Viral Change, pioneered by Dr Leandro Herrero, is an approach to change management that focuses mainly on creating the diffusion of new ideas and processes through social contagion of behaviours that spread via social networks. Conceptually, it relates to an array of behavioural and social sciences, with a particular emphasis on modern science of Social Networks. While conventional approach focuses on the sequence of creating a "burning platform" first, communicating strategy, planning, distributing tasks, training and deployment, Viral Change relies on creating and sustaining new behaviours rather than processes. Behaviours should act as a prerequisite to support change, not as a consequence.
The central message in Viral Change is that ‘there is no change unless there is behavioural change’.
It moves toward the formal process of organisational change with the understanding of the organisation as a living, adaptable network. A combination of language, behaviours and their reinforcement, creation of tipping points and establishment of new routines or ‘cultures’, enables a multi-directional impact and stable change. Viral Change in organisations follows the rules of epidemiology and a pattern of infections, which has more in common with the spread of fashions, than with the ‘communication to all’ style of management.
Concept and Development
The Viral Change model proposes that the traditional approach to change does not work effectively because it is too focused on processes. Change that is, linear, mechanistic, driven from the top of the organisation downwards, encompassing a big set of complex actions is often too process driven. By focusing on a small set of carefully chosen and non-negotiable behaviours, the Viral Change method serves to create and/or change the culture of the organisation through peer influence. The approach taps into the organisation behind the organisational chart. Three quarters of workplace conversations occur in the informal social networks and collaborative space that are active behind the scenes.
By recognising and tapping into these informal social networks within the organisation, behaviours are spread from person to person to create an internal infection of a new and more successful culture. Viral Change adapts scale-free networks laws to the spread of change, whether new ideas, new ways of working, improving utilisation of technology, cultural change or any other ‘change approach’ that organisations may need. The distribution of influence in scale-free networks follows a power law (logarithmic) where a relatively small number of people are well connected and the majority of people are not.
An organisation is an information network more akin to a living system than a machine. Nevertheless, much of business theory takes more of a machine-based approach to organisational management. Whereas machines can be controlled, living systems make their own choices about what to do and can only be ‘disturbed’ – influenced through impulses rather than orders. The issue in guiding such systems lies in meaning; and ensuring that individuals find their own path to meaning. Meaningful disturbances will get their attention and trigger structural changes, so by giving meaningful impulses, rather than over detailed action plans (which are alien to ‘living organisms’), Viral Change facilitates the spread of influence across a peer to peer network.
Viral Change methodology also considers what degree of collective collaboration is already present in an organisation. Collective goals, and the sharing of knowledge and learning (beyond formal job descriptions), through processes that are semi invisible and often spontaneous, leads to the development of informal communities of interest or practice. This helps the organisation move from a designed/formal structure (teams/ formal structures) to spontaneous collaborative (connections between individuals) structures.
The main components of Viral Change are Language (the framing of the direction), behaviours (the real vehicle of change), social tipping points (the sudden appearance of changes after initial imitations) and new routines (new culture, new ways of doing). The main communication and ‘currency’ of Viral Change is stories. Stories spread rapidly through the organisation and are powerful vehicles to convey that change is happening and trigger further imitation.
The viral spread of new behaviours is modelled by a relatively small critical mass of carefully chosen activists or change champions. Contact between infective and receptive people is carefully planned. To some extent the success of Viral Change in achieving change relies on the fact that human beings are natural modellers. Through these skills of unconsciously modelling (psychology) the behaviour of others, imitations and new behaviours are spread throughout the organisation and the new behaviour soon becomes the norm. The tipping point effect means that the new behaviour can appear suddenly, particularly if there are robust connections and enough ‘low threshold’ people who ‘catch’ the new behaviour.
Although the 'influencer model' has been criticised  on the grounds that it is not always possible to trace back an effect to an 'opinion leader system', the Viral Change approach is resilient and very effective because it relies upon multiple mechanism of 'infection'. Once the initial spread of change has started via the chosen activists or champions, Viral Change spreads to social tipping points by the simple existence of a ‘critical mass’ to be copied, not necessarily the individual champion anymore. Viral Change as a pragmatic approach asserts that when new routines have been established (changes embedded) it may not be possible to trace back all the influence mechanisms one by one. Far from being a weakness, Viral Change states that this is a sign of success because it proves that the new routines have been spread by several types of agents, originally triggered by the small number of champions.
Applications & Case Studies
Pfizer Ltd, the UK branch of the American pharmaceutical company adopted a viral change approach  to enhance the performance of its sales force. The company has around 120 behaviour champions who are the driving force behind cultural change.
Embed cultural change in the Friends Provident IT group 
Focus groups were run to find the influencers within the 600-strong organisation. This group defined the 13 desired behaviours that would be critical in achieving the organisation’s strategy and business objectives.
The group helped shape the language of the official communication around the desired behaviours, they also became the daily ‘behaviour champions’, empowered to do whatever it would take to achieve the organisations goals. These influencers were asked to keep a tally of change to keep track of progress. Sharing of ideas and learning was encouraged. Feedback was used to encourage the right behaviour and correct destructive behaviours in a constructive way.
Culture change happened and was recognised. The Friends Provident IT group was awarded ‘Best Place to work in IT’ by Computer Weekly magazine.
To change the image of the RA function at Novo Nordisk and build an appetite for knowledge-sharing
Communicating virally by withholding information. Survey work identified 'mindset' characteristics and behaviours needed to achieve cultural goals. Employees were invited to brainstorm concepts for improvement and the idea of 'Secret Societies' was born. This was launched in Dec 2007 and kept 'confidential'.
A 'manifesto' was drawn up based on secrecy and exclusivity; this fed the rumour mill and generated unprecedented levels of interest. The group was quickly expanded from an initial group of nine to 15 members which continued to grow. Different initiatives were implemented including breakfast meetings with senior leaders, launch workshops etc.
Overall aims were realised successfully.
Dr. Leandro Herrero
Dr. Leandro Herrero practiced as a psychiatrist for more than fifteen years before taking up senior management positions in several top league global companies, both in Europe and the US. He is co-founder and CEO of The Chalfont Project Ltd, an international consulting firm of organizational architects. Taking advantage of his behavioural sciences background – coupled with his hands-on business experience – he works with organizations of many kinds on structural and behavioural change, leadership and human collaboration.
Dr Herrero is the author of three psychiatric books and several scientific publications from his time as practicing physician. For many years, he also wrote a monthly article on management topics in Scrip Magazine, a world-wide publication for the healthcare/ pharmaceutical industry. He also wrote two management titles: Managing the new organization: the leaders toolkit and The Trouble with Management (PJB Publications). In 2006, Leandro Herrero started to publish a number of books focused on bringing behavioural sciences to day-to-day management and leadership. The first of these books are: The Leader with Seven Faces: finding your own ways to practice Leadership in today’s organization and Viral Change: the alternative to slow, painful and unsuccessful management of change in organizations (meetingminds). These were complemented by New leaders wanted – Now Hiring! The 12 kinds of people you must find, seduce, hire and find a job for and Disruptive Ideas10+10+10=1000: the maths of Viral Change that transform organisations.
Dr Herrero is Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute and fellow of The Institute of Directors (UK). Other than his medical qualifications, he holds an MBA from Henley Management College (UK), and a diploma in bioengineering. In 2005, he was appointed member of the advisory board of the Operational Research Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
- Link text Watts, Duncan J., Sheridan Dodds, Peter, 2007, Influentials, networks and public opinion formation, Journal of Consumer Research
- Read the full Pfizer case study. Pfizer Viral Change Case Study]
-  Melcrum Research Report (2008), Viral Communication in the Workplace
-  Melcrum Research Report (2008), Viral Communication in the Workplace
- Herrero, L. (2008). Viral Change: the alternative to slow, painful and unsuccessful management of change in organisations (Second edition, meetingminds)
- Herrero, L. (2006). The Leader with Seven Faces: Finding your own ways to practice leadership in today’s organisation (meetingminds)
- Herrero, L. (2007). New Leaders Wanted: Now Hiring! 12 kinds of people you must find, seduce, hire and create a job for (meetingminds)
- Herrero, L. (2008). Disruptive Ideas. 10+10+10=1000: the maths of Viral Change that transform organisations (meetingminds)
- Melcrum Research Report (2008), Viral Communication in the Workplace