Tiny Seeds And The Science Behind Successful Ideas

A Review Of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference, By Malcolm Gladwell

The nursery rhyme For Want Of A Nail is one that many a child has learned at school. It serves to remind us of how small events can lead to drastic and sometimes life changing outcomes:

“For want of a nail the shoe was lost.  For want of a shoe the horse was lost.  For want of a horse the rider was lost.  For want of a rider the battle was lost.  For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.”

Many of us are perhaps familiar with the more modern iteration of the rhyme’s underlying concept known as the ‘Butterfly Effect’ in which it is claimed that the moving wings of a single butterfly can affect global weather patterns. In his book The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell has extended this centuries-old idea to provide a fascinating account of how complex societal patterns, such as the large scale adoption of clothing fashions, can arise through the simple acts of just a small number of people. The craze of Hush Puppies® footwear is just one example that Gladwell uses to illustrate how, through easily identifiable and simple human behaviors, fashions can grip entire nations if not the whole world in a very short period of time.

Gladwell identifies three categories of individual that play pivotal roles in spreading the word about an emerging fashion. Connectors, those who know a lot of people from different walks of life, play the part of networking across the social landscape. Mavens on the other hand are the technical experts who are clued in on the latest innovations and know where to get the best deals. Lastly there are the Salesmen who push a particular fad or fashion into the limelight and persuade us that it is something we cannot do without if we are to be successful in life. Together these three groups of people are easily identifiable key ingredients that make or break a fashion pushing it across the tipping point from the totally obscure to a ‘must have’ phenomenon.

And yet the ‘tipping point’ concept that Gladwell draws our attention to extends far further than just the fashion industry. In fact Gladwell’s impressive list of examples makes for a compelling story. Little things like facial expressions, gestures and individual personalities went a long way in persuading Americans to vote for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. As extensive as it was, the American Revolutionary War was won because of the valiant but small acts of just a few heroic individuals such as Paul Revere. The children’s programs Sesame Street and Blues Clues made long-lasting impressions on young minds by adopting simple ‘sticking factors’ – ideas and cues that children could remember and focus on. And the highly successful clothing company Gore-Tex® maintained employee cohesion by limiting the size of its manufacturing plants to no more than 150 people.

Gladwell’s exposé in many ways resembles that of Santa Fe Institute economist Brian Arthur who notes how much of what we see in the technology realm can be explained by a process of ‘locking in’ of small historical events. According to Arthur, the success of the QWERTY keyboard or the increased sales of the VHS video system over its closest rival Beta Max were not dependent on any inherent better quality of the winning system but rather on small details in the history of innovation that, over time, lead to the establishment and the overwhelming success of particular technologies. Once such winning technologies were wide-spread, they became a locked part of our culture.

Nevertheless what distinguishes Gladwell’s writing is the attention he gives to each of the examples he considers. The unprecedented reduction in violent crime in New York City during the 1990s, following simple strategies like cleaning off graffiti and arresting subway ticket evaders, features prominently on his website as does the high profile suicide epidemic that affected the island of Micronesia during the 1980’s. Always underlying these events are Gladwell’s ‘tipping points’- “expressions of the peculiarities of the human mind and heart” that seed large patterns of social behavior.

Further Reading

For details on Brian Arthur’s work see M. Mitchell Waldrop (1992), Complexity, The Emerging Science At The Edge Of Order And Chaos, Simon & Schuster, New York, p.49

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Robert Deyes

Robert has been a Technical Services Scientist at Promega for over 10 years. He also worked for two years as a Technical Advisor at the Paisley, Scotland facility of Life Technologies Inc. After earning his Masters in Medical Genetics from the University of Glasgow, he spent 18 months at the Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France where he did research into the molecular basis of the inherited disorder Spinal Muscular Atrophy. He also holds a BSc from the University of Portsmouth in England.

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