Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Organizational Change and System Dynamics Insights from The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point*
is a 2002 book by Malcolm Gladwell (who also wrote Blink) that uses the metaphor of a viral epidemic to explain how some phenomenon, e.g., a product**, an idea, or a social norm, can suddenly reach a critical mass and propagate rapidly through society.  Following is a summary of his key concepts.  Some of his ideas can inform strategies for implementing organizational change, especially cultural change, and reflect attributes of system dynamics that we have promoted on Safetymatters.

In brief, epidemics spread when they have the right sort of people to transmit the infectious agent, the agent itself has an attribute of stickiness, and the environment supports the agent and facilitates transmission. 


An epidemic thrives on three different types of people: people who connect with lots of other people, people who learn about a new product or idea and are driven to tell others, and persuasive people who sell the idea to others.  All these messengers drive contagiousness although all three types are not required for every kind of epidemic.


A virus needs to attach itself to a host; a new product promotion needs to be memorable, i.e., stick in people’s minds and spur them to action, for example Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” campaign or the old “Winston tastes good . . .” jingle.  Information about the new product or idea needs to be packaged in a way that makes it attractive and difficult to resist.


General and specific environmental characteristics can encourage or discourage the spread of a phenomenon.  For a general example in the social environment consider the Broken Windows theory which holds that intolerance of the smallest infractions can lead to overall reductions in crime rates.

At the more specific level, humans possess a set of tendencies that can be affected by the particular circumstances of their immediate environment.  For example, we are more likely to comply with someone in a uniform (a doctor, say, or a police officer) than a scruffy person in jeans.  If people believe there are many witnesses to a crime, it’s less likely that anyone will try to stop or report the criminal activity; individual responsibility is diffused to the point of inaction.      

Our Perspective

We will expand some of Gladwell’s notions to emphasize how they can be applied to create organizational changes, including cultural change.  In addition, we’ll discuss how the dynamics he describes square with some aspects of system dynamics we have promoted on Safetymatters.

Organizational change

Small close-knit groups have the potential to magnify the epidemic potential of a message or idea.  “Close-knit” means people know each other well and even store information with specific individuals (the subject matter experts) to create a kind of overall group memory.  These bonds of memory and peer pressure can facilitate the movement of new ideas into and around the group, affecting the group’s shared mental models of everything from the immediate task environment to the larger outside world.  Many small movements can create larger movements that manifest as new or modified group norms.

In a product market, diffusion moves from innovators to early adopters to the majority and finally the laggards.  A similar model of diffusion can be applied in a formal organization.  Organizational managers trying to implement cultural changes should consider this diffusion model when they are deciding who to appoint to initiate, promote, and promulgate new or different cultural values or behaviors.  Ideally, they should start with well-connected, respected people who buy into the new attributes, can explain them to others, and influence others to try the new behaviors.

System dynamics

This whole book is about how intrusions can disrupt an existing social system, for good or bad, and result in epidemic, i.e., nonlinear effects.  This nonlinearity helps explain why systems can be operating more or less normally then suddenly veer into failure.  Active management deliberately tries to create such changes to veer into success.  Just think about how social media has upset the loci of power in our society: elected leaders and experts now have larger megaphones but so does the mob. 

That said, Gladwell presents a linear, cause-and-effect model for change.  He does not consider more complex system features such as feedback loops or deliberate attempts to modify, deflect, co-opt or counteract the novel input.  For example, a manager can try to establish new behaviors by creating a reinforcing loop of rewards and recognition in a small group, and then recreating it on an ever-larger scale.

Bottom line: This is easy reading with lots of interesting case studies and quotes from talking head PhDs.  The book comes across as a long magazine article. 


*  M Gladwell, The Tipping Point (New York: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Co.) 2000 and 2002.

**  “Product” is used in its broadest sense; it can mean something physical like a washing machine, a political campaign, a celebrity wannabe, etc.