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The revenge of the fanny pack - a lesson learned from the fashion industry on how to spread change

The true potential of digital transformation only comes alive if the technological advancement underneath is matched by changes in behavior. Whether it's employees or customers, if the behavior does not change, the impact of new technology will be limited. Adoption of new things follows an established pattern known as the bell curve or normal distribution.

The good news here is that there will likely already be a small group of early adopters and you probably know exactly what these people look like for the particular change you are trying to make happen in your organization. They are excited about the potential of the change and eager to move forward. Every change management book will tell you that it is this group that needs to be your engine to drive change to the rest of the organization. (one of my favorite 'summary' books on change is Switch, by the Heath brothers).

How is easier said than done. Just putting these people on a stage or communicating early adoption success stories in the organization is not enough. The adoption of the new behavior often stalls with this initial group. It does not spread further and then even in this group the change erodes away and behavior slides back to the status quo before.

The worlds of fashion may be of help in understanding how to break beyond the early adopter group.

Enter the Bum Bag - the revenge of the Fanny Pack. If you are walking on the streets of your home town, there is no escape from this latest fashion phenomenon. Pay attention and you will see young boys and girls all wearing a small waist bag diagonally across one shoulder. When I was young, this fanny pack as we knew it then, was a symbol of people who were not fashionable at all. How times have changed.

So what happened?

The way the bum bag has become a standard fashion pick for young people today can largely be explained by looking at contagion models. Without wanting to go into too much detail, there are three aspects that are essential for something to spread: thresholds, exposure, and the new normal. Thresholds say something about how quickly a person will adopt fashion or a different kind of change, like adopting a different way of work or a new business process. If one of my friends or a celebrity starts wearing a bum bag, will I want one too?

Exposure has everything to do with the proximity to the early adopters. Do I even know any of these bum bag wearers in my circle of friends, do I get exposed to it? And finally, there is the new normal, the point when the change has become the status quo. The point where everyone will be say they feel like they should have a bum bag as everybody else seems to have one. The lesson to be learnt from contagion models is how deliberate you are in working with these three aspects of the contagion models. Fashion designers would wish they could be so targeted in driving adoption of the latest trend, but in the case of internal change, you do have that ability.

A common pitfall in driving change in organizations is that people look at the whole target group for the change. And in order to get to a new normal, you need to get a large chunk of that group to adopt the change. Getting to that number seems almost impossible. How many people does it take to get close to influencing the whole population?

A smarter approach is to look at sub-groups and think about exposure, threshold and new norm in that smaller setting. Take different teams in the organization for instance, they will have a few of those initial early adopters. And those are all you need.

The key is to very actively look at that team and assess the threshold levels for adopting the change. Rank the individuals and create extra exposure in a smaller sub-group between those with a lower threshold to adopt change and the early adopters. They will create a new normal in this sub group, growing your adopters. Move your way up the chain until you hit the new normal for that team. By helping individual team managers drive this process in their team, you are creating the new normal for the whole group automatically.

Many organization change programs or efforts to drive adoption of technology don't break it down into small enough subgroups to be able to get an adoption push effect from a relatively small number of early adopters.

As with any model, this is a simplification of reality and does not take into account the different weight people may have in influencing others but if you want to be very sophisticated, you can add that to this approach as well.

In summary, to drive adoption of change you should (1) help your teams identify what those early adopters look like, (2) assess the threshold of the team to change and (3) create exposure with the early adopters to create the new normal.

Working with these three aspects of contagion models will help you land the changes you seek to make in an organization.

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