Organizational Change – Part 1: Viral Ideas

This post is Part 1 of a 4 part series looking at strategies and tactics for creating change in organizations! If you like it, consider signing up at the bottom of the page for email alerts of new posts.

Check here for Part 2: Changing organizations is like moving a memory foam mattress.


Emerging from the last year and a half, most of us are still processing the reality of a world with COVID. The way we see and experience everything has shifted — many of us have learned far more about epidemiology and microbiology than ever before. Before 2020, the notion of “viral spread” may have seemed abstract or cliche — now, we think of it as literal. But this understanding can actually work to our advantage if we apply it in practical ways that inspire how we act. 

How? For example, consider how change manifests in an organization. Suppose a company is moving to use a new framework for quarterly planning. This change doesn’t happen all at once; it starts with individuals passing ideas and concepts to one another until these ideas and concepts eventually become the new normal.

This phenomenon can be better visualized on a spectrum over time rather than through the lens of a binary yes/no perspective. The successful adoption of new ideas can ultimately be measured in their appropriate use at various points of need. Back to our earlier example: let’s say a team is adopting OKRs. First, they recognize the opportunity and make the choice to use it, then they identify an opportunity, and finally use this new concept. A lot can go wrong in this series of events: failure to recognize an opportunity to use the new tool, failure to remember the existence of the tool, failure to value it enough to use it, etc. Assuming the change is a good one, these points are all dictated by knowledge — knowledge of the tool and why and how to use it. So when we think about organizational change, we have to think about the movement of ideas in an organization.

So what does all this have to do with living in a post-COVID world? The metaphor of the pandemic is surprisingly apt: the spread of knowledge or ideas can, after all, be easily compared to that of a virus. We can break down the likelihood of idea spread into these parts:

  1. The infection rate – for each person exposed to an idea, how likely are they to internalize and remember it?
  2. The contagion rate – once internalized, how likely is one to spread the idea to others? (I made this term up, so it’s not infectious disease specialist approved — this is the R0 we heard so much about in 2020 — it’s technically called the “basic reproduction number” which doesn’t sound as good.)
  3. The infection length – once learned, how long does the idea stay in one’s mind?

As we look at organizations through the lens of viral ideas, we can better understand how we might increase (or decrease) the odds of ideas spreading. Let’s look at each of the above parts and see what we can find out.

Infection Rate – When exposed to a new idea, what are the chances that someone will retain that idea?

If our goal is to make an organizational change effective, we have to make our ideas infectious (in the best way possible). Some strategies for doing this effectively include:

1. Explaining why the idea matters for individuals, 

2. Making the idea as easy to digest as possible, and 

3. Giving people multiple exposures to the information in different formats.

If you’re designing a campaign to change something, stop and ask how you can get the idea to stick.

Contagion Rate – Once a new idea has entered into someone’s mind, how likely are they to share it with others?

What makes you share an idea or concept with a friend or colleague? We typically share information because it’s of some benefit to ourselves, the other person, or both. Why not capitalize on those potential upsides and play up the benefits when designing change campaigns? We can also look for ways to remove friction to sharing; that means avoiding situations in which someone would otherwise share the idea we’ve successfully infected them with, but doesn’t do so because of some difficulty or obstacle in the way. For example, imagine a great new dashboard for monthly success metrics hidden behind a VPN that requires new login credentials to access. Implementation details like this matter.

Think about the kind of information that goes ‘viral’ on the internet. In many cases, it’s content that sparks emotion: humor, outrage, etc. The ubiquitous internet meme is a great example of this. The content is short and easy to digest, and is often served in a familiar pattern: a well-known image overlaid with text. (The word “meme” was even coined to describe ideas or content that spread quickly and easily. You may recall such late 2000s examples as: grumpy cat, success kid, or philosoraptor.) News articles or videos can also be viral — often they’re accompanied by a headline that hooks attention, drawing on curiosity or outrage to encourage people to click and investigate further. 

We can leverage what meme-makers, marketers, and journalists have learned here to help make our messages more effective. Obviously (hopefully), it’s not a straight one-to-one conversion. If you’re reorging a department, it’s probably not the appropriate time to send out a meme company-wide. However, we can still use simple messages, hooks, and emotional content to make our message effective in both capturing attention and in encouraging re-sharing. 

(An example of how you probably don’t want to communicate your ideas in the business world)

In a work context, where we often have shared goals and successes, the easiest way to appeal to emotion and hook interest is often to include a ‘why’ in our explanations. Explaining why something is valuable for the goals of the individual and those around them will make that idea or concept more likely to be read, shared, and discussed.

Borrowing again from online viral culture, we can also make sharing easier. It’s often far simpler to share a link to a document or send a Slack message to communicate something to a colleague than trying to convey the same information in the context of a 20-minute video or a training course. Those media and platforms are important too and have their place, of course, but they do raise the barrier to quick, efficient sharing, which comes with a cost worth considering. It’s often better to lead with an easy hook, capture attention, and then provide resources to audiences or recipients to further inform themselves if they’re interested.

Ask yourself: Why and how will people share this new concept? How will it benefit them and those around them?

Infection Length – Once an idea has entered our minds, does it stay present long enough to affect future actions?

How many of you have heard someone — maybe it was you — say something like, “I learned Spanish in high school, but can’t remember any of it these days.” This occurs because knowledge that we don’t use weakens over time. The connections between synapses in our brain lose strength when not used, making recall less likely. 

Before this comes into play though, knowledge needs to make the leap from short-term to long-term memory. Both repeat reminders and emotional weight play a role in this conversion from one form of memory to the other, influencing retention. Luckily, if you’ve already put some time and attention into explaining why an idea is important, you’ve inherently created emotional weight, which aids that retention.

But emotional weight isn’t often enough to guarantee that information remains sticky; that’s why it can be so valuable to create reminders too. You can do this by finding ways to use multiple channels of communication or repeat the same messages on the same channel to reinforce your message. One thing to be mindful of, however, is that simply repeating the same message over and over or spamming a channel or email group with the same message will often have the opposite effect — people will tune out. So how do you avoid that? Try making the content varied or specifically target people with just the pieces they need to know or care about at a given moment in time.

Ask yourself: What will make this idea stick in people’s minds? How will I remind them?

Final thoughts on creating viral content for change 

Creating an effective learning organization and figuring out the changes necessary to manifest those learnings is a lifetime discipline, with each company and change having its own nuance and intricacies. In my experience, having a handful of mental models like this one helps point me in roughly the right direction. They provide a quick baseline set of questions and practices to consider. From there, I can customize the message and the delivery to suit the needs of the moment. 

I hope considering how to make your communications more viral will help you find ways to create positive change for yourself and those around you.

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