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7 Fundamental Strategies for Change
Strategy 1: Don’t rely on contagiousness.
Social change does not spread like a virus. A viral advertising campaign doesn’t enable new ideas to take hold. Simply attracting eyeballs will not suffice. Not only that, it can backfire. If word of an innovation reaches everyone but nobody adopts, the unintended effect is to make the innovation look undesirable. Think of Google+. A negative stigma arising from a widely publicized failure can undercut future efforts.
To make your change initiative successful, do not rely on the contagious spread of information to solve the problem. Use strategies that are designed to grow support for complex contagions, which will allow behavior change to take hold and take off.
Strategy 2: Protect the innovators.
Non-adopters are often countervailing influences. Any social-change effort that requires legitimacy or social coordination depends as much on limiting skeptical signals from non-adopters as it does on creating reinforcing signals from adopters. Innovations that face entrenched opposition from established norms can spread more effectively when early adopters have less exposure to the entire network.
This is a matter of balance between being protected and being connected. You need to create enough wide bridges to allow the innovators to work together to spread the new idea, while giving them ample reinforcement from one another so that they do not get overwhelmed by countervailing influences. A good way to do this is to target social clusters in the network periphery.
Strategy 3: Use the network periphery.
Highly connected influencers can be a roadblock for social change. This is because they are connected to a vast number of countervailing influences—that is, people conforming to the status quo. The key to initiating social change is to target the periphery. Think of the Arab Spring. The network periphery was associated both with greater propagation of activist messages and with greater turnout at protest events.
Stop looking for special people, and focus instead on special places. Think of the spread of contraception in Korea. Your resources are precious. Use them in the places where they will have the most impact. People in the periphery are less connected, and therefore more protected. The network periphery is the place where unfamiliar innovations take hold and spread.
Strategy 4: Establish wide bridges.
A narrow bridge typically consists of a single weak tie between groups. Narrow bridges have reach but lack redundancy, which is necessary to spread complex contagions. To spread a new behavior from one group to another, wide bridges are essential for establishing the necessary trust, credibility, and legitimacy. Think of the growth of Black Lives Matter.
Any attempt to coordinate a large and diverse population should be based on establishing wide bridges between different subgroups—among different divisions within an organization, across different communities and regions, and between different political constituencies.
Strategy 5: Create relevance.
There is no magic bullet for creating relevance, no single defining trait that is always influential. However, a few general principles are helpful for understanding how relevance gets established from one context to another:
- When behavior change requires that people be given social proof that a particular innovation will be useful for them, similarity with the adopters is a key factor for creating relevance.
- When behavior change requires a degree of emotional excitement or feelings of loyalty and solidarity, then, once again, similarity among the sources of reinforcement will help to inspire behavior change.
- When behavior change is based on legitimacy—that is, believing that the behavior is widely accepted—then the opposite is true: diversity among reinforcing sources of adoption is key for spreading the innovation. Think of the equal-sign campaign on Facebook.
When it comes to creating relevance, context is king. Deciding whether the key factor is diversity or similarity (and what kind of similarity) depends upon the barriers to adoption—the kind of resistance that your desired behavior change will be most likely to encounter. Is it an issue of credibility, legitimacy, or excitement? Once you identify the kind of resistance, you will also know how to create relevance.
Strategy 6: Use the snowball strategy.
The snowball strategy creates stable pockets of legitimacy for an innovation. The emphasis here, again, is on special places, not special people. Incubator neighborhoods allow a new behavior to compete against an established norm. Contrary to the lessons learned from decades of research on simple contagions, too much exposure to non-adopters early on is counterproductive. Two principles can help you apply the snowball strategy:
- Know the community and its boundaries. Is your target community composed of farmers in Iowa, homeowners in Germany, or villagers in Zimbabwe? Who are the people you want to reach, what do they believe, and what are the social norms you want to change? To tip a social norm, you must first determine the boundary of the community that you want to change. Is it a neighborhood, a state, or a nation? Is it an online chat group or a political party? Is it an organizational division or an entire firm? Once you know the boundaries of your community, the next step is to find the special locations within the network.
- Target bridging groups. Bridging groups are social clusters that establish wide bridges between divisions. Think of a group working between the engineering team, the design team, and the sales team. Bridging groups are special because they are the most centrally located groups in a social network. Individually, the members of a bridging group are indistinguishable from anyone else. They are not highly connected “influencers” or brokers, nor are they even likely to know they occupy a special location. Their influence comes from the fact that collectively they sit amid more wide bridges than any other social cluster in the population. This makes these network locations efficient for initiating snowball campaigns.
Strategy 7: Design team networks to improve discovery and reduce bias.
Networks are not neutral. They either foster innovation or they hamper it. They either promote knowledge transfer across groups or they reduce it. The right contagion infrastructure spurs teams to be more creative, and groups to be more cooperative; the wrong one can thwart creativity and cooperation.
Breaking free of old ideas and discovering new common ground requires a contagion infrastructure that preserves diversity and stimulates the discovery of new knowledge. Untapped knowledge lives in the network periphery. The right contagion infrastructure can bring that knowledge to everyone—and reduce a group’s unconscious bias in the process.
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