Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Tipping Point - by Malcolm Gladwell

The basic idea of this book is that epidemics spread based on ingredients that are often different than what we'd expect.  And no, not medical epidemics per se, but whenever anything 'goes viral' and suddenly moves from a small, cloistered few to a large, sweeping point of interest.  One illustration in the book is how hush puppies made a comeback, from a small group of eccentric fashion-forward people in the East Village of NY to a country-wide fashion phenomena. 

Gladwell's points were few, but heavily illustrated.  I have to admit that I'm of the temperament that would prefer less illustration and more direct writing...however...the illustrations did help me understand his points more deeply.  Still, I think I could have skipped a few illustrations and still come away with the basics of author's ideas.

The Three Rules of Epidemics - The Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.

The Law of the Few - Social epidemics are "driven by the efforts of a handful of exceptional people." "sociable they are, or how energetic or knowledgable or influential among their peers."   These few can have a powerful, far-reaching effect when the idea or product they are promoting engages with the two other rules of epidemics.  Three kinds of people help move ideas to epidemics:  connectors, mavens, and salesmen.  A  connector is someone who is well networked, and seems to 'know everyone' and continually be introducing one person into another network or world.  Connectors spread ideas through the simple fact of being linked with a wide variety of people.  Mavens are those who are the watch-dogs of quality, and will research and correct those who miss the mark.  Mavens are rare, but they delight in correctness for its own sake and will insure that a company knows about his/her presence.  Mavens promote products they believe in and speak loudly both about those they like and those they dislike.  The concept of  the salesman is a bit self-explanatory.  True salesmen can sell 'ice to an eskimo,' and in so doing, be part of the spread of an epidemic. 

The Stickiness Factor - this is Gladwell's attempt to describe that illusive something that forms the difference between a commercial that is entertaining, and a commercial that not only makes us remember the specific product but also want to buy it.  Stickiness is what makes something more enduring, memorable, and effective.  "Stickiness means that a message makes an impact.  You can't get it out of your head.  It sticks in your memory."

The Power of Context - "The power of context says that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem."  Gladwell uses the 1984 NYC subway system as an example.  Dirty, ridden with crime, and full of graffiti, it wasn't exactly the kind of system that promoted public pride.  Fare-jumpers were common, and police didn't even bother with them.  The whole system was broken, and the public knew it.  But when the system came under new management, things changed.  One of the very first actions of the new manager was to clean every subway car, scrub off the graffiti, and keep it that way.  What?!?!  When crime and broken trains and fire were rampant every day, why the focus on cosmetics?  Because - the CONTEXT that patrons were in every day bred a lack of responsibility and ownership.  The system was abused because the graffiti sent the message that nobody was minding the store.  As soon as someone began to mind the store, things began to change.  This idea suggests that for an idea to stick - we are extremely susceptible to our environment and the messages it sends.  Epidemics can be fueled by context.

I agree with Gladwell that the power of context is enormous, while I do think that the author went a bit TOO far in his application of the idea.  While context influences us all more than we realize, we are still responsible for our own actions and must therefore have an outside source to help us know what is right and wrong.  Gladwell describes a murder that takes place on the subway in that time frame and why, in his thinking, some of the 'blame' went to the context that the gunman was in every single day.  Again, context IS powerful and I cannot deny that - but BECAUSE it is powerful, as a Christian, I believe that is why we must have an even more powerful 'context' in which to think, act and live.  For me, that is the Word of God and the Holiness of the God I serve that dictates my actions.  We are all susceptable to decline based on context, but we still make personal choices. 

As a Christian, there are plenty of things that I would like to see become an 'epidemic.'  Church-planting and missional lifestyles.  Gospel-based thinking and actions of mercy.  Scripture-memory and engaging prayer.  Justice for the down-trodden and food for the hungry. 

From a Christian perspective, I think that what Gladwell is describing captures some of the ways that God uses His own people to move ideas from small pockets into large networks.  As a leader, I want to think intentionally about these three 'rules' and where they might apply in my own context.  What is my role?  Who else do I need on my team in order to move big dreams into reality?  Where can I find a Maven, a Salesperson, and more Connectors?  What makes my vision 'sticky' for the Body of Christ in NYC?  And what context do I need to either 'create' or act in defiance of in order to see movement happen? 

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