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The Complex Contagion of Organizational Change

The Complex Contagion of Organizational Change

by Damon Centola

Elihu Katz Professor of Communication, Sociology and Engineering, UPenn

May 17, 2021


What is the secret to organizational change? How do innovative technologies and new organizational cultures take hold? The answer is not what you think. Most people think that the key to change is identifying “influencers” who can advocate for an initiative. But, change is not about finding the right people. It’s about having the right contagion infrastructure.

I’m sure you have heard that behaviors are contagious, but what does that mean? Does organizational change really spread like a virus, cascading from person to person? Of course not. Anyone who has ever tried to initiate change within their organization will quickly appreciate that getting people to adopt a new management practice or business technology is not as simple as just telling them about it. Changing people’s workplace practices and their cultural norms is difficult precisely because these behaviors encounter resistance—which prevents them from spreading virally.

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