Imagine, you have just been deployed to an onshore production operation and charged with improving contractor safety in a geographically spread operation. Skilled labor is hard to find and retention is a major challenge. Your boss knows that “a tell” (mandating change) will not work and may jeopardize an already difficult staff relationship.

What should you do?

These challenges — or similar — routinely exercise the minds of performance improvement leaders and change managers in the oil and gas sector. The crux of the challenge is how to find the safety tipping point to embed and sustain change?

Key criteria

Any mention of a tipping point brings to mind Malcolm Gladwell’s New York Times bestseller of the same name. Gladwell provided a lens to approach sticky change and identified three key criteria:

a) The Law of the Few: this refers to specialized capabilities that are present in the right qualities in groups and which move a group toward a tipping point. Specifically, Gladwell speaks about Connectors, Salespeople and Mavens. Connectors are, as the title implies, people with a special gift for bringing the world together (p.38). Salespeople are consummate communicators, who have the knack of quickly building relationships. The Maven is someone who wants to solve other people’s problems, generally by solving his own (p.66). To be a Maven is to be a teacher (p.69).

How to use The Law of the Few: Extend Stakeholder Mapping to include classifying stakeholders into Connector, Maven, Communicator or Unknown status. Stakeholder Mapping is a common change management practice, whereby stakeholders are classified by a range of criteria and then mapped on a two-by-two matrix. The challenge of the Law of the Few is to correctly classify stakeholders into the three categories. Keep in mind that Connectors are ideally placed to help you — they have a good sense of how to navigate the organization. Seek them out and enroll them in getting the Stakeholder Map started.

b) The Stickiness Factor is less concerned about the content of a message, but how to find the right fit so that the message is easily aligned into daily activities. Oftentimes, change messages are divorced from the day to day, so that the hearers are not sure how the message impacts them and what they need to do differently. For Gladwell, the challenge is to find a way to package the information to make it irresistible, so that the hearer is energized to act upon the information and to adopt new behaviors.

How to use The Stickiness Factor: Convene a workgroup of High Potential Connectors, Mavens and Communicators and facilitate them to find a message about contractor safety that will easily align with daily activities. The Connectors will provide insight as to who the key influencers are in the organization, the Mavens will help develop the solution, and the Communicators will design and help sell the solution. This workgroup will form the initial Change Network — people intimately involved in developing the solution, who co-own it and have an interest in seeing it completed.

c) Context Matters: Gladwell cites the experience in epidemiology where an illness bursts forth to epidemic status and notes how small changes in context have the impact of acting as vectors for the frequency of illness. He notes that epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur (p.139). The challenge for managers is to identify which specific and relatively small elements in the environment can serve as tipping points that energize an idea, so that it bursts forth and is able to propagate itself with increasing frequency.

How to use Context Matters: Enlist the Connectors, Mavens and Communicators to pilot the solution. Assess the pilot for success by reconvening the workgroup and reviewing the impact of the pilot. Make changes to the design of the solution and implement the changes. Continue to review and fine-tune the solution in association with your Change Network, aiming to develop the specific and relatively small elements that can serve as tipping points.

Remember, finding the Connectors, Mavens and Communicators in the organization is the key to success.

Mini Case Study: The Water Company

This regional utility desperately needed to improve the quality of its customer service. However, after a series of reorganizations, the customer-facing component had been outsourced to third-party contractors. Given the complex nature of customer service delivery, the Water Company realized that an innovative approach would be needed to engage technical, managerial and support functions internal and external to the utility.

Building a Change Network was key to the success of this change project, where key stakeholders were facilitated through a workshop that co-developed the solution and then co-implemented the pilot solution. The Change Network included Connectors, Mavens and Communicators.  After the pilots were completed, the solution was fine-tuned in association with the Change Network and small elements were changed to create the right environment for the tipping point to emerge.