The butterfly effect – how viral change can aid transformation

Finding the right people to spread the message is a key factor in the success of a viral change strategy

Implementing change is often talked about as being one of the biggest challenges for organisations. The traditional approach has based around a linear system, involving large-scale changes and lots of meticulous forward planning. But there is another option.

Viral change challenges this view and proposes that change is non-linear. The concept was first introduced by Dr Leandro Herrero, who applied his medical and academic knowledge to combat leadership and change issues in businesses across the world. Instead of concentrating on the consequences of not changing, vast training programmes and how important the change is, it focuses on a small set of non-negotiable behaviours and actions for a small number of people who will produce change via the butterfly effect – contagious behaviours that spread over time until they eventually become the norm.

Knowing the meaning and theory behind viral change can be extremely useful in promoting transformation within companies. The first step is for business leaders to identify the desired behaviours they wish to see integrated within the company, and then look for the people who are crucial to this change. They should be the sorts of people who other colleagues naturally gravitate towards and get along with as these are the people who get asked questions such as: ‘What do you honestly think about the new system?’ and: ‘Do you actually agree with this?’ This high level of connectivity between members of staff can be a great way to facilitate change.

It is then vital for managers to clarify exactly what they want from these initiators of change. This will include outlining any issues they might come up against and explaining how the managers will help and support them. It can even be a good idea to encourage them to set up blogs and chat groups to discuss the changes. The best piece of advice I can give after years of experience in this area is to encourage long coffee breaks. Although this is normally frowned upon, the ‘open space’ methodology for interventions and change in large groups was first born in the coffee room.

It is also important not to highlight them too much in front of other members of staff. This includes not getting them up on stage alongside the CEO or making special allowances, as they are simply running in parallel to the formal management, not overriding it.

It’s not unusual for peaks and troughs to appear in the change process, with conflicts surfacing between managers and the group of initiators of change as they go about spreading the word in their own, unique way, which may well disagree with the ideals of the managers. However, this provides another great opportunity – to demonstrate ‘ambiguity management’.

Using viral change as opposed to the more traditional, linear approach can prove extremely fruitful in today’s world – if the change is approached in the correct manner.

Stephen Fortune is principal consultant at The Oxford Group