The 25-75 Change Management Approach

Change management tip: Get 25% committed to the new idea, triggering a tipping point. Make it simple, exciting, and meaningful. Act without waiting for permission, start where you have control. Organize and build momentum among the eager and energetic.

The 25-75 Change Management Approach
Original art by Madison Van Rijn

Power laws are everywhere.

For online communities, there’s 90-9-1: 90% of a given community are lurkers; 9% are readers/commenters; 1% are heavy creators.

For consultants, there’s the Pareto Principle, or 80/20: 80% of the outcomes are usually driven by 20% of the inputs. (You’ll often hear a senior partner say, “Let’s 80/20 this” if they’ve grown tired of saying “Let’s not boil the ocean here.” This means they want you to focus so they can get off the call.)

This kind of idea shows up everywhere, because it’s almost always right.

There’s Edison's Law: "'Better' is the enemy of 'good.'"

There’s Parkinson's Law: "Work expands to fill the time allotted."

And my favorite: Richard Gabriel’s “Worse is better.” (For another time.)

Too often, though, we forget these natural laws when it comes to change management. When it comes to a new process, new policy, or new… anything, nothing short of 100% compliance is acceptable.

But what happens when we look at how Real Change happens in the Real World?

This concept was studied in the paper "Experimental Evidence for Tipping Points in Social Convention" by Damon Centola, Joshua Becker, Devon Brackbill, and Andrea Baronchelli. The study found two things:

  1. When a group pushing for change was below 25% of the total group, its efforts to sway the group failed.
  2. When the group reached 25% (even if it was just 1 person that pushed them past the 25% mark) there was an abrupt change in the group dynamic, and the majority of the population quickly adopted the new norm.

What does this mean for change-agents? That 100% conversion to the New Thing™ is possible, but not the goal – instead, focus on getting 25% of your audience so committed to the cause that they’ll never go back to the old way.

It also means that you need to re-think your approach to Change Management.

All of the approaches that get headlines (image versions below) are too slow, too clunky, and too focused on all the change, everywhere, all at once.

Kotter's 8 Steps
Prosci's ADKAR model
Knoster's model

Here’s your alternative: the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of the 25-75 approach to change.

  1. Who: Never forget that you're not trying to convince everyone of the new idea. Everyone involved in the program needs to put this on a post-it, and put it on their monitor. Expect to get “no” or “not interested” from 75% of the population. Oh, and… actually calculate what 25% means for your context, and make a list of people who are in. That’s your new target.
  2. What: Make the idea spreadable and shareable – so it has to be simple and exciting. If you want your idea to catch on, it has to be something that people can easily understand and get stoked about. A complicated briefing process in a 100 page deck with a chain of approvals around the block isn’t it. If people can't explain it to others in 60 seconds, it's unlikely to catch on.
  3. When: Don't wait for permission – it's not coming.
  4. Where: Start and stay where you have control. It's okay if you're just changing the marketing doesn't have to be a whole company thing. Don't try to tackle too much at once.
  5. Why: Make it meaningful. Nobody is going to commit to an inconsequential idea so much that they’ll feel an urge to spread the idea to others. It needs to connect to personal and professional goals. “This is v100 of our budgeting process” ≠ “This new approach to spending will get you promoted.”
  6. How: Don’t run to the Learning Management System. Instead, think like an organizer. Find and meet with the very eager and energetic. Share your tools. Follow-up with the ones that are in. Repeat. This core group’s job is to build momentum and create a feeling of urgency around the change. Remember: don’t try to convince people…that’s what the social contagion is for. If they’re not bought in from the jump, they’re not part of the core team.

Build momentum. Get the change started. It’ll take a minute, but once you’re at 25%, the organization will come around to the new method. And in the meantime, you'll have helped the organization do something better, today.