A brush with fame (plus my review of Influencer)

As I was on my way to return my borrowed copy of Influencer: The Power to Change Anything to its rightful owner, I passed David Wiley in a doorway. He saw the book in my hand, mentioned that he had heard a lot of good things about the book, and asked my opinion (but not my name; I was in such a hurry to get home and finish packing, I didn’t think to introduce myself. Drat!). My impromptu review was probably less than thirty seconds and perhaps two sentences in length. Basically, I felt the book was good, but having just finished Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition by Everett Rogers, I found Influencer: The Power to Change Anything a much less thorough study of the process of changing human behavior. Still, I felt that Influencer had some merit in making recommendations for change agents. I’ve been meaning to record my thoughts on the book in a little more detail and since I’m semi-settled, now is as good a time as any.

Influencer: The Power to Change Anything is the work of the same group of authors (plus David Maxfield) that wrote Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High and Crucial Confrontations. The authors run VitalSmarts, a company specializing in consulting and corporate training.  The subtitle of the book is “The Power to Change Anything“, which is a bold claim that should arouse a degree of skepticism in most people. In the early pages of the book, the authors do admit limits on this power (don’t expect to change gravity using the methods advocated in this book), but maintain that their methods provide the ability to effect great changes in human behavior. Patterson and his co-authors direct the book at anyone seeking to influence human behavior. These methods, they claim, work for influencing yourself as well as others. They illustrate this point by referencing a hypothetical example of an individual struggling to lose weight.  Still, most individuals will read this book with the intent to change the behavior of others.

The early chapters of the book stress the importance of identifying the “vital behaviors” that lead to desired outcomes.  To qualify as “vital”, behaviors must be recognizable, repeatable, and high-leverage.  Formal or informal research can help to uncover these behaviors.  The authors recommend looking for vital behaviors when in examples of “positive deviance”.  If someone or some group is succeeding where others are failing, identify the specific behaviors that they are doing differently.  Also, would-be influencers should be prepared for setbacks by establishing “recovery behaviors” in advance.  In another early chapter, the authors discuss the power of vicarious experience, summarizing some of the work of Albert Bandura as well as describing the power of story telling.  According to the authors, to be influential, a vicarious experience like a story needs to convince the audience that the behavior is (1) worth it and (2) within their ability to achieve it.

The bulk of Influencer identifies and elaborates upon six sources of influence:

  • Personal motivation – For some behaviors, influencers can create personal motivation where none existed before by creating experiences where individuals can try the new behavior (think Green Eggs and Ham (I Can Read It All by Myself Beginner Books)).  For other behaviors, individuals may know what the correct behavior is but have rationalized a way to avoid doing it.  In this case, influencers need fight moral disengagement by reframing the issue.  Sometimes this is as simple as replacing labels with names.
  • Personal ability – Once individuals have a desire to perform the behavior, they must have the ability to do so.  In this chapter, the authors discuss the importance of deliberate practice, the idea that practice doesn’t make perfect . . . perfect practice makes perfect.
  • Social motivation – Social norms can be a barrier to changing behaviors.  As a result, it is necessary for influencers to work through existing social networks to find opinion leaders in the community.  Also, influencers should seek to establish shared responsibility amongst members of the network.
  • Social ability – Some changes require individuals to work in teams in order to foster creativity and supply multiple perspectives.  Networks provide social capital.
  • Structural motivation – Incentives must be used with extreme caution.  External incentives can poison existing intrinsic motivation and influencers should beware of punishing by reward.  When punishments are used, provide specific warnings and don’t bluff.
  • Structural ability – Often, influencers underestimate the effect of the environment on their ability to accomplish goals.  Influencers should examine the systems that they desire to change in terms of propinquity and attempt to set up the surroundings so that the desired behavior is difficult to avoid and the alternatives are difficult to execute.  Additionally, they should provide data and cues to the desired behavior.

In the final chapter, the authors summarize the content from the previous chapters.  They stress their conclusion that successful influence strategies combine multiple sources of influence, frequently all six, and caution against the stingy application of sources of influence.

Having finished the book, I feel that I have a better understanding of how change agents craft successful influence/innovation campaigns.  I also believe that the book provides a useful framework for analyzing success and identifying vital behaviors.  Does that mean that I’m now armed with “the power to change anything”?

Only time will tell.


My mind map of the concepts contained in Influencer:
Mindmap of Influencer

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About Kimberly McCollum

I'm a former middle and high school science teacher and current stay at home mom.
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2 Responses to A brush with fame (plus my review of Influencer)

  1. Andrea says:

    I really like this post because we talked a lot about this while I was in Mozambique. The other girl that went with me was in charge of the “psychology of change” and we discussed what makes people change. The people in Mozambique get rewards for changing their behaviors- ie. treating their water. We often questioned that because a reward is not enough motivation to make changes permanent. We actually need to meet with this girl and talk about how we think Care for LIfe can change their program to motivate people in other ways, other than simply rewarding them with object prizes. I think this book could help us get our ideas together so that we can have a better final evaluation for the non profit when we are done. Thanks for posting!

  2. Andrea,

    I think Influencer would be a great book for you and the people at Care for Life. One of the recurring examples in the book is from a change agency working to eliminate the Guinea worm parasite in Africa. I’ll bet there are some lessons that would transfer to the work that you are doing.

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