Business Leaders: Malcolm Gladwell

Growing Business takes a look at the influential business journalist whose concepts are present in social media giants like LinkedIn and Twitter

Name: Malcolm Gladwell
Born: 1963
Expertise: Business journalism; the link between individuals and social impact
Known for: Empowering the reader to believe that real change is possible through the potentially epidemic implications of small-scale social events; unpicking the causes of epidemic social phenomena to understand why rapid, unexpected change takes place.
Best-known titles: The Tipping Point (2000); Blink (2005); Outliers (2008); What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (2009)

Who is Malcolm Gladwell?

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of four critically acclaimed international bestsellers. Gladwell began his career as a business journalist with The American Spectator before moving to The Washington Post, and since 1996 has been a staff writer at the New Yorker. The influence of Gladwell’s literary works has been recognised by Time magazine and Newsweek.

What is Gladwell known for?

Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point, has sold over two million copies since it was published in 2000 and is still an influential publication. It analyses social phenomena in the context of business and brands to identify what causes trends to spiral into epidemics. The Tipping Point presents a set of rules business leaders can apply to assist in the recognition of the roles people play and the necessary conditions required to initiate social trends. Ultimately, it offered the first map for achieving exponential growth in sales.

Blink, Gladwell’s second bestseller, offers a blueprint for improved decision making. Blink explores the notion of the adaptive unconscious and its ability to filter into small segments the vast quantity of information we process in order to come to sound decisions. Good judgement, or even gut instinct, is the ‘X factor’ in the success of many executives. Gladwell argues that spontaneous decisions, based on a ‘thin slice’ of subconscious information, are often as good as – or better than – decisions that are based on vast quantities of data and planning.

In Outliers, Gladwell’s third work, he theorises that ‘10,000 hours’ is the rule for success, from Bill Gates to The Beatles.

The concepts

The key concept of The Tipping Point is that with the right combination of people and circumstance, it is possible to influence a trend which reaches, as Gladwell defines it, ‘a moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point’, that triggers a social epidemic. The Tipping Point model states that ideas, products, messages and behavior can be made to spread like viruses by creating the right environment in accordance with three principal rules. The aim of the book is to show people how to start positive epidemics of their own, where only a little input (of the right kind) is required to enable it to spread quickly.

Rule 1: The law of the few

Gladwell stresses that social epidemics are driven by the efforts of a handful of exceptional people. These people exhibit one or more of three personality types – connectors, mavens and salesmen. The characteristics or social talents that enable these people to be successful are sociability, knowledge and the degree of influence they exert over their peers.

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Connectors: Are people who are able to form a large network of friends and acquaintances. Connectors are the social glue that spread the message to others. Although connectors have the ability to help a trend become known, they are not always the innovators who make the initial discovery.

Mavens: The information supplier is known as a maven, a collector of information who is happy to share it with others. Mavens are motivated to help others gain knowledge, often in their own pursuit of information, which Gladwell notes is an effective way to get someone’s attention. Mavens are the trusted sources of information others use to guide their opinions.

Salesmen: Persuade others to accept information. They are highly likeable, display powerful negotiation skills and have contagious or irresistible personalities. Other people want to agree with them, even if they may be initially unconvinced about the information that is presented.

Rule 2: The stickiness factor

The ‘stickiness factor’ is what makes information memorable. A message, idea or product needs to be so memorable that it can create change and spur someone to action. According to Gladwell, the information age has created a stickiness problem. We suffer from too much clutter, and the result is that few of the ideas we are exposed to are practical or personal enough to stick. The key to finding stickiness is often not budget or the originality of an idea, but a small change to an existing or conventional idea that is already ingrained in our brains.

Rule 3: The power of context

‘The power of context’ addresses the role that the environment plays in reaching a tipping point. Along with the role played by unique individuals, and the nature of the trend itself, the likelihood that a trend will ‘tip’ also depends on the conditions and circumstances of the time and place in which it occurs. Gladwell cites the ‘broken windows’ theory to explain how significant even an apparently minor environmental change can be to the success of a trend. The theory holds that crime and negative social epidemics in dilapidated neighborhoods can be reversed by tinkering with small details of the immediate environment, such as broken windows. In the simplest terms, a broken window demonstrates an apparent lack of concern about an area from its inhabitants and the authorities, offering an invitation to break more windows, which in turn leads to more serious misdemeanors and crime.

In Gladwell’s view, group behavior is a function of social context and small changes can influence a positive overall environment that is conducive for trends to occur. Broken windows can tip normal levels of crime into an epidemic; fixing them can instigate a positive epidemic and a reduction in crime. Gladwell gives the example of a radical tip in crime rates in New York in the 1980s and 1990s. By focusing on apparently trivial issues, such as graffiti on trains, fare dodging and aggressive panhandling (begging), the authorities influenced the much bigger crime picture in a very positive way.

The audience too is contextual. Large numbers of people reinforce trends more quickly, and create a tipping point more effectively. However, it is not simply a case of ‘the more, the merrier’; there is a ceiling on the number of people required. This is what Gladwell refers to as the ‘rule of 150’. Put simply, 150 is the maximum number of people one is able to have a genuine social relationship with. Anthropological research has shown this to hold true in numerous societies throughout history, and the same can be seen in the military and many corporations. The right number of people creates a suitable social environment for a trend to tip, since the tipping point depends on the efficiency and intimacy of interpersonal relationships.

Connectors, mavens and salesmen work as translators, adapting ideas and information into a language that the rest of the population will ‘get’. These trend-setters then exploit their networks and peer influence to begin a chain reaction among other groups; the trigger point for an epidemic.

How real companies use Gladwell’s concepts

Hush Puppies, the mid-1990s footwear fetish of the masses, is Gladwell’s own case study of the tipping point concept in action. The crepe-soled shoe tipped from annual sales of 30,000 pairs in 1994, to over one million the following year. The influence of a handful of ‘hipsters’ – who, ironically, began wearing the shoes because nobody else did – in an environment with just the right kind of fashion consciousness, created a trend that tipped a tired brand into a household name, almost overnight. LinkedIn, the world’s largest social networking company for professionals, and Twitter, a real-time information network, are also examples of the tipping point in action. They are major influencers on the continued application of Gladwell’s concept to businesses that want to instigate social epidemics.

Social media channels collectively have created an environment where mavens, connectors and salesmen can create epidemic trends almost in real time. This is exactly what happens when a YouTube clip ‘goes viral’ or a topic is ’trending’ on Twitter. Within the internet hosting services and software business these concepts have proven themselves time and again. In 2007 I was on the team that founded VPS.NET, a company that offers cloud hosting services.

To launch the company, VPS.NET recruited likely salesmen to the cause by giving them access to the company’s new cloud hosting service, free of charge. These people were not just good at convincing others, they were experts who would offer reasoned opinions and advice to other potential customers: they were also the company’s mavens. Because forums and other social media were the places our customers hung out and talked about their service, VPS.NET quickly gained the volume of connections that propelled the company’s trend towards its tipping point. Six months after launch, by 2010, VPS.NET had established a new market for mass-market cloud hosting services operating one of the world’s five largest public clouds.

This success then created a new trend. Other hosting companies began to ask how they could license the technology the company had developed. The original sticky idea evolved to create a publicly available version of the company’s software so that, just like VPS.NET, other hosting companies could bring cloud services to their share of the mass market. Software was given away free for the first year, increasing the stickiness. In doing so, VPS.NET recruited large numbers of hosting companies – again, a vocal, well-connected and expert community. These people became the salesmen, mavens and connectors.

Validity today

The Tipping Point was published in 2000, some time before today’s social networking trend had taken hold. Some of the book’s detractors have argued that, because it predates the modern internet environment and particularly social networking, it must have limited value as it cannot describe the growth of trends and epidemics in this context. This argument is extremely difficult to support. There is no better way to demonstrate the essential truths of The Tipping Point than by examining the way trends are created, rise and fall, either in, or because of, social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

The language may differ: ‘trending’, ’going viral’ and so on – but the fundamental tipping point mechanics remain the same. In truth, social media are The Tipping Point writ large: our connectors on LinkedIn, the mavens we follow on Twitter, the salesmen in our Facebook friends list that introduce a new product, video or application; social media provide the context and the means to connect with influential people, enabling sticky ideas to thrive. The principal difference is time. Delivering a letter to an unknown stockbroker in the 1960s took days or weeks; the same process takes place almost immediately today.

Business Gurus, edited by Ian Wallis and published by Crimson Publishing, is available to order now.


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