Viral Change and some thoughts about tools

· January 11, 2018

The other day a co-worker (Anders - awesome guy!) pointed me to a change management tool/methodology called Viral Change. I read about it and got quite hooked I have to say, but I’m not yet ready to make a report on how it works or it’s merited.

However, in one of the documents I read they made a little remark that I found very interesting as it brushes on many of the problems that I often have when trying to “do” agile or change into agile.

This post is about that but I have to give a little backstory and my current understanding of Viral Change.

Viral change - my current interpretation

Viral Change is a change management methodology and way of viewing change management work. It focuses a lot of networking and peer-to-peer change. They got me right at the start by saying:

There’s no real change until we see change in behavior

No! Exactly. Us talking, presenting, showing nice graphs and “re-emphasizing the message many times” (all of these are things that I have done and suggested many, many times) doesn’t mean that things have change. The only real measurement of change is the change in the behaviour of the people we want to change.

This is by the way, very close to the agile manifesto way of putting things (“Working software is the primary measure of progress” for example.

Viral Change then goes on and say that the best way to influence people is through the power of the network and peer-to-peer influence. In other words: hearing stories about how the changed behavior is better for us helped us, gave us increased X - from our peers is much more powerful than to get a new way of working handed down to us.

Again the agile manifesto is brushing on this (“The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is a face-to-face conversation.” And “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”)

This way of looking at effective change is plugged very much into my favorite Change Management Book - Switch. The authors talk a lot about telling the story and following the bright spots as effective ways of ensuring that change takes place.

Viral Change happens when you let a small group of people, with the “right” behaviors, telling/spreading these behaviors in the network. The word Viral is not by accident of course since this reminiscence the way viral diseases (or cat pictures) happens.

The final part, that I want to talk about here, is how this approach (trusting the network, letting peers) changes leadership. Because you need to move towards what Viral Change calls “Backstage leadership”. Now you are not sending HOW to do things, but rather create an environment where Viral Change (networking, peer-to-peer influence, storytelling) can happen and be effective.

Hmmm… this also resonates with me and my experiences from agile and lean. Because if you want autonomous, responsible and accountable teams in your organization you, as a leader, need to ensure that an environment where such teams thrive exists.

I’m reminded of David L. Marqueet and his intent based leadership. I love how he phrase it in this video - here are some quotes:

If you want your people to think - give intent

What are we trying to accomplish here?

You give intent to them and they give intent back to you

Stop requesting permission and start telling your intent

By doing these things the initiative shifts from you, the leader, to them the people in the organization where the change is supposed to happen.

David L. Marquet also teaches us to use the values that we want to see more of when we tell stories. That is a great way of reinforcing and promoting the values:

John was very bold yesterday when he …

Lisa showed great initiative when she invited our customer to the office

Anna arranged a really fun session yesterday …

What is right then?

The initial reason I got pointed to Viral Change was that I said that I met so many organizations that have a real reason to make change the we want to see happen. I’ve blogged about this before as my #1 reason for a change to happen. And it resonates well with Dr. Kotter’s book on Leading Change.

This doesn’t change much, in my opinion. We still need a strong reason for why we need this change. Now. But now we are instead trusting the people that are closest to the information to come up with the HOW we should change our behavior. It might be implemented differently in different places of the organization. But that is ok too - since we are shooting for the same WHY and goal. Each part of the organization now reaches the goal in the way that is most suitable and effective for them.

Influencing through values

Now… to the point of the whole post.

It looks to me that Viral Change (being a newbie to the area) happens when you let the network of peer-to-peer influence each other through stories. What are they influencing? The values. The behaviors that we change are a reflection of the values that we have.

Instead of valuing great plans and deadline compliance we start to value delivering business values. Instead of forcing people to say no to lists of features we start to value people coming up with other ways than suggested to reach a goal. I recently asked a client:

If a team didn’t deliver a thing on the backlog but reached the change in the target values (increase number of users, or what have you) - would that be acceptable throughout the organization?

Well, Viral Change has an interesting take on that too. This quote about, for example, made me think about agile (replace Viral Change TM below with “agile” for example and see for yourselves) and how I often introduce it to teams and organizations:

There are no big declarations of ‘a new programme’ or anything that looks/may look like ’another corporate initiative’6. The more visible and more formal Viral Change TM becomes, the less likely its success.

and this

In fact, the greatest risk to Viral Change TM is the almost inevitable tendency to formalize it more than needed; something that sometimes occurs spontaneously in the management ranks due to our learned way of doing things.

This is how I’ve seen change initiatives happen and how organizations have adopted new ways of working. Pretty soon it’s just “How we are doing it here” or “I don’t know if this is agile really but we do …”. This is when the values are present but there’s no need to talk about what it’s called. Maybe it’s not by the book, maybe it’s not by any book - but it serves us well and we get value from it. The values and behaviors we wanted.

Which of course ties into the first foundational principles of kanban:

Start where you are - don’t implement big changes to places and processes you don’t know will help you

The only problem with that, if there’s a problem is that it’s very hard to package this up and sell it in a box. Which leads to strange preconceptions of what agile is and how it has to be done. My favourite blogger right now John Cutler tweeted this:


Viral Change has a very nice philosophy for change management, I think. Its pretty hard to say HOW to do it, because it’s more like an idea or a couple of principles. Just like agile. Just like lean. The idea (or principles) are more important than HOW we do it. How is just implementation details?

There are many good examples on HOW of course, but rather than copying best practices (that worked for someone somewhere at some point in time different from yours) - tell the stories about what works for you to your peers.

That’s where change starts!

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