Positive social change seems awfully slow sometimes. Those good, healthy, desirable behaviours can take a long time to spread through populations. If only we could speed it up.
The Diffusion of Innovations* has a lot to say about this.
In short, the answer seems to be:
IF you have a product that works better than the current product (from the users’ point of view);
AND people buzz positively to their peers about it;
THEN the product (or behaviour or idea) will spread;
AND WHAT INCREASES THE RATE IS how dense and positive those conversations are, and how charismatic and well-connected the ‘buzzers’ are.
Monkeys in the Jungle Theory explains the dynamics involved.
Here’s how it goes.
The monkeys know their patch of jungle like the backs of their hairy little hands. Every kind of fruit is familiar. Grazing rights are understood. The system works. There’s nothing to talk about except gossip, rule-breaking, blame, etc …the usual monkey stuff.
Then, one day, a strange fruit appears in the jungle.
What do the monkeys do?
They give it their whole attention.
They scamper up to it.
They chatter crazily about it.
They touch it.
Then the bravest monkey takes a bite.
This is the pivotal moment. One of two things might happen.
Situation 1: The fruit tastes good. The brave monkey makes a happy face. All the other monkeys make the same face. They start grabbing for the fruit. Pretty soon there’s a monkey riot. In almost no time every monkey in that patch of jungle has heard about it and is scouring the ground for more.
Situation 2: The fruit tastes bad. The first monkey makes a disgusted ‘yuck!’ face. All the other monkeys make the same face. They reel back. The word goes round: “Bad fruit!” Pretty soon every monkey in the jungle hears that it’s yucky and steers away from it in future.
What are the implications for behaviour change projects?
If we want people to notice, approach, interact with, and say positive things about our projects they have to be like strange but tasty fruit in the jungle.
‘Strange’ means they have to be novel enough to be noticed. That means the product and the wrapping have to break expectations. They have to have an element or genuine, stereotype-busting novelty. That’s about innovation, imagination and creativity.
‘Tasty’ means they also have to result in a positive experience… meaning that they have to work for people, and be a good fit for the context of their lives, families, workplaces, farms or businesses. That’s about good design.
Monkeys in the Jungle Theory is also about belief formation. It illustrates how we have a very short window for social beliefs to be formed about our projects or products. Once an early adopter in a social network tastes one of our efforts and buzzes to their peers about it, the opinion of the whole social network solidifies quite quickly, like custard. The tenor of those conversations determines whether it is a good idea or a bad idea. Products and ideas then lose their novelty quickly, either disappearing or becoming predictable parts of the background, and no longer the subject for conversation…until we discover something genuinely novel about them again, and the custard temporarily re-liquifies. It’s easy to see this working in politics. Public opinion about political figures forms quite quickly and is then unshakeable. Until the moment the politician does something fundamentally out of character, restarting the buzz, and creating the possibility of redemption, or downfall.
And what about speeding up the diffusion of behaviours? Since diffusion depends on positive peer-peer conversations, the density of conversations is critical. What increases the density is just how fascinating the food looks (does it have arrestingly stereotype-busting appearance) and how delightful it tastes (how big a difference does it makes to people’s lives). What’s hard to account for is the personalities involved…just how charismatic are the early adopters? One way to ensure you have a good density of charismatic early adopters is to go out and recruit well-connected popular opinion leaders. There’s a lot of evidence that that method (Google “Popular Opinion Leaders Method”) works well.
Here’s a challenge for us. How do we go about breaking expectations and surprising people? Inevitably it means coming up with ideas that we ourselves are surprised and delighted by! But how do we do that!?
I’ve been experimenting with facilitated workshop processes that really do this. One technique, called “If Not, Then What?” is demonstrated in a video on my home page.
The trick is to completely forget about having to come up with surprising ideas ourselves. Instead aim to be a facilitator of other peoples’ creativity. Surprising ideas come much more easily to groups. They seem to pop into existence in the air between two people’s brains. All it takes is some simple techniques to suppress people’s fear of embarrassment. Genuinely novel ideas start small and uncertainly, then someone laughs, and the joy is contagious. Joy liberates more ideas. People stop worrying and self-censoring. In no time there’s a riot of imagination and pleasure, and even more ideas.
I think that the ability to generate innovative ideas is central to being an effective Changeologist. It’s something we’ll practice in the Changeology training in October in Sydney and Melbourne. I’ve also created an entire one day workshop, called Facilitation Zap, that’s entirely dedicated to innovation and creative techniques.
Maybe I’ll see you there.
In the meantime, it’s a good idea to avoid safety and predictability in our communications and projects. And remember that positive buzz is the condition for success.
Here are the details of the workshops:
CHANGEOLOGY (2 days)
This expert class in program design focuses on achieving change in complex social environments. You’ll get the concepts, tools, and systematic approach you need to design interventions that make a difference to seemingly intractable health, environmental and social problems. And you’ll practice neat ways to generate innovative project ideas.
Sydney: 12-13 October 2015
Melbourne: 19-20 October 2015
FACILITATION SKILLS (1 day)
The foundational skills to productively facilitate almost group in almost situation.
Sydney: 15 October 2015
Melbourne: 21 October 2015
FACILITATION ZAP! (1 day)
Techniques and tricks to facilitate innovation and creativity in any group.
Sydney: 16 October 2015
Melbourne: 23 October 2015
* The Diffusion of Innovations is the body of scholarship about how behaviours, products and ideas spread through societies. The standard text is Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, Fifth Edition (2003). It’s very readable. Here is a neat little summary.