The 7-Year Glitch

It’s tiresomely predictable. Every five to seven years after another management fad has swept across the corporate world, the report cards start rolling in documenting the horrendous disappointment of executives’ pet programs. Too often, mortality rates clock in between 60 and 90 percent.

It’s All About Influence

Our research shows the root cause of most of these failures is not a lack of good intent but a lack of influence. In Six Sigma for example, who can argue with the goals of eliminating waste, improving quality, and focusing on increasing value? Even the methods are battle tested and inarguably useful.

So where do the wheels come off?

The point of failure is that leaders are ineffective at influencing new behavior. For example, after six years and millions of dollars in resources, one CEO we worked with declared failure on a Lean/Six Sigma effort. When asked why he was giving up, he lamented, “I’m tired of trying to teach old dogs new tricks. I haven’t figured out how to make Six Sigma part of our culture. And it’s too expensive to keep trying.”

Leaders’ inability to influence the behavior of their people—to engage their hearts, minds and hands—is at the root of the vast majority of corporate disappointments. And we’ve become so accustomed to influence failures that we’ve stopped searching for methods to succeed.

In Search of Influencers

Thankfully, coping with and carping about failure isn’t necessary. It turns out it is possible to influence most any behavior with surprisingly predictable success.

A quiet community of practitioners around the world uses powerful influence principles on problems ranging from curbing national AIDS epidemics to turning around criminals to eliminating medical errors. All are solved by influencing profoundly entrenched behaviors in a rapid, sustainable and effective way. As we traveled around the world to meet these influence geniuses, it was no surprise that their astounding success was attributable to the same set of principles each and every time. Three principles that when applied to corporate change can also bring about profound results:

  1. Find the Vital Behaviors
  2. Change How You Change Minds
  3. Make Change Inevitable

1. Find Vital Behaviors. Gain traction against even complex, global problems by influencing Vital Behaviors. For example, master influencer Dr. Mimi Silbert has helped more than 16,000 hardened criminals turn their lives around at Delancey Street by encouraging residents to confront each others’ bad behavior. Dr. Wiwat Rojanapithayakorn reduced new AIDS cases in Thailand by over 90 percent by ensuring 100 percent condom-use of sex workers. Howard Markman found that how couples behave when they argue can predict with 90 percent accuracy which couples will stay together and be happy and which will get divorced.

In the corporate world, the success of change efforts relies on leaders’ ability to identify just a handful of Vital Behaviors. Jack Welch, for example, had two Vital Behaviors that he drilled into GE for 30 years. He argues that influencing these behaviors was the hardest and most important thing he did to deliver sustainably stellar results.

2. Change How You Change Minds. A group of automotive executives went on a benchmarking expedition overseas. After working on the manufacturing line and breathing the culture of this world-class organization, these executives saw how a handful of practices dramatically affected costs, improved quality and increased morale. When they returned home, they were determined to help their 5,000-strong workforce catch the vision of what’s possible.

So they did what most leaders do. They delivered a presentation with a lecture—a verbal approach that won’t work if you need real influence. Their efforts were met with anything from apathy to resistance. A few years later the plant was shuttered—not because a turnaround wasn’t possible, but because leaders lacked the influence to pull it off.

On the other hand, Dr. Don Berwick is credited with helping save more than 100,000 lives from medical errors. His primary tool is not verbal persuasion; rather, he creates experiences that allow people to discover why new behavior is needed.

For example, after Berwick reviewed shocking data with healthcare executives about the tens of thousands of people killed annually by healthcare services, the leaders responded, “That’s awful . . . And it’s a good thing that doesn’t happen in our hospitals!”

To change their minds, he invited them to find one injured patient in their hospital and research the unfortunate circumstances surrounding their situation.

When the executives discovered for themselves what really happened and why, they devoted the rest of their careers to advocating quality improvement to ensure the medical errors that led to accidents and fatalities in their hospitals were eliminated. By inviting them to directly experience the common and simple causes of medical errors in their own hospitals, Berwick cut through resistance and denial and gained enormous influence.

So, if you want to help people understand the need for new behaviors; don’t design slides, design experiences.

3. Make Change Inevitable. Some leaders search for a silver bullet solution. They turn to single-source influence strategies such as rolling out system-wide training initiatives or changing incentives.

Master influencers, on the other hand, understand that behavior is determined by six powerful sources of influence. They work assiduously to uncover the hidden causes of current behavior. Then they amass a combination of all six of these sources of influence in support of new behavior.

Dr. Donald Hopkins, an impressive influencer described in our book “Influencer: The Power to Change Anything,” has eradicated the dreaded Guinea Worm disease across a dozen African and Asian countries by influencing the behavior of millions. Having identified the Vital Behaviors required to eliminate the Guinea Worm, he developed a strategy that utilized each of the six sources which are: Personal Motivation, Personal Ability, Social Motivation, Social Ability, Structural Motivation, and Structural Ability.

    1. Made a powerful moral appeal for new behavior.
    2. Systematically increased skills needed to support the new behavior.
    3. Engaged opinion leaders at the village level in reinforcing new behavior.
    4. Provided coaching and accountability to ensure behaviors took hold.
    5. Offered modest but timely incentives to help jump-start change.
    6. Restructured the village environment to make bad behaviors harder and good behaviors easier.

Effective influencers over-determine success by assembling sufficient sources of influence to make change inevitable.

The root cause of disappointment and underperformance is not a failure of ideas; it’s a failure of influence. The most important capacity we possess is our ability to influence behavior—that of ourselves or others. With a modest increase in influence repertoire and skills, any leader can generate substantial progress to the results he or she cares about most.