Photo by Wikipedia
I just finished reading (well, listening, as I bought it on Audible.com) to Malcolm Glaswell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference . As an avid reader of Gladwell’s books it is somewhat surprising that I read this book last as it was his first New York Times best seller. However, it might have been for the best. While the book is a typical Gladwell book, i.e. wonderfully written and delivering some very important ideas to think about, I think it does not reach the level of his other books, especially Outliers which is just mind-blowing!
However, I think three ideas did strike me as very powerful. Two of them from the actual book and one from the afterword.
The power of small things – the book deals generally with how things tip and one of the most important rules is “The Law of the Few” (“The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts”). The book is filled with examples of how small things (small number of people, small number of behaviors, small number of incidents) can have and enormous effect on a nationwide level. The importance of small things is an idea I think about a lot and written about a few times, mentioning, like Gladwell does, the Broken Windows theory and other similar ideas. As I was reading the book, I thought about how counterintuitive it is that small things have so much influence. How people expect that big issues will have big causes or explanations. I think that this tendency is something every manager and leader has to fight against every day. If as a manager you succeed in locating and focusing on the “right” little things and convince the people around you to passionately fret about the same things, you are on the right way. As a society we need to devote more time to small issues and not only to big ones.
Environments – another rule is the importance of context or of the environment (“Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur”). This is something I have seen with my eyes many times but have never been able to appropriately name until the last few years. How organizations, teams or just groups of people, are highly contagious in their behavior. How a change of one person or an attitude can make similar situations develop totally differently. I saw this many times a commander in the Air Force. We had courses with more or less similar populations that developed in very different ways. The first few days, where internal norms were created were really important to the way the course developed. And it was not only in terms of the performance. More importantly it affected satisfaction, creativity and moral as well. The two ideas together – of context and small things making a big difference are powerful ideas.
Immunity – in the afterword, Gladwell writes about the idea of immunity. It is another way to think about change in general. If in the past telemarketing or mass media advertising worked and companies build entire business models on them, today they don’t work as well. People developed immunity. Some say that some of the fads we see in the managerial world – every time a new theory comes and holds for a few years and then replaced by a the new fad – might be a manifestation of the same idea. We develop immunity.
The manager before you never used to even say think you. When you come in a start doing that, it creates amazing change. However, after a while, it becomes routine. It is still important, but it does not carry the same punch it did when you first started. It is time to adapt.
So for me another way to look at the idea of immunity is to say we need to keep developing and changing. That no idea, theory, or belief can hold forever. And when I think about it I automatically think of things I wrote about in the past like capitalism, democracy, equality, the public company, factory mentality and more concepts that are not evolving fast enough. If people are adaptive and develop immunity, we need to keep thinking and inventing new ways. It doesn’t matter if it is politicians, parents, managers, academics or any other professional. Change, adapt, do the unexpected.