Why You Don’t Need a Majority to Start a Change

Big changes are ahead in how you go to market, your organization, or just working differently in an agile environment.

But, how do you do it? How do you convince everyone to buy in to make the change really happen? The truth is you don’t. But, you do have to influence or convince the right few.

What’s the tipping point for enough people to make a change to catch on? How many is enough? An experiment designed and led by Damon Centola, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says the tipping point to shift thinking is 25 percent. Only 25 percent.

The tipping point to shift thinking is 25 percent. Only 25 percent.

This study found that the 25 percent tipping point, or slightly above, for mobilizing change meant that contrarians were able to “convert” anywhere from 72 to 100 percent of the population of their respective groups. This held true even when the population had been in 100 percent agreement about their original position.

Arnout van de Rijt, a sociologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who studies social networks and collective action, said, “This is about a minority trying to change the status quo, and succeeding by being unrelenting. By committing to a new behavior, they repeatedly expose others to that new behavior until they start to copy it.”

So many changes stall out when leaders of the change give up because the new way of working apparently isn’t catching on. One of our clients wants to change how sales leaders engage with clients – from one product sales to sharing a much broader integrated suite of services and products in one conversation. The change has taken time and energy and some leaders wonder if they can ever change years of behavior.

Yet Centola shared, “If you are one of those people trying to create change, it can be really disheartening.” He explains that when a change falters there is often “a convention to give up,” and people start to call it quits. The group could be very close to a change and they don’t realize they are just short of critical mass.

He added, “So I would say to Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and all of these social change movements that when approaching that tipping point is slow going, and you can see backsliding. But once you get over it, you’ll see a really large-scale impact.”

Tips for how to translate these insights into your change:

  • Stop trying to get everyone on board. Because you can’t at first in any change. The adoption will happen in phases. Take up will happen incrementally. Start small and work your way out rather than treat the organization as one monolithic group.
  • Find your 25%. Identify the 25% of those willing to change the status quo, step out and try a new direction. Know where you’ll find them and how.
  • Spend most effort on your key 25% at first rather than ‘spreading the peanut butter’ and aiming to please everyone. Rather, begin with a much smaller contingent. Initially, evaluate progress based on this core group rather than everyone’s interest in the change.
  • Identify your influencers who can grow to 25% and beyond. One person can be a change multiplier when respected by others. Or, said more simply, ‘if she’s on board, so am I’. In political terms, this is the equivalent of a valued endorsement.
  • Be persistent. Repeatedly expose others to the new behavior needed for the change until they begin to understand and adopt it themselves. Once is never enough. Consistent rationale and exposure will engage your 25% – and eventually others – to understand, buy-in and be willing to try a new approach.
  • Don’t give up too soon. As Centola references, just when you begin to see progress, but you still aren’t realizing your goal may be an indicator that you are close. Adapt and adjust as you learn more but don’t give up. 

 Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults. She can be followed @pattibjohnson or @people_results.

Patti Johnson