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Continuous improvement gone viral

Søren Pommer
Last updated on 09/04/2024

There are countless books, articles and papers on continuous improvement tools, change and transformation management tools. Common for most of them is that their underlying premise is one of top-down management control. I have now come across an entirely different approach for continuous improvements.

The book is called “Homo Imitans” and is written by Dr Herrero Leandro. He is a psychiatrist with a background from the corporate world. Dr Leandro has a very different approach to change that he calls “Viral Change”. This advocates the use of distributed leadership which is based on releasing viral forces inside the organisation. I have read the book and had very good conversations with Claus Maron, who is a leading Danish management consultant and part of Viral Change. So, how is this different from other continuous improvement tools and change management tools?

When the common change models don’t work

ProSci’s ADKAR model, Being First’s Change Leader’s Roadmap and similar models are all useful. They contain a number of best practice methods and techniques for change management tools and continuous improvement tools. Their recommendations for change management and continuous improvement tools are practical to use in workshops and in designing transformation plans. However, they all seem to be based on a premise that organisational change is a top-down activity that is driven by management. Just like a comprehensive marketing plan, change and continuous improvements can happen through a determined and well-planned process with intensive communication and education. In many cases, the assumptions these models rest on will not be there.

First, the hierarchy may not be fully effective as a mechanism for getting work done. Management Science was invented in America. Inspired by military command and control structures management science assumes a hierarchy with clear accountabilities, people that give orders and people that follow. The system works well when the people within the organisations respect the structures and largely follow orders. However, inegalitarian Scandinavian countries such as Denmark people do not necessarily follow orders. This is where management science sometimes falls short. And conventional change models along with it.

Secondly, there may be falling returns to communications. Up to a certain point, communications is beneficial but many companies overinvest hoping to change people through communication. Also, marketing was invented in America. The discipline started out as intense communication bursts in mass media. Some of the most effective methods today are viral and based on word of mouth. The same may apply to change and continuous improvements inside organisations.

Thirdly, education is not as effective as people think. Studies have shown that only 8-12 out of every 100-course participants actually deploy any of the knowledge in their daily work. This evidence suggests that more education doesn’t always mean more transition.

So, in cultures and organisations where hierarchies aren’t always effective and where people are overloaded with information from multiple initiatives, then there may be a need for a different approach – a new view on e.g. continuous improvement tools. Viral change is an approach to transition management that is refreshingly different.

Use a change model that is focused on behaviours

Dr Leandro makes a very clear point that “communication is not changing”. Education is not even changing. Too many transformation efforts are based on this (mostly) false premise. We’re both homo sapiens and primates at the same time. Our conscious thinking may be influenced by rational communications, e.g. the SVP saying that “this new process is critical to our company reaching its three-year target.”  Our behaviours are based on the primate’s deeply embedded reaction patterns: Our behaviours are mostly influenced by what we see others doing.

You may not buy into this idea: “I know people that behave like this – I’m not one of them since I’m in full control of my actions”. To this, I would add that much research, e.g. on consumer behaviour and within behavioural economics, contradicts this. You are not as rational as you think you are. The emotional part of your brain makes decisions before you become consciously aware of this.

The rest is merely the rationalisation of decisions that you have already made from emotions. (Jona Lehrer “How we Decide“).

So, if we assume that this is true, then speaking to the rational part of peoples’ brains will not influence their behaviours. We need to address the emotional part of the brain to change behaviours. This is an old (often forgotten) truth within marketing but it has not found its way into mainstream change management. How do we do this? Dr Herrero has the point that people are social animals that are much more influenced by each other than anyone cares to think. We, therefore, need to leverage the concept of “social copying” within transformation efforts.

Selecting change agents

Who do we copy? It is not the people usually quoted or selected as “trainers”, “super-users” or “ambassadors”. It is often not the people that management selects. I’m thinking that it is like when we were in school. If a girl (they often were) was publicly acknowledged for good behaviours, then she quickly became known as the “teacher’s pet.” From then on, no one would copy her behaviour (at least where I grew up). Instead, Dr Herrero argues, we need to select “people like us” – or slightly better than us. He quotes research that social copying is happening between friends and people that you can relate to. If your friend becomes obese, the risks are much higher that you will become obese too.

The trick is that these people can be hard to find, since they may not be the ones that their immediate managers would appoint. You can’t go through the hierarchy to find them but must use informal channels. Ideally, these people’s roles as change agents should not be known, since that would make them formal where they need to act effectively in the informal sphere.

Two worlds of change management

In relation to his points about communication and change, Dr Herrero separates transformation into “World I” and “World II” behaviours.

The first is the top-down model based on extensive use of push communications. It may involve ambassadors and trainers but they are mostly there to reinforce the push and help people understand how the new processes and tools work. This is the World of the formal organisation where most effort is made (and resources are allocated). This is the domain of a lot of change effort.

The second World is an informal organisation. Here leadership is distributed and most things are not what they seem to be in the first World. People don’t read everything they receive. They don’t always do what their managers tell them. They copy behaviours from people like them.

The trick with behaviours is to reinforce the right ones and make them visible to others. Dr Herrero talks about the importance of storytelling. E.g. how a real story of helping a customer outside of one’s own responsibility conveys a clearer picture about customer service than merely stating “we need to be more customer-centric.” When it comes to stories then World II efforts can be used to collect stories that they can be communicated through World I communication efforts. In this way, both World I and II initiatives must be deployed to bring about change.

Using ideas from both perspectives

Dr Herrero clearly provides a new perspective on change management and how it can lead to continuous improvements. He also acknowledges the importance of best practice-based approaches. The book “Homo Imitans” is valuable as a way of challenging common beliefs and providing new inspiration on the difficult topic of transformation management. However, it is not as clear in terms of practical guidance for change program managers. In this way, I find it more honest than American style “recipe” books that attempt to boil down this very complex field of transition into “10 steps to…”

Lastly, I find that Dr Herrero misses out on the potential of new web-based tools to amplify the viral effect he talks about. He doesn’t fully acknowledge that in order to ensure effective transition across today’s extended company you can’t rely on personal interaction alone but need to supplement it with tools that allow people to collaborate much more closely on a daily basis. The power of online tools should be leveraged to amplify the effect of social copying.

When that is said, Dr Herrero’s thinking provides an important perspective on behaviours and sheds light on the real challenge of continuous improvement and changing behaviours. I believe that many people working with change could benefit from understanding this perspective and working with both World I and World II techniques as continuous improvement tools to make business transformation happen.

Take a look at this video. It explains the power of viral change in a very entertaining way:

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Frequently Asked Questions

How can I effectively implement the viral continuous improvement method within my own company or team?

Implementing the viral continuous improvement method in your company starts with adopting a change of mindset. The starting point should be fostering a high degree of collaboration, openness, and transparency among team members. Encourage your employees to contribute their ideas and ensure those ideas are given due respect and consideration. A shift towards lean management principles is an absolute necessity because it drives more efficiency.

What are some practical examples of processes that were effectively improved using this model?

Regarding practical examples of processes that were effectively improved using this model, it is a bit tougher to cite specifics without mentioning particular contexts or industries. However, in generic terms, the method can streamline different processes where inefficiencies, redundancies, or unnecessary complexities exist. For instance, businesses can significantly reduce hand-offs in a supply chain, speed up their delivery times, eliminate digital silos, or even revamp customer service protocols to deliver better customer satisfaction. Each application of this model indeed depends on the specific needs and conditions of the business operation.

How can I measure and monitor the effectiveness of viral continuous improvement in my workplace?

To gauge the impact of the viral continuous improvement in your firm, align specific measurable indicators with your goals, such as decreased processing times or improved customer satisfaction. Regular reviews can offer essential insights into its efficiency. Remember, continuous improvement is a long-term process requiring patience and adaptability. Acknowledge minor achievements to motivate your team and be ready to fine-tune as needed to cope with changing demands.

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