By Jim Grinnell, Ph.D
In 1976 Biologist Richard Dawkins likened the proliferation of cultural symbols, ideas, and behaviors to the biological process through which genetic coding is passed across generations. Dawkins called these units of cultural information memes (pronounced similarly to genes). Richard Brodie (author of Virus of the Mind) adds that these memes are “… a thought, belief, or attitude in your mind that can spread to and from other people’s minds.” Memes range from the positive (e.g., Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself) to the negative (e.g., Kill or be killed). This article will focus on the negative end of the continuum, examining five memes that often rear their ugly head during organizational change efforts.
1) That’s not how we do things here. This meme is as old as time and while we’d love to believe that in the post-bureaucratic organizational world it has been relegated to history’s trash heap, unfortunately it is still alive and kicking. Sometimes the ways “things are done around here” are indeed hardwired into policies, procedures, union contracts, etc. But more times than not, when you see this meme it is being offered by someone who is attempting to derail a change they don’t agree with. Deflecting this meme is generally quite easy. When someone offers it up, ask them to show you where in the company policies, union agreement, etc. that this amorphous/elusive “thing” is found. You’ll be amazed by how fast this meme is dropped when it’s held under the microscope!
2) That will never work. This is a variant of the above and is often offered hand-and-hand with the “that’s not how we do things here” meme. This meme is more challenging to deal with, because it deals with some speculative future state. Whenever we deal with a future state, there is obviously a significant degree of uncertainty. Individuals offering this meme are trying to capitalize on this cloudiness and thereby tap into their co-workers’ risk aversion. Remember, when dealing with this meme, your goal is not to change the mind of the person offering it (which is generally a waste of time and effort), but rather you are trying to win over the critical mass of folks on your team who are yet infected.
How do you inoculate against this meme? In large measure, you mitigate this when you give people as much information as possible. This information might take the form of the concrete actions steps and anticipated contingencies involved in moving in this new direction. It might also involve sharing some external examples of companies/teams that have had success doing a similar thing. A second way to immunize against this meme is to get your team together to collaboratively address the potential negative issues. Then, you use the “foot in the door” technique to assure the team that you are collaboratively exploring this new direction, nothing more. Of course, you have to brace yourself for the possibility that this strategy may result in a team no-go decision. However, what you can guarantee is if the team decides to move forward, you’ll have incredible levels of buy-in. The last approach involves building enthusiasm around a compelling vision of what the future might look like when your team pulls this off. Two conditions must be present to make this work: 1) you need to be a genuinely visionary and persuasive individual and 2) you need to have a pretty significant level of buy-in to begin with so that your efforts are targeted only to the folks sitting on the fence.
3) We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work. More of the above, but this time it has the apparent authority of past failures to bolster the virility of the meme. When you run into this meme, you will actually question whether the idea is good or not yourself. In fact, this meme is quite often a game stopper. The trick to overcoming this meme is to identify some reasonable people on your team and work through the process with them. The approach here is to articulate to these folks that you are very passionate about your change and you need help understanding its lack of viability before giving up on it.
During the process your goal is threefold. First, you should find out as much about the previous attempt as possible. In particular, look for aspects of the past effort that are not analogous with what you are attempting to do. Don’t tip your hand during this fact finding effort as this information will be far more powerful later if you decide to move forward with the project. Second, you should enlist these folks in identifying potential solutions to the problems (perceived or real) with your proposal. Again, this will yield tremendous insights (especially in terms of what the most common objections will be) that will help you later if you decide to push on. Third, you should use this process as a genuine validity check on your proposed change. Maybe, just maybe you ARE wrong and sincere open-mindedness could save you a lot of downstream grief. Keep in mind that throughout this process you must refrain for trying to sell your idea– that time will come later. And when it does, if you take advantage of the information you accumulated you will artfully advocate that your proposed change is different from what was tried in the past and here’s why!
4) “They’ll” never go for that. Oh, this meme is beautiful insofar as there are so many “they’s” that can be offered up. Upper management won’t approve it. Other departments won’t support it. Employees will never accept it. Customers won’t embrace it. Suppliers won’t like it. Do any of these sound familiar? This meme can have you running around in circles if you let it. The trick is to not let it!
To guard against this meme, you need to first determine how widespread it is. If only a few team members are infected, then you can probably invest your efforts on everyone else and ignore those who offer it up. If you’ve reached plague level, then your best antidote is to bring some “they’s” into the process. If “they” were indeed against the change, you may be able to co-opt or assuage them through inclusion. You also might find out that “they” never had a problem with it in the first place!
5) We don’t have the resources to do that. Of all the anti-change memes, this one is the hardest to treat. It may be a reality that your organization suffers from a paucity of money, people, technology, facilities, knowledge, what have you. This meme can also be a game stopper, especially if you entertain it at the start of the change process. You should make every effort to put this meme off until the end of the process.
If people are interested in the change, but don’t believe that the resources are available, you can ask them to hold off on that discussion until after you have collaboratively vetted out the goals, action steps and potential positive outcomes of the change. Don’t promise that you’ll be a “rainmaker” and make the resources magically materialize. You’ll likely squander your credibility and your change effort will be DOA. Instead, argue that the team should focus on building as compelling of a case as possible and then invest your efforts in building momentum and buy-in. In the end, the soundness of your change agenda and the level of commitment from your team may persuade the “powers that be” to “shake free” the needed resources. Regardless, what can be said with great confidence is that if you build buy-in toward a hard to achieve goal, you’ll find all kinds of ways to leverage the resources you have. (For more information on leveraging resources, see Hamel and Prahalad’s article Strategy as Stretch and Leverage.)
The intent of this article is not to imply that memes are easy to deal with and overcome. Instead, the goal was to make you aware that these “mind viruses” are out there and just like the Black Plague they can sweep through the population (i.e., your team/organization) and wreak havoc. The first line of defense when they take hold is to recognize that they are present. Then when you have a handle on how they are manifesting, you can unleash the appropriate course of treatment to contain and then kill these mind viruses before they spread.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: James Grinnell is an Associate Professor of Management at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Studies from the University of Massachusetts. His areas of focus include leadership, organizational change & development, high-performance teams, and strategic management.