Culture Change and The Long Tail


Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, wrote an article in 2004, The Long Tail, which then became a book, published by 2006. Online video retailing offers a great contemporary example of the Pareto probability distribution (hence the name Long Tail) tail2where a few blockbuster movies earn large sums of revenue while the vast majority of movies earn very little. What made Anderson’s book so noteworthy was he showed that with the advent of easily available online access to video movies, sales grew because niche viewers with specific tastes in movies could now purchase or rent obscure titles that rarely reached the box office. Thus online sales soared now that a large number of titles were easily available.

Thus the rush in marketing to mass-customisation and a focus on the long tail as an untapped source of revenue. Rather than just a few popular titles, brands or styles, customers could have access to a much wider range and satisfy their individual interests.

The Long Tail in Culture Change . . .

Most culture change gurus and academics tend to use the Kurt Lewin three-step model for Slide068designing change programs. The model, Unfreeze – Realign – Refreeze, is based on the belief that the majority of employees need to change the way they work/behave in order for culture change to take place and the best way to do that is through putting a critical mass of employees through change workshops, usually beginning with the senior team but then quickly getting large numbers of employees involved.  The belief here is that unless a large number of employees quickly change their work habits and behaviours, the desired culture change won’t take root and desired changes will be overcome with old habits (the old culture). Thus the plethora of top-down, large-scale culture change workshops and change interventions.

We have to get everyone into culture change workshops quickly or the change won’t happen.

Bell ChangeWrong!  This approach to culture change is based on the classical view that people in organisations fit into a bell-shaped curve in relation to their ability to change and their change “readiness”.  In other words, the large group of employees in the middle are only mildly ready or able to change and the entire middle group needs to be shifted into a new set of cultural behaviours.  If only a few change, the inertia of the middle mass of employees will prevent the culture change from taking hold.

That’s Not How It Is . . .

The problem is, that’s not how behaviour change takes place inside organisations. Training, especially top-down mass training workshops rarely change behaviours.  At best they impart information and momentary motivation.

So . . .  How does behaviour change inside organisations?  Just like it does in any group or Jimmy Hendrixsociety; through key influencers, trusted and respected peers who begin to adopt new behaviour patterns.  Once the trusted peer starts doing things differently, social pressure and the human need to “fit in” takes over and others in the group tend to adopt the new behaviours as well.  For example, when I was in High School in the 60’s, the Hippie movement began and people started wearing flowered shirts and bell bottom trousers.  This was quite a big change from the trim Levis and white shirts of the 50’s generation.

But in the short space of a few years bell bottom pants and tie-dye shirts were commonplace among the young generation in colleges and high schools.  No one proclaimed it “National Bell Bottom” decade.  It was a social contagion spread by a few key influencers, in this case the rock bands and other youth idols.  People whom the vast majority of the young generation had never met, yet trusted and respected.

Socail Long tailNow, back to the long tail.  Rather than take a Bell-shaped curve approach to corporate culture change, which doesn’t really work, look at the challenge differently.  By building a graph based on internal trust and social influence, we see the organisation differently.  Most people are in the long tail, but there are a few highly influential individuals, who may not show up on the official organisation chart, but who have the trust and respect of a vast number of individuals.  These are your change agents if you know how to find them and know how to recruit them to help support a culture change.

The sad truth is, most senior executives and even HR managers don’t know who these highly influential and trusted individuals are!

First step in culture change? Find the respected and trusted social influencers!

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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