Small groups, loosely connected, but united by a common purpose. This is the simple formula behind Greg Satell’s research that is essential to follow for anyone looking to make an impact and change the world. Greg is one of the world’s leading experts on innovation and transformational change and his new book, Cascades: How to Create a Movement That Drives Transformational Change, explores how to successfully navigate and lead large-scale change in today’s disruptive environment. He’s also behind the popular blog, Digital Tonto, which is a must-read for anyone interested in learning more about the topics of strategy, innovation, and leadership.
In this episode of the Leading Learning podcast, Jeff talks with Greg about what it takes to drive transformational change including the important role of networks, empowerment, and purpose.
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Read the Show Notes
[00:18] – A preview of what will be covered in this episode where Jeff interviews Greg Satell, an author, speaker, and expert on innovation and change.
[02:33] – Introduction to Greg and some additional background information about himself including how spending over 15 years in Eastern Europe led directly to his new book, Cascades: How to Create a Movement That Drives Transformational Change.
[06:34] – I wrote to you before the interview and asked about your prior book, Mapping Innovation: A Playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age, and how your thinking evolved during and after that book, and what assumptions you might have had about innovation that may have evolved between that book and your newest, Cascades. I thought your response was really interesting – actually there were two parts. First you noted that you actually started Cascades a long time before Mapping Innovation. And you said, in both cases, you started researching the topics because you were confused and curious.
Greg admits that’s what he loves about what he does because he can find something that’s confusing and interesting and spend a lot of time finding answers. He talks about how when writing, Mapping Innovation he wanted to figure out how to reconcile all the different ideas of what innovation is.
What he found was that innovation is really about solving problems and those different ideas about it apply to very different types of problems. So the book explains how to classify problems so that you can choose the most effective innovation strategy and path forward.
[09:41] – You also made the point in our correspondence that the great innovators tend to be truly nice people—can you share more about that?
Greg explains that it’s a little bit different with someone like Steve Jobs because he was an entrepreneur and also had fiercely loyal people around him. So you could argue that he really wasn’t that great of an innovator—he didn’t build everything himself. But the interesting thing he found through talking to some of the leading innovators in the world is that they were some of the nicest people you could possibly meet. He figured this couldn’t be an accident so he went back and researched it further and he found that the best innovators aren’t necessarily any smarter, capable, or more ambitious than anybody else—they simply build better networks.
And they do this by being generous and sharing, which increases the number of people who are willing to share knowledge and insights with them. This makes them that much more likely to come across that random piece of insight that can help crack a really tough problem.
Jeff adds that this makes him think of Louis Pasteur and his quote that chance favors only the prepared mind. So preparation might be about building that network and maybe it’s just as much about the kind mind as it is the prepared mind.
Greg agrees and says one of the things he found in connection with his research on movements for Cascades, is that all too often, a moment is mistook to be an actual movement. And the difference between the ones that succeed and the ones that fail is that ones that succeed have prepared their network long beforehand.
[14:16] – That’s really the idea at the heart of Cascades. Can you start by explaining what exactly a cascade is and why does it represent a different approach to change than maybe what we’ve encountered before?
Greg explains that a cascade is actually a network term that refers to viral activity within a network. For literally hundreds of years, scientists have known that things in nature have a way to coordinate themselves. For example, pacemaker cells in the heart, certain species of fireflies that can coordinate their blinking, or a wave at a stadium.
But nobody really understood this type of viral activity until the late nineties when there were some real breakthroughs in network science. So what cascades are about is how you use those scientific principles to get ideas to travel.
[15:59] – If I understand your view correctly, you can’t really engineer cascades. So are there ways to get good at identifying when a relevant cascade is emerging and then align your goals with that?
Greg shares that you can’t usually engineer a cascade (it’s very rare) but you can greatly increase the chances of a cascade occurring. You do this by continually building connections. To really drive influence—which is a behavior or function of your centrality in a network—you want to move to the center of the network. But the way to do that is by continually building connections outward. So you’re not so much moving to the center, you’re moving the center towards you. And this is how you create the conditions in which a cascade can take place.
[18:15] – Greg expands on his mantra throughout the book, “small groups, loosely connected, united by a shared purpose.” He says you can’t form those connections but you can empower them through leading your community. By empowering those connections and giving them purpose, you can give it direction.
This is why small groups build strong bonds and to do anything important, you need those strong bonds of trust, devotion, and everything else that makes for a strong relationship. But it’s the loose connections between different groups of strong bonds that gives you reach and that shared purpose gives you reason and that’s how you can drive a true transformation.
Sponsor: Authentic Learning Labs
[19:57] – To understand the connections among individuals and groups across the networks that your learning business serves, you need visibility into the stories your data is telling. To get that visibility, we suggest you check out our sponsor for this quarter.
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[20:52] – One of the concepts that you introduce that relates to having a shared purpose is around the idea of a keystone change. I was struck by how many movements there were historically that kind of floundered for long periods of time until they found that keystone change, that focus or purpose. Can you talk a little more about that?
Greg shares some examples of keystone change including:
- Women’s movement in the 19thcentury and how voting rights were the keystone change that helped empower women throughout the 20th
- Gandhi’s Salt March – seemed insignificant but Gandhi understood that you could unite everybody and show that the British could be defied. It’s widely credited as paving the way for Indian independence.
- Paul O’Neill, CEO of Alcoa who at his very first press conference (Alcoa was struggling at the time) said he was going to make it the safest company in America. He understood that things like shareholder value and profits might obviously get investors excited, but it did very little for any of the other stakeholders within the company. Safety was something he could unite people around and that would lead itself to operational excellence. Within a year the company hit record profits.
These are great examples because, on the surface, they sound simplistic or naïve. But they were the types of things that people could really rally around. There are other instances that you talk about in the book – the Occupy movement for example, where they never seem to find that.
Greg says they really didn’t make it that far but he explains there are three levels and that any change effort starts off with a set of grievances. The first step is to get beyond that sense of grievance towards some sort of vision for tomorrow. Once you have that vision, you have to understand that it’s very difficult for that to really resonate.
You need a change that will pave the way for change—and that’s a keystone change. This is something that involves multiple stakeholders, has a clear and tangible goal, and paves the way for future change.
Advice for Learning Business Leaders
[26:17] – We talk a lot about the concept of “leading learning” here because most of our listeners, as providers of lifelong learning, are engaged in leading their fields and industries forward. How would you see, for example, a chief learning officer at a trade or professional association/VP of Learning embracing the concepts in Cascades to really have significant impact on the field or industry she serves?
Greg points out that all to often, when we think about leading change, we think too much about pointing the way and instructing. However, what tends to be much more powerful and successful is empowering change through people who are already enthusiastic and influencing others who are maybe slightly less enthusiastic—and that’s how you build a cascade.
He says it’s very hard to convince anybody of anything so the idea that you’re going to convince hundreds or even thousands of people through some kind of mass effort is almost a pipe dream. But they can convince each other and that’s why this concept of small groups, loosely connected, united by a shared purpose, takes on tactical significance.
[28:26] – Any other advice for those running a learning business on what they might concretely do to create change?
Greg recommends that you find people who are learning within your organization. Of course, there are internal programs but you need to make that distinction between hierarchical types of training. But with things that are really cutting edge, such as artificial intelligence (which is moving very fast), it’s challenging to come up with the associated learning resources.
You can’t just take a tried and tested program that you’ve been doing for the past ten years because it’s constantly changing. However, what you can do is find people within your organization who are already learning about it and you can try to figure out how to empower them and then help those small groups connect through this shared purpose.
Jeff adds that while a traditional approach to education still has its place, there isn’t enough effort to find the informal pockets of learning. And Greg says that this idea of empowerment is what’s exciting about the whole concept of cascades—not so much to reshape learning from what we’ve done in the past, but to promote new learning on that cutting-edge horizon, which we’ve never really had a method to do before.
Sponsor: Blue Sky eLearn
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[33:52] – What is one of the most powerful learning experiences you’ve been involved in, as an adult, since finishing your formal education?
Greg shares that having a child is an incredible learning experience because it gives you a chance to see the world through a completely new lens he says it’s the absolute greatest adventure.
[35:30] – How to connect with Greg and/or learn more:
- Website: https://www.gregsatell.com
- Blog: https://www.digitaltonto.com
- Book: Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change
[36:32] – Wrap-Up
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[38:37] – Sign off