Little things can tip change in your favor

November 1, 2004 By    

In his book “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell examines the phenomenon of sudden unlikely events that occur all at once — labeled “tipping points.” It is his premise that — more often — change occurs suddenly rather than gradually. The critical point at which the radical change occurs is “the tipping point.”

Carl Hughes
Carl Hughes

To demonstrate the premise of how the tipping point phenomenon works, the author focuses on the 1918 influenza epidemic. The influenza virus had been around for months with little serious effect, but later that year, the disease took on a new strain and new patterns of societal contact caused the tipping point…the virus spread and soon exploded. More than 20 million people died in this worldwide epidemic.

To illustrate his point another way, the author then turns to Paul Revere’s famous ride. As the story is told, a Boston stable boy overheard a British officer saying to another “hell to pay tomorrow.” That message made its way to Paul Revere, who rode to warn the colonists that the British were preparing for the long-anticipated march toward Lexington and Concord. The tipping point was the point at which a simple humble message created a word-of-mouth “epidemic” that prepared the defense — and the American Revolution was on.

In still another cultural example, Gladwell explores the success of the groundbreaking children’s television program “Sesame Street.” The creator of the show effectively accomplished a single mission — to raise the education level of children. Television professionals and educators ridiculed this concept for TV. Yet the simplicity of the approach to make the information fun to young viewers was highly effective. Small children who watched “Sesame Street” experienced dramatic improvements in reading and math over those who did not. The tipping point was the moment at which the fun of the show reverberated among children, causing the veiwership to explode into what has become a long-standing educational television program.

Ideas can spread like diseases

The author’s premise is that to understand trends in society, culture or organizations, they should be examined as if they were epidemics. Ideas, products, messages and concepts spread just like viruses and can be just as contagious.

For example, understanding the powerful concepts of the highly efficient and effective word-of-mouth activity in our society and its similarities to the spread of contagious diseases can explain how certain books, TV shows and performers become successes while others do not.

A fascinating conclusion by the author is that often very small, subtle changes can have dramatic effects. For instance, at the same time Paul Revere rode, so did William Dawes — but Dawes’ message did not take hold and those colonists along his route went back to bed. Likewise, the world has many opportunities for epidemics, but why the 1918 influenza? And many bright, experienced television producers have attempted to create successful television shows that have failed.

Conversely, we often see enormous efforts and costs going into certain programs that yield little results. At the root of these failures, the author contends, is the inability to understand the importance of how a tipping point is created.

As tipping point ideas spread in an explosive manner, dramatic change takes place. It may be our human nature to expect that change occurs gradually, but it seldom does – more often, change is dramatic. Understand the factors that drive each issue toward its tipping point, and you will understand that not only is an unlikely event rational — it is expected.

What are your tipping points?

The societal environment in your marketplace is not static; it is always ripe for receiving contagious ideas.

It does not necessarily take large amounts of energy or resources to promote a significant change in behavior — you just need to know what factors need to change.

Word-of-mouth as a tool to communicate continues to be underestimated by all of us in the propane industry. Small things that we do in our businesses can have a large impact.

This book is worth a look if you want to better understand how societal changes take place. It could change how you view the environment around your business.

Carl Hughes hopes his column will be a tipping point toward sound strategies. He is vice president of business development for Inergy LP and can be reached at 816-842-8181 or by e-mail at

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