Why a good idea is not enough.

Social change strategies for INSIDE conservation and animal welfare organizations.  

December 15th, 2017       Hanna Lentz-Harry


Over the years, IBD staff have experienced and heard countless cases of nonprofit professionals struggling to bring new practices to their organizations. From field staff, to mid-level managers, to executives who often feel like “broken records” advocating for improvements over and over again. Even relatively small changes can feel exhausting. Here are two prime examples:

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Case 1: At a mid-sized conservation organization in the U.S...

Management was having trouble receiving good quality project plans from their teams. They needed more rigorous plans to appeal to foundations and make better budget decisions.  A small group created a new project template that was shared through an all staff e-mail. Webinars to explain the template were offered and fairly well attended. But when the new plans were submitted, they were inconsistent in quality and many lacked critical information or were still using previous formats and templates. Management felt like everyone was just “stuck in their old ways”. 

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Case 2: At a small animal welfare organization in Mexico...

The Director was struggling with how staff interacted with community members. Conversations were usually brief and focused on the “transaction” rather than really listening, helping people solve their problems, and encouraging better behaviors. The Director told staff they needed to slow down and “educate” people. Some managers went into the field and demonstrated how interactions should be, and reprimanded staff for being dismissive or rude to community members. The Director wanted staff to change their behaviors and attitudes towards the public, but couldn’t motivate them to do it.   

Inconsistent work, non-compliance, challenging interactions, low-quality outputs – these are often the types of practices nonprofit organizations want to change. And when it doesn’t happen, it is easy to blame staff (they “just don’t care”, “don’t get it”, “have egos”, “can’t change”).

When new practices do take off we often attribute it to the strength of the initial idea or a pivotal moment in which the critical pieces come together.  But motivating people in an organization to adopt a new practice is not that simple. 

In this three part blog series we will explore how you can use science, experience, and a bit of creativity to help spread a new practice inside your organization. There are countless studies demonstrating how change can occur in social systems, with examples from the social sector, agriculture, and public health, as well as a wealth of books on organizational development and change. But rather than revisit what has already been published, these blogs focus on practical application, distilling decades of science into some simple, useful tips and tools you can use right now.

By looking at Diffusion of Innovation- the science behind how new ideas are spread across social systems, and Internal Marketing - leveraging what businesses have known for decades about how to influence behavior, we will help you develop a plan for launching a new practice in your own organization so that staff are engaged, empowered, and ready to take action. This week, we begin with Diffusion of Innovation…

Diffusion of Innovation

Diffusion of Innovation (DOI) maps how new ideas or practices spread through a “social system.”  These systems can range in size from a whole country, to a large international nonprofit, to one small department. Broken into five categories that characterize the speed at which different individuals within a social system will adopt a new idea or practice, it can help you identify how to influence a group of people.

For example, let's look at how Facebook started. Before engaging the 2.07 billion monthly active users the network has today, it had just 1,200 students when it launched 2004. Think about when you, your friends, or your family members joined Facebook.  Was it all on the same day? In the same year? And what finally influenced you and the people around you to join?  

Model from "A Summary of diFFUSION OF iNNOVATIONS" by Les Robinson, 2009

Model from "A Summary of diFFUSION OF iNNOVATIONS" by Les Robinson, 2009

In the same way that all 2.07 billion users didn't join Facebook in one day, people inside our organizations won't adopt new practices right away either. Practices spread over time and at different speeds for different types if individuals. If we look at the five categories in DOI that characterize rate of adoption, we can start to see what is going on:

5 Categories that Characterize Rate of Adoption

  • Innovators: Adventurous and open to new ideas, they are wiling to deal with risk and uncertainty and can handle more technical knowledge.

  • Early adopters: Often in a leadership position, they act as role models for others in the social system, and their adoption of a new idea decreases uncertainty for others.

  • Early majority: Adopting an idea more easily than the other half of the system, they interact frequently with peers and tend to be mid and entry-level staff.

  • Late majority: Adopting an innovation less easily, they may finally do so because of increasing peer pressure and the influence of social norms.

  • Laggards: More skeptical and with a traditional viewpoint, they tend to adopt new ideas after seeing it being successfully used by others in the system.


So What Does That Mean for You?

If you or a small group of colleagues are the ones trying to bring a new practice to your organization, you are an innovator. You are inspired by a new practice you discovered, but will likely face problems getting it accepted. Consider that the challenges you experience when spreading a new practice are totally normal. It doesn’t mean you are failing, should stop trying, or there is anything “wrong” with staff and colleagues. It just means that your role is to plan how to motivate other members of the system: For example:

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Using DOI to Build Solutions

By recognizing how new practices spread through the social systems you wish to influence, you can create more effective strategies for influencing change. For example, if we revisit our case studies with a DOI lens, we can start to unpack some key questions to help turn these situations around:

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Case 1: Mid-sized Conservation organization in the U.S...

  • Who was involved in sending the all staff e-mail and providing the webinar?

  • Other than a mandate, who was influencing how staff drafted their plans?

  • Is everyone really “stuck” in their old ways, or are their some opportunities to continue moving the new idea through the system?

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Case 2: Small community animal welfare organization in Mexico..

  • How will the staff themselves benefit from these new interactions?

  • Who are the best individuals to target for in-the-field coaching?

  • What barriers (other than “motivation”) might really be the problem?

What are some additional questions you might ask to better understand how to help spread new practices in these two organizations?

When we understand what influences people and how practices move through a social system, we can begin to explore problems in new ways. Think about who represents the different “types” of people in the group you want to influence and what that means for what you are trying to change. Consider where the practices might be “stuck” in the diffusion curve and how you can use the natural, normal tendencies of the group to move things along. As an innovator, bringing change isn’t easy, but by understanding how practices spread, you can make changes in your organization.

Note: The next blog in this series Part 2 of 3: Internal Marketing to Change Practices, will include more tactics and strategies for influencing teams and individuals.  In the final blog, Part 3 of 3: Creating Your Change Plan, we’ll give you a step-by-step guide to planning the roll out of a new practice in your organization. 

Have questions about DOI or how to influence change in your organization? Feel free to Contact Us with questions or check out the support we offer for change management in organizations.