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Cascades: 6 Principles for Creating Transformational Change


THE NATURE OF POWER has shifted from top-down to the center of networks. Networks are key to understanding how to create transformational change. As Niall Ferguson observed in The Square and the Tower, “Often the biggest changes in history are the achievements of thinly documented, informally organized groups of people.”

In Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change, Greg Satell reveals how to start and sustain large-scale change and harness the power of cascades—small groups that are loosely connected but united by a common purpose. It is an insightful book with engaging examples of what has worked and what hasn’t.

Forced change is not sustainable. “The role of leaders,” Satell writes, “is no longer to coerce action, but to inspire and empower belief.”

He begins by explaining how small groups work and why. “Information spreads not through best friends but casual acquaintances.” It’s not connecting with the “influentials” because “change is a matter of networks and not nodes.”

Satell explains the Threshold Model of collective behavior. As we all have different thresholds of conformity based on our on personal characteristics, there are varying thresholds of resistance in any group. For a trigger to spread it would depend on the distribution of resistance thresholds in a group. A person with a 0% threshold would throw the first rock, but if the rest of the group were of a higher resistance threshold, say 40%+, that would be the end of it.

For a cascade to form, you need connections to higher threshold groups. “That’s a challenge because it means that you cannot only seek out the like-minded, you must also bring in the unconvinced, the skeptical, and the oblivious. If the desire to change remains with the zealots, it won’t go anywhere.”

Satell distills from the lessons of history six principles for creating transformative change. He explains how each step “represents a crossroads where you will be tempted to make a point, but if you really want to make change happen, you will have to refocus your efforts on making a difference through building common ground.”

1. Identify a Keystone Change

It starts with a grievance. “Yet to succeed, you must go beyond grievance to identify an affirmative vision for what you would like to be different and then identify a single, fundamental change that will bring that vision about.” For Gandhi it was salt. For Paul O’Neill of Alcoa, it was safety.

The alternative you present must be better not just for the believers but for those outside the early adopter group. Speak to the common values to those outside your group. “The only way to win is to build a bond of trust that supersedes the economics of utility.”

The keystone is critical. It’s not a matter of giving everyone something to create a majority of support. The keystone is a “fundamental issue that encapsulates the value of the mission—a keystone change that is concrete and tangible, unite the efforts of multiple stakeholders, and paves the way for greater change.” For Gandhi, the Salt Law was a grievance shared by everyone, and everyone could easily participate. It was only a matter of time for the dominos to fall.

You must create a clear sense of purpose. “A lack of a clear purpose can hobble one almost before it starts.” The problem with the Occupy movement it that they fell in love with their own slogans and were never able to move past them.

2. Make a Plan

Start with where you want to end up and figure out how to get there. Understand where the resistance comes from and ask how they can be convinced that this change is in their best interest or at least not worth fighting against. Who do you need to win over?

While victory does not require you to win over all of those who resist change, you do need to erode the support of your opposition. …That’s why plans that are focused solely on rallying the faithful are doomed to fail. The only thing you accomplish is to harden the support of those who oppose your vision of change. Nobody wants to lose, but everybody wants a better tomorrow.

But above all, you are clear and everybody knows where you stand. A struggle for change is not a debate. You don’t have to win every argument. What you do need to do is to win support from those who don’t necessarily agree with you from the start.

3. Build a Network of Small Groups

Change does not happen alone. Often a single leader looms large like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King, but they are just part of a deep network of groups that have been built up over time. They were masters of creating networks.

To build a movement, you need a network of small groups linked together by a common purpose. Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter didn’t gain traction because “in their quest to upend the establishment, they shunned any ties to existing institutions. Instead of puling in Pillars of Support, they actively pushed them away.” They didn’t allow others to connect to them. This is a key insight:

To gain power, nascent movements must work to position themselves in the center of the networks around them. This has nothing to do with ideology. Many movements, including the struggles for independence in India and South Africa, and more recently, the LGBT movement, took what would once have been considered extreme positions. Yet by continually making new connections, they were able to shift the center of the networks and gain influence.

In a nutshell:

To grow, you have to connect, and the more you connect, the more central you become. The more central you become, the more power you have. And with enough power, you can bring change about.

4. Indoctrinate Genomes of Values

You must stand for something. And these values must be communicated by and lived out through the behavior of the leadership. All adherents to the movement must internalize these values so that they become second nature to them. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to toss them aside and respond inconsistently. “It feels good to reply to a snarky social media post with one that tops it. Yet the second you respond in the moment, you risk all of the work that has come before.”

The following comment as told to Satell by Irving Wladawsky-Berger who retired from IBM in May of 2007, illustrates the need to understand what your value actually is. He recalls:

At IBM we had lost sight of our values. For example, there was a long tradition of IBM executives dressing formally in a suit and tie. Yet that wasn’t a value, it was an early manifestation of a value. In the early days, many of IBM’s customers were banks, so IBM’s salespeople dressed to reflect their customers. So, the value was to be close to customers. Lou [Gerstner] reminded us of that, and we realized that if our customers now wore khakis, it was okay for IBMers to also wear khakis.

How many manifestations of values do we treat as values in our organizations?

5. Create Platforms for Participation, Mobilization, and Connection

A successful movement makes it easy for people to participate. The bar to entry is low. A nonviolent uprising invites more participation. “Unsuccessful movements rally the faithful and demonize those who don’t share their ideas or their commitment. They make their point but fail to make a difference.

Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders political campaign made this mistake. “Instead of reaching out, they seemed to revel in sticking their fingers in the eyes of potential allies, because to them only the most pure of heart belonged. Any deviation from strict doctrine was apostacy. That may rile up the most faithful supporters, but it alienates the rest of the Spectrum of Allies, and by limiting participation, greatly reduces the likelihood of success.”

6. Survive Victory

It is common for change movements to fall apart after the objective has been met. Leaving the battle behind and learning to govern becomes key. “successful movements survive victory by staying true to their values even after the initial triumph.” As Gandhi remarked, we have to be the change.

“It’s always easier to act in the moment or to prioritize an immediate need or desire than it is to sustain discipline and live up to the values you profess to believe in.” (Scott Cochrane provides a great example of that on his blog.)

Maintenance comes after the victory. We must think about what comes next. “We are so focused on beating our opponents into submission that we fail to realize that they will eventually rise up again, learn the lessons of their failure, and return to fight with renewed vigor. That’s why we so often succeed in making our point, but fail to make a difference.”

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