This was an interesting study (HT @Emollick) looking at tipping points in social convention. Researchers conducted an experiment to test what proportion of people were needed to successfully challenge a norm that was held within the group. They looked at groups of people that had acheived a consensus about something (in this case the name of a person shown in a picture) and then they were individually exposed to a ‘confederate’ from the group that promoted a different name. The only incentive that the group members had was to coordinate. The study showed that when the proportion of confederates reached around 25% of the group this then enabled the opinion of the majority to be swayed to that of the minority. The researchers conclude that when it comes to changing social conventions, tipping points do exist and that established behaviour can be changed once minority groups have reached the right crictical mass.
Whilst the researchers acknowledge that there may be some variation in the size of the critical mass needed to successfully change opinion dependent on context, they also note that it is possible to anticipate how certain dynamics may impact this. And the principle is a really useful one.
Take any kind of change that an organisation is trying to implement. What so often happens is that the CEO or senior leaders treat this as a marketing exercise, making an announcement about the change or new direction and expecting behaviour to change in short order. Of course the reality of this situation is that staff just go back to their day jobs and any kind of change struggles to embed itself.
The idea of tipping points in supporting changes in beliefs or social convention is useful since it allows for a much more focused approach in which leaders can set a new course but then work with pioneers and early adopters within the organisation (who understand and can exhibit the change) to demonstrate what that change represents, start to make it happen, and begin to build momentum towards the desired end state. This is akin to the well known ‘diffusion of innovations’ curve (above) which sets out the process by which ideas and technologies are communicated and adopted in a social system. If we were to consider this as a ‘diffusion of transformation’ curve, the same principles apply – leaders should really focus their efforts on those initial pioneers and early adopter groups to forge a new path (note: Simon Sinek articulates this well here but I don’t agree with him that leaders should ignore the rest of the organisation and focus ONLY on those first groups).
Organisations are social systems. The big lesson here is that there is real benefit in taking a more deliberate and qualified approach to transformation (and cultural change in particular). I’m interested to know whether this is anyone else’s belief or experience as well?
Image: Rogers Everett, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons