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The Power of Social Networks

Written by: Bill Sherman on Monday, 26 May 2008, 9:36 PM

Today, I wrote a column on the Invincibelle blog about an interesting piece of research published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers looked at people who were quitting smoking, and they located several interesting findings:

  1. A person’s decision to quit smoking is significantly influenced by their network–not only the people they know but also 2nd and 3rd degree connections that they don’t know.
  2. A single person quitting creates ripples–increasing the chance that someone two steps removed will quit by almost one third.
  3. Surprisingly, entire groups of smokers within a network quit essentially at the same time.

I’m going to extrapolate well-beyond smoking here. Let’s say you’re a leader (exec or manager) who needs to implement change within an organization. Maybe you’re launching a new process or implementing a new system.

An organization’s social networks cuts across departments, roles, and levels. It also includes outside relationships (vendors, professional colleagues, friends, etc.) These social networks create influence that will either accelerate or limit behavior change.

  1. If you are going to implement change, then you must actively foster connections between people who have already experienced success (say in the pilot) and the general population who will be asked to change.
  2. If people resist change, don’t marginalize them to the periphery. They’ll build an “outsider” mindset and stick with other late-adopters. Instead, actively connect them to people who went through the change and found success. Weave them back into the group.
  3. When you isolate people, you make it harder for them to embrace change.

Obviously, there are some people who will never adopt change (even when it’s in their best interest). See David Maister’s recent book Strategy and the Fat Smoker where he discusses the difficulty of persuading people to change “before the heart attack comes.”

We know what to do, we know why we should do it, and we know how to do it. Yet most businesses and individuals don’t do what’s good for them . . . . [the interesting question becomes] why don’t we do it?”

If you’re going to lead change within your organization, be sure to consider the power embedded within social networks within your organization. They can either accelerate or limit change. Also, take a look at books such as Dr. Robert Cialdini’s classic Influence: Science and Practice as well as David Maister’s work Strategy and the Fat Smoker.

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