Minimum Viable Transformation

How many people does it take to change a culture?

Daniel Stillman
6 min readJun 6, 2022

No…this isn’t the start of a bad joke. It’s a real question!

Margaret Mead famously said:


But how small of a group does it really take?!

A 2018 study from the University of Pennsylvania attempted to put a number to that Mead truism…

Damon Centola, an associate professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania did a series of experiments, creating groups of online communities and trying to get them to set a norm and then, to shift the norm.

Professor Centola concluded, after running 10 iterations of this experiment, that change became inevitable when 25% of the people were on the side of making the shift — what Centola calls a “committed minority group” driving the change.

So, if you want to begin changing the culture, you might want to get at least 25 percent of the people in your community on your side.

One asterisk in the experiment — the change actually started with planting ONE activist in the groups.

So…what’s the journey from one person to a 25% committed minority?


Erica Chenoweth, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study gave a TEDx talk in 2013, sharing insights about patterns she was seeing underlying one of the hardest types of change: political change. And not just any type of political change…the hardest and most important type — changing an oppressive regime or public policy.

One surprising fact of Professor Chenoweth’s research is that nonviolent change is more successful than violent change. More and more, violent change is rejected as illegitimate, and effective only 10% of the time. But non-violent change is, on the whole, 70% effective.

So — if you’re trying to create a change in your culture, leveraging non-violent methods are going to be your friend — tools like Design Thinking, co-creation, Appreciative inquiry…and intentionally grounding all of these approaches in Non-Violent, inclusive language.


Again, what’s awesome about the 25% result in the University of Philadelphia work, is that the change initiative started with one activist.


So, while you might need 25%, you just need to start with one voice — it could be yours!

The 25% rule was just their experimental measurement of when an inevitable tipping point acceleration to a new way of working occurred.

Dr. Chenoweth’s research puts some clarity into the journey from one to 25% and maybe offers a different number.

Looking at hundreds of political change campaigns over the last century, Chenoweth found that it takes around 3.5% of the population to ensure serious political change. Which is, you may have noticed, somewhat less than 25%!

The 3.5% rule comes with an asterisk, too: those people need to be actively engaged in the change, and engaged over time — sustained involvement. And the work needs to be grounded in Non-Violence resistance, not violent aggression.


If you’re reading this far, most likely, you’ve got a team you’re hoping to grow into new ways of working or a department or organization you’re hoping to shift.

I’ve been involved in many change initiatives over the years, and mostly, that change was decided in one room, and then explained and trained in another set of rooms.

I wouldn’t call this conventional process of change non-violent. One coaching client of mine described their current situation as being whipped around by “the re-org of the day”. So much change, coming down the line SO often has people spinning their heads!

Change can create reactive resistance when people aren’t part of the process. Change means the loss of the old way of working, without any say in the matter. That sense of loss is grief, and it’s real trauma. Acknowledging and accepting this reality can help us design more inclusive change models.

Certainly, my friend Bree Groff, a partner at SY Partners found that identifying 6 types of loss in change initiatives helped her be more intentional about leading change — we talked about these six types of grief and loss in organizational change in our podcast conversation here.


The core of non-violence is invitation — that someone can come into the change, and make it their own, can be part of a co-creative process, to see and feel their stamp on the process.

Invitation also means to be able to leave safely at any time. My friend Daniel Mezik introduced me to the importance of invitation in change — and you might enjoy our podcast conversation here about that.


I’m embarrassed to say that in the past, I’ve been involved in transformation by “Sheep Dipping” (as one of my clients described it).

Usually, Sheep Dipping describes dipping actual Sheep into an actual solution (fungicide, most often).

In a corporate transformation context, we’d dip a group of people in a non-solution: A one-day training on the new modes of thinking and working. We’d train a bunch of people, and then move on to the next batch, with maybe a few check-in calls over the next weeks and months, with fewer and fewer folks showing up to each check-in call.

Dipping sheep, actual sheep, actually works. Giving folks a one-day training and expecting they’ll start being different is a tremendous ask. The forgetting curve is real — people walk out of a training session and lose at least half of what they heard nearly immediately — especially if we’re talking about complex behavior change, like better communication or collaboration. There’s no simple manual that works in all contexts (not even my helpful book on designing better conversations!)

One could also describe this “sheep dipping” approach as “Spray and Pray”.

One aspect of Prayer is hoping that folks will start using the tools and principles we’re teaching them. Bridging the gap between general examples in a training and putting those principles into practice is always a challenge — a challenge folks are often left to manage on their own.

The other aspect of prayer is praying that these folks will stick around.

The old joke goes:

“What if we train them and they leave?” to which the reply is:

“What if we don’t and they stay?!”

Getting a 25% rate of people trained and bought in on new ways of working, and putting those tools into practice significantly, is a challenge, especially since folks often look at training as an opportunity to grow, and as a signal that the company wants to change — that’s why they hired an external trainer for this, after all.

I’ve found that if the culture doesn’t change, and change quickly, folks are quite happy to take their new-trained mindsets to a company that is already into these new ways of thinking and working, not struggling to get them into place.

Getting to 25% when a company is losing folks to the great reshuffling is a challenge, to say the least.

Trying to train large numbers of people at once also allows social loafing — hiding in a crowd of dozens of people is easy.


We all know the quotes about a journey starting with a single step and that we need to be the change we want to see in the world.

What if the 3.5% rule applied to your context? What if we don’t need to train everybody, but instead, just need to coach a small group of people to create a non-violent resistance to the old ways of working, and to slowly, relentlessly bring the new ways in? What would that look like in your context?

And more importantly…what do you need to do in order to be the change you want to see in your world? What is the first domino you would need to set up and get into motion?

PS- this article first appeared on my personal blog. Head over there and subscribe to get new articles first!