“Everything has changed, even change has changed” is a proverb that is increasingly true. In this article Bengt Järrehult will describe the good old top-down or cascading approach compared to a more bottom-up or viral way.

Recently I was interviewed by a consultant as part of a preparation for a conference. When I mentioned the word “cascading” he laughed. I asked why and he said “You’re the 4th person I am interviewing, and you have all mentioned the word cascading. This must be a very typical word in companies of your size and maturity.”

Cascading change

What do we mean with Cascading Change? This is a top-down process when directives and other initiatives are taken down through the layers of the organization.

Layer 1, the CEO (The yellow dot in fig C1, C for Cascading) tells Layer 2 (fig C2), Layer 2 tells Layer 3 (fig C3) etc. Ideally this would lead to a situation as in fig C5 where the initiative has penetrated the whole organization, but quite often this is not the case. In each cascading step some of the energy and therefore some of the message seems to get lost. Depending on the structure of the organization (cascading is facilitated by centralization) we often end up with a situation such as fig C6, where the initiative has penetrated some parts of the organization but by far not all. Hence the mass-effect gets lost and people run after different guidelines. In some cases Cascading Change is the only suitable way for change, as when legal issues or directives shall penetrate the whole organization. A more effective (but less efficient) way is then when the initiators of the message directly convey the message to as many layers as possible.

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Viral Change

Have you ever seen cascading initiatives lose their energy passing through the Organization? Well, there are alternative ways for change!

There is another way change can happen called Viral Change, coined by Dr Leandro Herreroin his book Viral Change, but also advocated by famous authors like Malcolm Gladwell in the book Blink and the Heath brothers in the book Switch. This way of change, the authors mean, is the only way that true change can happen, meaning change is better and even much faster internalized when it goes via the epidemic or viral route rather than top-down.

It may start with an initiative in the middle of an organization (fig V1, V for Viral). If the success of this initiative does not happen, it slowly fades away, unnoticed (fig V2) and no harm done. However, when sufficient effort and luck leads to a successful result of an emerging initiative (fig V3) it starts to spread (fig V4). If the change initiative is really successful we reach the situation where almost the whole organization has adopted it (figs V5 & V6). Success speaks for itself as others “See-Feel-Change” (cf. Chip Heath in Switch) and is hence very contagious.

Takeaway: There is a tendency that when we realize change is necessary, we often start to implement it ASAP…. sometimes before we even know whether this change is beneficial for us or not, simply because we have not tried it out yet. This is a risky endeavor with big stakes! By being a bit more dynamic and smarter in risk taking (at small scale and hence at low costs of failure) we could allow for more experimentation with change initiatives to be done in chosen areas. When and if these experiments succeed – they will spread automatically if we just allow for it.

By Bengt Järrehult

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About the author

Bengt Järrehult is Fellow Scientist Innovation at SCA, a global hygiene products and paper company. He is also adjunct professor and visiting professor resp. at 2 departments of Lund University in Sweden. He is an avid reader of and presenter on the topics of innovation, especially on breakthrough innovation and the psychological hurdles that exist to achieve this, hurdles that we may or may not be aware of. He is of the opinion that most companies more or less know what to do to become more innovative. What they don’t know is what really hinders them from doing these measures…