How Things Spread

As some of you know, I write and teach about how change happens without authority in organizations. So in listening to this TED Radio Hour podcast on my walk into work, I found a lot to get excited about.

Did you know that sliced bread did not take off as a product immediately? And yet now it is held up as the best thing ever. We even compare how compelling a new idea is to sliced bread. So why did sliced bread take ten years to get traction? And why did it finally take ten years to take hold? Seth Godin tells this story, and perspectives from Bill Gates, and Nicholas Christakis on network science were other highlights in this TED Radio Hour slot.

In particular, Christakis’ systems-level approach to identifying and mobilizing allies was fascinating and consistent with the tactics that Jerry Davis and I (and others, like Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point) advocate.

How to Make Your Company a Force For Good

A fun interview with Marty Wolff. How can business make a positive difference in the world?

Originally at

Interview with David Burkus

In this interview, we talk about how to make even large, established companies a force for good through social intrapreneurship.

Originally at


Four Vital Levers to Sell Your Ideas Internally

There is a huge opportunity cost embedded in our highly bureaucratic organizations. Consider a story that Milan Samani, founder of the Intrapreneur Lab, shared with me recently:

A group of senior employees at a big pharmaceutical company saw an alternative use for a drug normally used for cosmetic surgery (it also worked as type of local anesthetic). Management were not interested in exploring these alternate uses so the team left, started their own company, received VC backing, and became very successful. The only loser was the original company — who lost a potential business-line, some high performing talent, and use of a technology that was ‘on their doorstep.’

Is there an alternative to hemorrhaging innovation out of the company? Short answer: yes.

By supporting the intrapreneurs — those who navigate organizations to create positive change, even when they do not have formal authority — companies can foster innovation, both advancing their bottom line objectives and, often, having desirable social or environmental impacts. Furthermore, this unlocking of ideas and energy reflects higher employee engagement, and can translate to retention of top talent.

In an intrapreneur-friendly environment, all kinds of people get involved. A new product development manager artfully navigating the ‘corporate immune system’ in pursuit of a ‘better user experience’ for the customer (i.e. selling more product). The sustainability executive works with scrap, grit, and dedication on a social impact project, unsure of its future viability. The team manager develops new ways of working to bring unprecedented levels of dignity, excitement, and performance to the workplace. In positive organizations such as these, innovation bubbles up from all angles.

“The right mindset, skillset, and toolset are the starting points to actually create viable, profitable ventures that create social value in overlooked and unimagined ways,” says Samani. “Some of these are the same as an entrepreneur, but many are quite unique. Processes and structures can be developed that actively foster this capability.”

So what can you do to get started in selling your ideas internally? In Changing Your Company From the Inside Out, Jerry Davis and I highlighted four levers to pull when trying to create positive change without authority.


A great idea pushed at the wrong time is unlikely to get traction. Conversely, a counterintuitive idea can be successful if the timing is right. Look for shifts in leadership priorities, which create an urgent need for new solutions. Your goal, like a skilled dancer, is to position your idea to be carried along by the momentum of the system — not swim against the tide.


Make the case for your idea using the language and strategic priorities of your company. In many corporate cultures, making the ideas sound like a natural evolution rather than a radical departure, can reduce resistance to adoption. Your goal is to create a mental image that activates the support of important allies, but does not trigger alarm bells for potential resistors.


Take time to map the decision makers for your idea, and the influence system around them. What are their priorities? How will you need to adapt your case to each of them in order to be effective? Your goal is to build support along the way, making the eventual decision a straightforward signoff.


Look for what Center for Positive Organizations Faculty Associate Sue Ashforddescribes as “sensible solutions” to organize your initiative. Maybe it is a smaller pilot program to manage risk smartly. Maybe there is a previously successful program that can be largely replicated. Your goal is to make this an easy idea to grasp as rollout begins.

What other levers do you pull to get your ideas heard — and adopted — in your company?

Chris White (@leadpositively, is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

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Lead Positive Change Without Authority

What factors should you consider in order to make your next change initiative successful? Jerry Davis and I did the Positive Links session this month. Click the image above to view it!

The Allure of Intrapreneurship

Originally appeared in Talent Management Magazine:

All talent professionals greet the annual Gallup Engagement figures with some interest and curiosity. Increasingly, though, I have noticed a little less engagement (pun intended) with the numbers in recent years. It seems that the issue is so big, complex, and intractable that it is easier to just be sadly aware of its existence, than it is to systematically address it.

One potential remedy that is receiving increased attention from both media and talent professionals is intrapreneurship: the art and science of individuals navigating organizations to create change, even without the benefit of formal authority. Recent innovations in organizational structure and management approaches are increasingly putting emphasis on the ability of individuals to influence irrespective of position. Equipping employees with the skills to influence these more organic organizational designs is important. Perhaps even more important, though, is equipping people in heavily matrixed organizations to be able to get things done – to avoid being paralyzed by organizational inertia.

We systematically teach MBA students and executives the skills to be able to lead change without formally having the title of “leader”. Many of the examples we use in teaching are of initiatives that represent “positive change” – such as building a more humane workplace, developing products that are beneficial for less advantaged populations, advancing practices and processes that are better for the environment, or creating a healthy relationship with the communities in which we work. However, the same approaches are effective in driving just about any initiative. Indeed, we find that the skills needed to create change from within organizations are remarkably similar to those used to create change in society at large.

. From studying social innovations over the last century, reviewing the relevant and multi-disciplinary academic literature of the last 40 years, and interviewing dozens of change agents working within companies large and small, and around the world, we’ve identified four main variables that influence the success of intrapreneurial initiatives:

Timing Matters

Just because an idea is perceived as a non-starter today, does not mean it will be greeted with the same negativity tomorrow. When IBM was considering new program ideas for its global corporate social responsibility function, the idea of a “Corporate Peace Corps” was mooted… and was virtually laughed out of the conference room. Fast forward a few months: Chairman Sam Palmisano published his thought leadership doctrine of “The Globally Integrated Enterprise”, and began searching for programs that embody this philosophy. The Corporate Service Corps was launched, and became wildly successful and popular at Big Blue and beyond. The program was listed as one of IBM’s best 100 innovations of its first 100 years, and has subsequently been replicated in many top companies.

It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know

Any large organization can be thought of as a complex network of formal and informal structures and relationships. The ability to understand the social terrain, and to navigate it effectively, is one of the key factors for successfully leading change from any seat in an organization. The characterization of “Mavens”, “Connectors”, and “Salespeople” as key players in the spread of ideas and epidemics, outlined by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point, actually holds up very well with regard to the academic research into network structures. This enables us to make sure to engage the right people, in the right sequence, to increase our chances of success in selling internally.

It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

A winning argument in Walmart may be doomed from the start in Whole Foods. We find that intrapreneurial superstars adapt the way their stories are told at two levels: master frame, which is tailored to the logics of the company culture and adaptation, where the intrapreneurs adapts the frame to the interests of a particular audience. For example, while overall concept will remain the same from conference room to conference room, the typical CFO will tend to have different hot buttons to the VP HR. The best intrapreneurs realize this and adjust their narrative and evidence accordingly.

Bring Friends

If the timing is right, the allies are in place, and the case fits the culture, then it is time to organize around the initiative. Typically, mobilizing allies can be done through utilizing the myriad existing structures in most organizations – such as town halls, brown bag lunches, intranets and so forth. Once momentum builds, we often see pilot initiatives preferred to fully-fledged efforts straight away (the exception being in projects that require high capital expenditure to get things started). The best intrapreneurs have mastered the art of building snowballs that often start small and unnoticed, but grow over time through the force of their own momentum.

The talent management fruits of enabling intrapreneurs are bountiful. Equipping people to time initiatives appropriately, line up supporters, make a resonant case, and mobilize allies could unlock a new level of performance and engagement in your organization.

Want To Be An Intrapreneur? Learn From Social Movements

Originally appeared at

In this post, Jerry Davis and Chris White from the Ross School of Business, explains the parallel between social movements and intrapreneurs.

It’s no surprise that Millennials, raised as digital natives in a world where social movements are pervasive, have brought a sensibility of social change to the workplace. Rather than checking their values at the door, they follow in the footsteps of a previous generation of tempered radicals—not as lone wolves, but as a movement seeking to make the corporate world more humane, more just, and more sustainable, from the inside out.

Through our class at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, we’ve met dozens of these social intrapreneurs who use the opportunities provided by corporate settings to create initiatives ranging from a corporate Peace Corps at IBM, to a fair trade marketplace at eBay, to an ambitious global human rights code at Ford, to a new store bringing healthy foods to an economically distressed city at Whole Foods.

Championing such a social innovation inside a company is a lot like leading a social movement such as the fight for American civil rights. The parallel might not seem obvious: How can the lonely innovator seeking to get his or her company to reduce its carbon footprint, or change HR practices to support different kinds of family commitments, be compared to those who led the civil rights movement or the Arab Spring?

1.) Innovation from below
The first parallel is that social innovations, like social movements, typically arise from below. Movement activists are those who lack conventional political power—that’s why they form disruptive movements in the first place. Similarly, innovations in companies typically arise from the trenches, not the C-suite.

Robert Kennedy said, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why? . . . I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” Those who ask “Why not?” tend to be individuals who are not vested in the status quo, yet they are committed to the success of their companies —people that professors Debra Meyerson and Maureen Scully call “tempered radicals.”

In our interviews researching a book on social intrapreneurship, we found that these innovators were often recent MBAs who were at a fairly early career stage, but saw an opportunity to use the company’s resources to make a difference in the world.

2.) Opportunities, frames, and networks
The second parallel is that successful innovations, like movements, follow a regular pattern. Scholars of social movements have described several features of social movements and those who lead them that make them more or less successful. They include:

  • Being able to read the opportunity structure to identify the right time and place to launch a movement or initiative;
  • Framing the initiative using the right themes and stories to connect with the relevant audiences;
  • Mapping the social system (informally or formally, using tools of social network analysis) to locate potential allies, advocates, and roadblocks;
  • Mobilizing supporters using available tools.

3.) Technology changes everything
The final parallel is that information and communication technologies (ICTs) have radically changed how groups can be recruited and mobilized. From flash mobs to the contagion of national uprisings that comprised the Arab Spring, it is clear from recent events that the transaction costs for mobilizing groups have shifted, thanks to ICTs. There are countless new forms of group activity, online and off—what social movement scholar Charles Tilly would call the “repertoire of contention.”

Anyone who has used a Doodle poll to organize a meeting, Google+ Hangouts to convene the meeting, or Yammer to collaborate afterwards, understands how this can play out within a corporate setting. We are witnessing a massive change in how people inside and outside of companies collaborate, and this will inevitably lead to new forms of activism.

Jerry Davis is Management and Organizations Professor and Chris White is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) at University of Michigan.