The Four Stages Of Influence

Creating Change

Whatever your work, it’s probably your ambition to see it connect with and influence others in some way. Great work only reaches its fruition when it finds a receptive audience and ultimately creates change.

Maybe you want to change how things are done around the office, or maybe you’re trying to introduce a new idea into the marketplace. Regardless, there are many forces in the marketplace also competing for the attention of others. In order for your work to achieve the level of influence it deserves, you have to understand how ideas get adopted and create cultural change.

As I’ve been considering how influence is built, whether by individuals trying to change the course of an organization, or through the spread of a new product, I’ve settled on four stages that seem to be common across most instances.

Stage One: Change Minds By Challenging an Assumption

To gain influence, you have to first shift thoughts. You do this by challenging an existing assumption about how things must be. This doesn’t mean that you should be contrarian for the sake of it, but that you should frame your work or your idea in such a way that there are clear battle lines between good (your work) and bad (the status quo). In his book Primal Branding, Pat Hanlon calls this identifying the “pagans”. Who are the people who stand directly opposed to your idea, and why are their ideas so dangerous? More importantly, what do you propose as a solution to their ideas?

Action step: What assumption are you challenging through your work?


Stage Two: Change The Conversation By Introducing a New Lexicon

Changing one mind does not create influence. In order to gain traction, you have to change the conversation. You do this by introducing a common language – a new lexicon – that enables people to more easily discuss the concepts in your work. For example, at Accidental Creative we coined the term “create on demand world” in order to describe the pressures of having to generate brilliant ideas at a moment’s notice. This phrase gave us handles to grab onto whenever we were discussing the problems typically associated with creative teams. You have to influence others to talk about your ideas, and the best way to do so is by acting like a poet. Introduce a resonant phrase that captures the essence of the problem, and challenge people to discuss.

Action step: Develop a few phrases that describe the problem and change you want to see, then use them consistently in your work.


Stage Three: Inspire Trial By Lowering The Bar

No one likes to change. Change is scary and uncomfortable, especially when the present option is relatively stable and secure. However, this mindset limits opportunity for growth and discovery. Market researchers repeatedly find that there is a correlation between trial and purchase. The most difficult part of creating any kind of influence is inspiring those initial first few steps. Could you propose a small, trial run of some kind? How could you make big change seem small and risk-free so that others can see the benefit of your ideas?

Action step: Determine a small, risk-free way of sampling your idea and make sure that it’s effective.


Stage Four: Change The System By Formalizing Action

People are creatures of habit. If we want something done predictably, the best method is to systemize it. No matter how great the experience of your idea or product is, if it doesn’t become a ritual in the life of the organization or individual it will not gain a foothold. How can you create an easily implementable system for adoption of your idea? How can you turn trial into repeat action?

Action step: Generate a repeatable system with limited initial friction for continuing to implement your idea.


First, let me say that this is a working/observational theory, but it’s forged by years of paying attention to how great work becomes influential. (Note that I’m not talking about virality or mass awareness. There is a big difference between something that’s popular and something that mobilizes through influence.)

Second, I’d love your thoughts on these stages and any additional insights you have as I continue to put flesh on these ideas.

If you want your ideas to find form and create change, you have to mobilize others to act. Take some time to consider how these four stages might apply to your work today, and go make something happen.

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  1. P. Kresna

    Hi Toddy, excellent. These 4 actions, resemble a series of steps that I have taken, during the first 3 months of my current role. I can confirm that what you wrote above, makes perfect sense, and they work. (VP, Head of Learning, Bank, Indonesia)

    • Todd Henry

      Thank you – glad you found them to be accurate.

  2. Chuck Thurmon

    You should rethink your analogy in the first section, Stage One. Your “pagan = bad” is offensive and rather ironic given the point you were trying to make.

    • Todd Henry

      Thanks for your comment, Chuck.

      In Hanlon’s Primal Branding framework, which uses a tribal metaphor to discuss how brands become effective, “pagans” are anyone who are outside of the tribe, or the specific new mode of thought a movement is trying to create. For example, to Apple in the 1970’s/80’s, IBM and the traditional way of thinking about computing was “pagan”. They stood for everything Apple was trying to come against. It’s not my term, I was just quoting his.

  3. Marc Posch

    Todd. Wonderful. I agree wholeheartedly to the 4 steps of implementing change. However, the challenging part is switching from digital to analog, from intellectual to practical. The world is full with great advice on how to change things, but still we are always left alone out in the rain to take the first step – and keep going!. I like how Steve Chandler advises in the Time Warrior to slice down the action into tiny bits and micro bits, 3 minutes of change and then builds habits from there. What is your experience with getting things started? How do you take the first step?

    • Todd Henry

      I find that I work best in 15-20 minute increments. I can power through something quick to get things moving, but I also take 5 minute breaks between surges of activity to recharge. I get about 45-50 minutes of solid work done each hour, but that beats 60 minutes of half-engaged, over-burdened work. Just my experience.

  4. Manvendra kumar

    Great article Todd, bringing in change is not easy and your 4 step approach makes sense. I have mostly worked on new development projects – new system replacing old ones and I have faced this challenge almost every time. As step one I first focus on the similarity of both system and try to present both positive and negative of existing system and when I see people are comfortable I focus on the key pain areas of existing system and how the new system is going to address it. It has helped in making my project successful. I also prefer going slow in the beginning.

    • Todd Henry

      I really like your approach, Manvendra. Thank you for your addition to the conversation!

  5. Padmaja Nagarur

    Thanks for sharing this post Todd! I find this extremely interesting given the context I’m operating in. I work with a startup (in India) that’s offering art on subscription which is not something potential customers are used to. But I’m curious to know if there are any brands that have successfully introduced habits to larger audiences.

  6. Mary Davis

    Thanks for the great article. Consider in addition to justifying your use of “pagans” also removing that sentence. I too found it offensive and it doesn’t seem necessary.


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I'm Todd Henry.

I'm Todd Henry.

I write books, speak internationally on productivity, creativity, leadership, and passion for work, and help people and teams generate brilliant ideas.

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