I was thinking about the critical mass required for the spread of a good idea in an organization. Sadly, the conclusion I come to is that the deck is stacked in favour of the status quo and of resistors. I think we all know this (it seems clear), but I started to play around with simple models to visualize exactly how.

I looked at it in two ways. First, as an organizational chart. The assumptions and explanation are included in the .PDF file (below). I chose the catchall example of “renewal” to represent the good idea that needs spreading, but the principle applies to anything – try mentally replacing renewal with communication of vision and priorities, support for integrated strategic planning, or emphasis on people management.

Renewal Organization Chart

A single resistor in the wrong place can negatively influence the work experience for many employees, and, accordingly, the performance of the organization. It’s simply a byproduct of the undeniable existence of resistors, combined with the same hierarchical design of organizations that facilitates employees working as a team towards shared goals in the first place.

The second approach was a simple linear model. In my organization, there are usually five or six links in the chain between the top and the frontline employees. In this case, let’s consider the example of a vital piece of communication. Let’s say there’s a 90% chance that a given executive or manager will effectively disseminate this piece of communication, demonstrating to their employees why it is important and what it means for their group. Great. However, along five links the 10% chance of a breakdown compounds, and we’re left with only a 59% chance that the employee gets a well-transmitted version in this game of telephone.

The chart above shows how quickly the chance of reliable transmission – of communication or of good ideas – breaks down as a function of levels of hierarchy.

The point is that good ideas, important messages, and positive cultural shifts face an uphill battle as they spread through an organization. To oversimplify the solutions, for the sake of keeping this short: Organizations can create redundancy through governance, and they can try to minimize resistors – It takes very few resistors to create a critical mass that shutters good ideas.

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