True Transformation Isn’t Top-Down Or Bottom-Up, But Side-To-Side

Greg Satell
5 min readOct 12, 2019
Image: Pixabay

In a disruptive era, the only viable strategy is to adapt and that is especially true today. With change seeming to accelerate with each passing year, every organization must transform itself. Those who are unable to change often find that they are unable to compete and soon disappear altogether.

There has been a long running debate about whether change should be top-down or bottom-up. Some say that true change can only take hold if it comes from the top and is pushed through the entire organization. Others argue that you must first get buy-in from the rank-and-file before any real change can take place.

As I explain in Cascades, the truth is that transformation isn’t top-down or bottom-up, but happens from side-to-side. Change never happens all at once and can’t simply be willed into existence. It can only happen when people truly internalize and embrace it. The best way to do that is to empower those who already believe in change to bring in those around them

Identify your Apostles

All too often, change initiatives start with a big kickoff meeting and communication campaign. That’s almost always a mistake. In every organization, there are different levels of enthusiasm to change. Some will be ready to jump on board, but others will be vehemently opposed. To them, change is a threat.

So starting off with a big bang may excite some supporters, but it will also mobilize the opposition, who will try to undermine the effort — either actively or passively — before you have the chance to gain momentum. Before you know it, your initiative loses steam and change dies with it.

So a better strategy is to start by identifying your apostles — people who are already excited about the possibilities for change. For example, when Barry Libenson first started his movement to transform Experian’s digital infrastructure from a traditional architecture to the cloud, he didn’t announce a big campaign right away. Instead, he found early allies that he could start with.

They weren’t enough to drive change throughout the organization, of course, but they did allow him to start small-scale initiatives, such as building internal API’s. The success of those brought in…

Greg Satell

Co-Founder: ChangeOS | Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Wharton Lecturer,@HBR Contributor, - Learn more at