A conversation with Greg Satell, author, speaker, and innovation advisor

We’re hosting Greg for an upcoming Cascades Workshop on November 21, 2019 in Austin. Please join us.

Instigating impactful change—either altering the entire world or your corner of it—can seem daunting and impossible, especially if you’re not in a place of charismatic leadership or have a persuasive marketing plan for a million-dollar idea. However, the true power of change is actually in the collaboration of multiple networks, according to writer, speaker, and innovative adviser Greg Satell. After a life- and career-changing experience that led to fifteen years of research studying how to create change, Greg has discovered a method of specific cascades that have the ability to allow real change to form, from renewing a company, disrupting an industry, or reshaping an entire society.

Writer, speaker, and innovative adviser Greg Satell
Writer, speaker, and innovative adviser Greg Satell

Kiev, Ukraine, 2004 during The Orange Revolution: This is where Greg received the first spark of inspiration to investigate and study how to create transformational change. As the leader of a major news organization in Kiev at the time, Greg was intrigued by the self-organizing collective action of the millions of Ukrainians who gathered to protest Ukraine’s presidency, known as the “orange revolution.”

On the evening of November 22, 2004, hundreds of thousands of people gathered together in a sea of orange apparel and flags in an effort to stop the ruling elite from falsifying the election in Kiev’s Independence Square, chanting, “Together we are many! We cannot be defeated!” This would lead to 17 days of collaborative peaceful protest efforts of millions nationwide, and the revolution would come to be a victory for “people power.” The successful efforts created from an alliance of a powerful civic movement, a masterful political opposition group, and a determined middle class made the uprising a significant new landmark in eastern European post-communist history.

“I found it amazing how thousands of people who would ordinarily be doing very different things would all of a sudden stop what they were doing and start doing the same thing all at once in almost complete unison,” Greg said of the construction of mass protests around the country.

Greg giving a talk.
Greg giving a talk.

Intrigued by the miraculous process he witnessed to create powerful unity, Greg started to contemplate and analyze the workings of such collective power to make change. Looking at the Ukrainian community as well as the hundreds of employees he personally oversaw in his business at the time, Greg questioned if there was a calculated method to get people to unify and embrace common initiatives. A couple of years later in Silicon Valley, he used the resources of his digital business at his disposal as well as new-learned knowledge of social networks to begin researching network theory. What he discovered was a nearly complete mathematical explanation for the workings of The Orange Revolution, why and how the successful unification of millions was possible. Greg was hooked, and he spent the next 15 years studying how to create change.

“When somebody is trying to do something like a digital transformation or a corporate turnaround like IBM, Gandhi isn’t the first thing you think about, or Martin Luther King,”

Greg articulates these findings in his recent book, Cascades, a systematic guide to driving transformational change. He draws upon the wisdom of past and present movements to showcase the shortcomings and successes of change. Most people wouldn’t think to look at the teachings of historical or social movements to learn how to be successful in business. “When somebody is trying to do something like a digital transformation or a corporate turnaround like IBM, Gandhi isn’t the first thing you think about, or Martin Luther King,” Greg said. “But one of the nice things about social and political movements is that they’re so well documented. With corporate and industrial transformations, we usually only find out about them, first, when they’re successful. We hardly ever hear about the failures, unless it’s some absolutely tragic failure.”

Greg Sattell

By studying the failures and triumphs of past movements, the structure of any mass change can be calculated, according to Greg. He found that societies have three different “buckets” of creating change, of which they treat as completely separate entities: political activism, social movements, and organization, and industrial transformation. However, combining the concepts and drawing from the wisdom of lessons learned from the various institutions can make the most effective change, he says.

“What I found in my research is [political activism, social movements, and industrial transformation] are actually very, very similar. And we can learn a lot from looking at social and political movements about how to create transformations in business,” Greg said.

Greg’s book, Cascades is a systematic guide to driving transformational change.
Greg’s book, Cascades is a systematic guide to driving transformational change.

Lessons Learned from Social and Political Movements

So, what can social and political movements teach us about creating change in business? A lot, according to Greg. He found numerous parallels between successful industrial or organizational transformations and social or political movements, which he outlines in his book. The following are what he identifies as the crucial components of creating and maintaining transformational change:

  1. Identify a Keystone Change: start with a clear and tangible goal that involves multiple stakeholders and paves the way for future change.
  2. Understand and anticipate your opposition: one of the most overlooked aspects of creating significant change that often blindsides companies, according to Greg, and one of the most important factors to actively consider.
  3. Network the movement: identify and implement how to best connect groups of people with a shared intersectional purpose.
  4. Indoctrinate a genome of values: build a foundation of trust and shared purpose that common values foster.
  5. Build platforms for participation, mobilization and connection: create the environment for change and spread the word!
  6. Surviving victory: how to maintain the change and avoid backlash/movement decline.

Identifying Keystone Change in Business

Let’s look at a real-world example of keystone change—one of the most important but most difficult tasks of creating change, Greg says. A keystone change is the movement and transformation of the foundation of a policy, system, society, business, etc. Altering a long-standing, powerful system takes some serious work, hence the difficulty to pull it off. The Women’s Movement of the 19th Century and the LGBT Movement, for example, both took decades to arrive at keystone change. But (in light of keystone change) due to the tireless efforts of millions and the radically affluent appeal to each movement’s shared values of equality and human rights, both movements took flight and gained wins.

Greg has found this concept of keystone change in every single successful industrial or organizational transformation he studied, even though nearly all of the organizations did not recognize it as such at the time, he says. Take the cloud transformation at Experian: a new CIO, Barry Libenson, was tasked to answer the request of customers to have real-time access to data in 2015. In order to do that, Barry identified the company would need to completely change its technology infrastructure from a traditional architecture to a hybrid cloud infrastructure. This raised major concern for opposition. One of the largest credit bureaus in the world with important and sensitive information in a highly regulated industry changing its entire infrastructure brought up questions of security and losing control of its business model. How did he pull it off? Barry first identified the keystone change as internal APIs, which weren’t as threatening as a direct transfer to the cloud at the time. He rallied popular opinion around the idea, growing a cadre of people already on-board and excited to implement an agile development approach needed for the cloud versus a more traditional waterfall development approach. When the use of internal APIs was successful and people were able to see the idea work in action, he found it much easier to then gain the support to transition to a more comprehensive cloud approach with external APIs.

“You have to attract people, you can’t coerce. You can’t bribe or coerce transformation.”

“You have to attract people, you can’t coerce. You can’t bribe or coerce transformation,” Greg says. “People really have to believe in change, and you need to change minds. And you do that by building up local majorities. People will tend to adopt the opinions and ideas of people around them.”

How to Implement Change In Your Business

All of Greg’s research and findings can be applied to any business. In fact, Greg travels around the country advising companies on innovation and hosting workshops to show companies exactly how, based on the premises of Cascades.

Want to learn more? Join Greg and Voltage Control for a “Cascades” Workshop

You can join us for the Cascades Workshop on November 21, 2019 here in Austin, where Greg will teach a full day of how to navigate and drive change in today’s “era of disruption.” You will learn the specific strategy–each step in the Cascades’ process–to create a movement that drives transformational change, and then put the ideas to work during hands-on activities. Greg will also share stories from his research; learn how dozens of people and organizations have created truly historic impact. Join us, and learn the skills necessary for transformation.

If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.