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Tipping points in social convention and change

This was an interesting study (HT @Emollick) looking at tipping points in social convention. Researchers conducted an experiment to test what proportion of people were needed to successfully challenge a norm that was held within the group. They looked at groups of people that had acheived a consensus about something (in this case the name of a person shown in a picture) and then they were individually exposed to a ‘confederate’ from the group that promoted a different name. The only incentive that the group members had was to coordinate. The study showed that when the proportion of confederates reached around 25% of the group this then enabled the opinion of the majority to be swayed to that of the minority. The researchers conclude that when it comes to changing social conventions, tipping points do exist and that established behaviour can be changed once minority groups have reached the right crictical mass.

Whilst the researchers acknowledge that there may be some variation in the size of the critical mass needed to successfully change opinion dependent on context, they also note that it is possible to anticipate how certain dynamics may impact this. And the principle is a really useful one.

Take any kind of change that an organisation is trying to implement. What so often happens is that the CEO or senior leaders treat this as a marketing exercise, making an announcement about the change or new direction and expecting behaviour to change in short order. Of course the reality of this situation is that staff just go back to their day jobs and any kind of change struggles to embed itself.

The idea of tipping points in supporting changes in beliefs or social convention is useful since it allows for a much more focused approach in which leaders can set a new course but then work with pioneers and early adopters within the organisation (who understand and can exhibit the change) to demonstrate what that change represents, start to make it happen, and begin to build momentum towards the desired end state. This is akin to the well known ‘diffusion of innovations’ curve (above) which sets out the process by which ideas and technologies are communicated and adopted in a social system. If we were to consider this as a ‘diffusion of transformation’ curve, the same principles apply – leaders should really focus their efforts on those initial pioneers and early adopter groups to forge a new path (note: Simon Sinek articulates this well here but I don’t agree with him that leaders should ignore the rest of the organisation and focus ONLY on those first groups).

Organisations are social systems. The big lesson here is that there is real benefit in taking a more deliberate and qualified approach to transformation (and cultural change in particular). I’m interested to know whether this is anyone else’s belief or experience as well?

Image: Rogers Everett, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

5 responses to “Tipping points in social convention and change”

  1. Tom Loosemore Avatar
    Tom Loosemore

    This is exactly how we work with clients. Build a broad movement that actually does things differently. Then shine a light on what’s been done, who’s done it, and how it was done. Show, don’t tell.

    1. neilperkin Avatar

      Nicely put Tom. I’m a big fan of the principles that you set out in your book ‘Digital Transformation At Scale’

  2. Mark Earls Avatar
    Mark Earls

    Agree 💯: Sinek is wrong here. As was Gladwell. 2 reasons:

    1. Part of the appeal of the adoption curve is that it plots out the population in the order in which they are likely to adopt a new behaviour or idea. Unfortunately it is very rarely the same people in each group – remember Gladwell’s cool kids and their footwear choices? So you can’t easily target on this basis.

    2. The other reason is that social diffusion seems to be a light touch/light cost approach – no heavy persuasion or incentive cost. This is because it mostly means individuals and groups in a population or network seeing others around them becoming adopters and following suit for one reason or another (compliance with social norms? Cognitive ease? Etc).

    This means you have to manage the optics to non-adoptors, helping them see adoption behaviours and find their own versions and embrace them for their own reasons.

    Think of it like the learning from Ehrenberg Bass about how advertising works: brands grow/behaviours and ideas spread through more and more people because new people are brought in.

    Another analogy is curling: the role of the sweeper is essential to getting the stone in the right place

  3. neilperkin Avatar

    Thanks Mark. There’s a lot in what you say here. I love your point about managing the optics to non-adopters and helping them find their own versions. Another commenter over on LinkedIn described something similar – a shift from ‘driving’ change to enabling and allowing change

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