large scale change in the final graphic below as an idea moves from group to group.

From Thresholds to Cascades Greg Satell

The top cluster is identical to the one in the first example and a local majority forms. However, no cluster is an island because people tend to belong to multiple groups. For example, we form relationships with people in our neighborhood, from work, religious communities and so on. So an idea that saturates one group soon spreads to others.

Notice how the exposure to multiple groups can help overcome higher thresholds of resistance, because of the influence emanating from other groups through weak links. When you start with a majority, even if it is a small, local majority, an idea can gain traction, move from cluster to cluster and almost infinitely scale.

As I explain in my book, Cascades, there is significant evidence that this is how ideas actually do spread in the real world. The crucial point here is that it makes a really big difference where you choose to start. If you start with people who are enthusiastic about your idea, you are much more likely to succeed than if you choose people who are resistant.

So rather than trying to convince everybody at once, you are much better of identifying people who are likeminded and working on a Keystone Change that can for them basis of a larger transformation.

Working to Attract, Rather Than Overpower

When we look at the stories of Semmelweis and Coley through the prism of local majorities and resistance thresholds, we can see the mistake that they made. Having made truly breakthrough discoveries, they naturally assumed that others would see value in them. Instead, they ran headlong into a highly resistant majority and got squashed.

In my work helping leaders drive organizational transformations, I see this happen all the time. People who believe passionately in an idea naturally assume that others will “see the light.” Not surprisingly, they want to move quickly and overpower any resistance. This is especially true if they feel that they have institutional power behind them.

Yet that is almost always a mistake. There is a reason why the vast majority of organizational transformations fail, even though they typically have big budgets and C-Suite support behind them. To drive meaningful, lasting change you can’t rely on overpowering resistance, but must work to attract and empower genuine support.

That means you need to start with a majority. In the beginning, that may mean starting with a small, local majority— say, three people in a room of five. You can always expand a majority out, but once you find yourself in the minority, you will immediately feel pushback. The secret to overcoming resistance to an idea and driving it forward is understanding that you get to choose where to start.

Revolutionary change always starts with the art of choosing wisely.

— Article courtesy of the Digital Tonto blog
— Image credit: Pixabay, Greg Satell

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Think Like a Tech Company or Go Out of Business

Think Like a Tech Company or Go Out of Business

by Braden Kelley and Linda Bernardi

Even in 2014, there are business sectors who feel they are not ‘tech companies’. News flash: Whether you are a consumer products company, an insurance company, a hotel, or a pharmaceutical company, your business is a technology business. Why?

Technology is the link between any business and its customers. To say technology is not core to your business strategy, means you think customers are not the key to your business success. So, your business is a technology business whether you want it to be or not.

Today technology is how you market and sell your products, make your business more efficient, and most importantly, how you stay connected to your customers. Some companies mistake the importance of technology to mean that they need to open a twitter account and monitor social media, put in an ERP and CRM system, and revamp their web site. But the importance of technology in today’s business environment is more than that.

ERP and CRM are common tools, a requirement to remain competitive, and while social media and the internet are important to sales and marketing success, they are becoming yesterday’s news as customers develop deeper connections to their mobile devices. If you aren’t on their devices and interacting in a meaningful way with them there in real-time, you won’t stay connected to them in the long run.

Let’s look at the impact on a few different industries whose members tend not to see themselves as technology companies:

1. Fortune 100 consumer product goods (CPG) companies
2. Hotel Chains
3. Big Box Retailers

1. Fortune 100 CPG companies typically manufacture large quantities of consistent products and have visually pleasing (static) web pages for consumers. But they don’t use technology well enough to detect what the market wants before it knows it, often fail to personalize or customize products to customer needs, and usually lack the online networks that could help connect other customer product needs together into new potential product ideas that the company could co-create with their customers. Often connection means post mortem analytics on data collected in the past, or, analyzing previous customer interactions with static web pages. Creating authentic customer connections requires online and mobile technology these companies usually don’t possess. I don’t mean apps (which often are pretty much the same as a website), but new physical/online/mobile engagement models that inspire customers to stay connected to the company (and each other) in a dynamic, evolving community. Rethinking is needed here. The customer is not just a buyer but an influencer. If CPG companies want to sell that next bottle of $300 facial cream, they better consider delighting, and not just marketing to, their customer base.

2. AirBnB has proven to be a major disruptive force in the hotel and hospitality business, grabbing a massive foothold in a market that the Homeaway.com member companies created and should have dominated. Resistance to AirBnB is massive and lawsuits are abundant, but for a moment let’s go beyond the hype and explore the angst of traditional hotels. AirBnB created a highly connected, effective community of property owners and property renters. This bi-directional ecosystem can only thrive if they are both happy and satisfied. To experience what they’ve created, first go to a traditional hotel website (pictures of room, building, lobby) and then go to AirBnB and browse the hundreds of customer experiences their property owners offer. On the hotel site you’ll see they’ve created the mechanics of paying to rent a hotel room, while on AirBnB you’ll see that they’ve created both an ecosystem and an experience.

3. Big box retailers have done a poor job of seeing themselves as technology companies capable of fending off challenges from online-only retailers. Target made the mistake of seeing themselves as a retailer, not a technology business, and so they outsourced their ecommerce to Amazon in the beginning, only to regret doing so because Amazon was able to learn which 20% of their inventory drove 80% of their profits, and when.

Meanwhile, Costco and Walmart, despite being two of the most successful retailers in the world, have struggled to find success online because they can’t get beyond their brick and mortar heritage to see themselves as a technology business with an integrated online/offline ecosystem. Seriously, it is 2014, do we still need to get our Costco circulars in the mail? Nothing has changed about Costco’s interaction with its customers. Walmart exacerbated the disconnection between the two sides of their business by creating a separate online division and exiling it to Silicon Valley. Costco sells different products online than offline. The results of both of these approaches have been far from stellar.

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Technology Lowers Barriers to Entry

In the history of the world, it has never been easier to start and scale a business to a global footprint, not in a matter of decades or years, but in months. And it is not just the other companies in your industry and technology-driven startups that you have to worry about if you choose not to view yourself as a technology company and move as fast as they do. You have to worry about competition from established technology players like Google and Amazon too, because one day they (or people that used to work for them) might decide that your market is attractive enough to enter and come disrupt your industry. For example, Amazon has become a book publisher and a financial services company.

Technology Enables Experiences

Technology enables the creation of customer experiences. I am going to choose my insurance company based on my experience. At the end of the day if all prices are comparable, then how the businesses you interact with make you feel, and the connections you’ve built with them will matter more. Without an emphasis on using technology to make your business a social business, you will find your company displaced by others that do. You must lead your industry in identifying opportunities to use technology to get closer to your customers. The future of business will be all about delighting customers and making their experience more personal.

Technology is not just a tool, but central to everything you do in today’s always on, always connected digital age.

Here are ten ways that technology can help you become a more social business:

  1. Building Connections
  2. Developing Networks
  3. Global Sensing and Prediction
  4. Sharing Recommendations
  5. Creating Experiences
  6. Personalization
  7. Customization
  8. Co-Creation
  9. Crowdsourcing
  10. Open Innovation

To give you an example of what things will look like in the future, the forward thinking health insurance company will leverage the mobile device for virtual ID cards, drug interaction warnings, personal triage, mobile care, wellness, cost sharing calculations, FSA/HSA administration, diagnostics, and more.


In conclusion, no matter what business you are in, it is very dangerous not to see technology as a competitive differentiator and a core driver of your business. Instead, you must constantly look at how you can become more of a technology company in order to enable deeper customer connections and more meaningful experiences. Today if you don’t connect with, understand, delight and start predicting your customer’s needs/wants, you may not thrive in your industry and your competition and new entrants who do embrace technology will replace you.

This article is brought to you by Linda Bernardi and Braden Kelley. Collectively, we have over 30 years of experience working with large, global multi-disciplinary enterprises. We write this with care and passion as we want your enterprises to succeed. We would love to hear your thoughts.

Guest Collaborator:

Linda BernardiLinda Bernardi is a Technology Strategist, Investor, and Founder & CEO at StraTerra Partners, The Bernardi Leadership Institute and a Strategic Advisor at Cloudant Inc. She is also the Author of Provoke, Why the Global Culture of Disruption is the Only Hope for Innovation. Learn more here about Linda’s work on disrupting large enterprise analytics.

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What is the Role of Personal Branding in Achieving Innovation Success?

What is the Role of Personal Branding in Achieving Innovation Success?I’ve been thinking a lot lately about personal branding, in part because I’m about to begin a new commissioned white paper and so I’ve been re-visiting my popular white paper for Innocentive – Harnessing the Global Talent Pool to Accelerate Innovation, and what I wrote about personal branding there:

“… the world continues to move away from being a place where employees expect to have jobs for life, and fight against any change to this paradigm, to a world where portfolios, personal branding, and project-based work will become more common in an increasing number of industries. The evolving world of work is becoming a world in which individuals will need to be really good at collaborating and playing well with others, while also honing their skills at standing out from the crowd. At the same time, the external perception of your network value will expand from a focus on internal connections to also include the talented minds you might know outside the organization that can be brought in on different projects or challenges.”

So, let’s dig in…

The power of the individual versus the power of the collective. This is a tension that has been around longer than the practice of human resources and talent management as an occupation. While the organization is concerned with achieving success for the collective, too often we forget that the collective is made up of a collection of unique individuals, and that each of these individuals have a collection of unique skills, talents, and abilities that may or not directly fulfill the needs of their role and the organization’s goals and brand promise:

“To build a brand, you must start a conversation with your customers. Your customers have to know that you stand for something and that they can count on you to deliver upon your brand promise.” (April 20, 2012)

While the role of the individual in helping to fulfill the organization’s brand promise is often not considered, it should be, at the same time that the organization considers whether its chosen individuals adequately fill the defined job requirements that the organization believes are necessary to fulfill the collective’s mission to achieve revenue and profits for its shareholders, value for its clients and donors, or benefits for its constituents (depending on whether you’re talking about a for-profit, non-profit or governmental organization).

If we look at each role in an organization as an attempt by management and human resources to find a perfect match for the job requirements that live within a certain circle, the fact is that for every role, the circle of the individual’s skills, talents, and abilities will never perfectly overlay the circle of the job requirements, it will always look like a Venn Diagram with a good candidate possessing a large amount of overlap, but with always some of their skills, abilities, and talents lying outside of their job requirements’ circle.

But most organizations (referred to as Typical Organizations in the graphic below) fail to harness the skills, abilities and talents of the individuals they have in their organization to achieve greater performance as a collective. In my mind this is painful, wasted human capital – painful for the organization (lost potential revenue and profitability) and painful for the individual (boredom, stress, and disappointment).

Wasted Talent and Human Capital

But, a handful of more progressive, innovative organizations are trying to do better to harness the passions AND the skills, abilities, and talents of their individuals to better achieve the collective’s ability to generate revenue and profits (or other appropriate benefits) by engaging their employees in the innovation efforts of the organization, and allowing their employees to take some of their skills, abilities and talents and apply them to help fulfill other job descriptions. This looks something more like this:

Building an Innovative Organization

But in the most progressive organizations, they not only provide a way to better harness a more complete set of their employees’ skills, abilities and talents to more than one job description, but they also find a way to harness more of the skills, abilities, and talents that employees are currently realizing outside the organization in their hobbies, volunteer work, or other places.

And the successful organizations of the future will not stop there. They will also harness the connections their employees have outside the organization to increase the innovation capacity of the organization, and better engage not only partners in helping to fulfill the needs of different job descriptions, but they will also even engage their customers in achieving the work of the organization.

Where customer or partner skills, abilities and talents intersect with the job requirements, work can get done, and where customer or partner skills, abilities or talents intersect with employee skills, abilities or talents intersect, communities and connections have the chance to form and be nurtured. This is what organizations of the future will look like:

Organization of the Future

In this scenario, where innovative organizations begin to move beyond better harnessing the internal innovation capacity of their employees, to also harnessing the external capacity to work (and to innovate) of individuals outside of the organization (and to expand the scope of the collective), and to attract partners and customers to participate, organizations that allow and even encourage employees to develop a personal brand and greater external connections, will claim an outsized share of the potential benefits to both the mission of the organization and to its innovation efforts.

If your employees lack the external exposure, the external connections, and the external personal brand equity and awareness, how much harder will it be for your organization to:

  1. Attract the best partners to your innovation efforts
  2. Recruit the best customers to co-create with you
  3. Build a strong pipeline of potential future internal talent

Through this lens you can see that in the future, innovation success will be determined not just by how strong the brand of your organization is (or the collective), but also will be shaped by the strength of the personal brands of the collective’s component individuals.

Does your organization recognize the value of your personal brand to the innovation success of the collective, and foster it, or attempt to prevent you from growing your personal brand equity?

What is your personal brand, how strong is it, and how are you going to leverage this to power innovation in your organization?

Keep innovating!

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Innovation Quotes of the Day – April 11, 2012

“Innovation transforms the useful seeds of invention into solutions valued above every existing alternative – and of course widely adopted.”

– Braden Kelley

“Innovation is fostered by information gathered from new connections; from insights gained by journeys into other disciplines or places; from active, collegial networks and fluid, open boundaries. Innovation arises from ongoing circles of exchange, where information is not just accumulated or stored, but created. Knowledge is generated anew from connections that weren’t there before.”

– Margaret J. Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science

What are some of your favorite innovation quotes?

Add one or more to the comments, listing the quote and who said it, and I’ll share the best of the submissions as future innovation quotes of the day!

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