The 3 Ingredients to Instituting a Cultural Epidemic in Your Organization

Organizations can learn from “Inception”, “The Tipping Point” and “The Speed of Trust”

We’ve written about a few negative things organizations do in our recent blog articles, like our three-part series on “How to Fail at Communication”.  In this one, we take an alternative, more prescriptive approach and lay out an idea that’s worked for us many times over within organizations.  It combines three things that I personally like:

  1. The movie “Inception” (2010, Christopher Nolan)
  2. The book “The Tipping Point” (2000, Malcolm Gladwell)
  3. The book “The Speed of Trust” (2006, Stephen M.R. Covey)

These three things at first glance may not seem to fit together.  But, let’s look closer – and note that you don’t have to have watched or read any of these to get it.

As a consulting organization, we realize a significant number of experiences per unit time within a large variety of organizations – we are exposed to fantastic cultures, acceptable cultures and bad cultures.  We can see the patterns and attributes that relate to great cultures, and the absence of those in bad cultures.  However, it doesn’t require a Ph.D. to detect when you’re in a bad culture – you can feel it.  So, how can one begin to change the tide?  While this may seem oversimplified, there are three key ingredients needed to get started.

1. Acknowledge action must be taken and begin “Inception”

If you Google the word “entropy”, you will get a much better definition than I can give you, however, the premise is this: over time, and as a general law of energy, systems naturally lose energy.  I won’t bore you with the specifics, but scientists see this repeatedly in nature.

Organizations operate in the same way – if you don’t inject positive energy into a negative culture, it will continue to deteriorate.  The rate at which it deteriorates depends on a variety of factors, but once you recognize there is a negative culture, you must acknowledge that an action MUST be taken to offset entropy.

In Christopher Nolan’s Academy Award-winning film “Inception”, the premise is that one can “hack” someone else’s mind.  You can implant an idea into someone’s subconscious via a dream. That one simple idea can be so outrageously powerful, it can result in actions that lead to different outcomes in their lives and the lives of others.  While this notion is romanticized by Hollywood and for the sake of a film, I think there is merit in examining its utility in organizational dynamics.

We’ve seen “ideas” in organizations take rise from the bottom of the ranks, not in some top-down cultural movement sponsored by the CEO.  We’ve seen simple ideas and cultural tenants move rapidly from the hourly line worker and spread like wildfire through the organization.  Alternatively, we’ve seen the most well-thought-out, dramatic, and expensive top-down cultural turnarounds fall flat on their faces, in some cases creating an even worse culture than what existed previously.

So, the notion of inception is this – even the smallest of ideas, from the lowest in the hierarchy, can spread like wildfire throughout an organization.  Another word that can describe a phenomenon such as this, although normally used in a negative connotation, is ‘epidemic’.

2. Institute an epidemic

In Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling novel, “The Tipping Point”, Gladwell introduces the notion of an epidemic as something that can be architected with the right recipe.  He goes on to describe epidemic-like phenomena such as the dramatic rise in sales for a particular type of shoe, or how videos go viral and spread like wildfire over the internet.  These epidemics seemed to possess similar traits:

  1. The law of the few– The 80/20 rule (or the Pareto Rule), something many of us are familiar with, states that often a small number of things account for the largest change or effect. You don’t need thousands of people to introduce your epidemic, you only need the right few.
  2. The stickiness factor– Just because you have the right people or vehicles carrying your epidemic doesn’t mean your idea will “stick”. Those elements that stick may not be apparent at first but will attack human beings at the conscious and subconscious level.  They are deeply personal and relatable and possess a profoundly memorable quality.
  3. The power of context– Consider the environment your organization is currently in, its surroundings, and the external socioeconomic influences.  These are all critical factors to consider before instituting an epidemic.  A change that would spread in the 1950s may not be appropriate or even relevant in today’s age.

Once you have the right message for your epidemic (according to the traits above), you will then need to address who will carry the news of this impending epidemic.  Gladwell goes on to describe the three types of carriers you’ll likely need:

  • Connectors – These people are connected to everyone and will spread the message.  We all know there are a few people in every organization that know everyone, know everything, probably gossip, and are at the epicentre of what’s going on in the company.
  • Mavens – These are the people the Connectors go to to find out more about the idea.  Mavens will dive deep into the idea to understand everything there is to be known about it.  They pay attention to detail and immerse themselves in this activity.
  • Salesman – These are people that will convince the Connectors and the rest of the organization when they need convincing.  They are persuasive types that thrive on the success of changing someone’s opinion or perspective.

These three carriers, if drawn in a Venn diagram, will likely need to intersect strongly and serve as the militia of individuals to carry your message downstream.  Therefore, we draw a conclusion about patterns and attributes that relate to great cultures, and the absence of those in bad cultures.

3. Pay attention to trust

Stephen M.R. Covey’s book, “The Speed of Trust”, is the final piece to this puzzle.  It adds in a multiplier effect to this epidemic equation, which relates to the ripple effect the notion of “trust” undertakes.  Does your organization trust itself?

Covey goes on to describe trust as a series of ripples with the epicentre starting with self, branching out to relationships, then organizational, then market, and finally societal.  This forms a ‘quasi-trust’ hierarchy.

If you don’t trust yourself and struggle with trust in your relationships, then how can those relationships (the three types of carriers in this case) trust you?  How can the organization trust your relationships to carry the correct message?  Alternatively, if you trust yourself and your relationships but the organization doesn’t trust itself, either via a series of failed cultural improvements, failed turnarounds or leadership turnover, can the epidemic spread quickly?

These are not ‘cut and dry’ situations in most organizations.  We have seen many iterations where organizations experience ‘trust’ breakdowns.  Most ride on an organization’s inability to trust itself and the people within.  We’ve also seen dramatic improvements to organizational cultures simply by getting an organization to adhere to a set of ground rules that work to build trust.  No fancy consulting, strategic plans or statistical models here; simply focus on establishing trust and adhere to basic commitments.


Now that you’ve thought through and deployed your perfectly crafted epidemic, the final step is to monitor carefully to learn how this idea or change spreads through the organization.  Did it work?  Or, did it get stuck somewhere?  Observe its path, understand the bottlenecks, choose when to re-engineer the message, utilize different carriers, or focus on building trust.  This final step will ultimately help your intended idea or message to multiply.

An idea is like a virus, it is resilient, and often highly contagious. The smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.

— Inception, 2010.