Change: How to Make Big Things Happen, by Damon Centola, 2021

The Gist

This book is worth reading then reading again. Networks can have ‘weak’ or ‘strong ties’. Weak ties are those like twitter where we can have lots of connections with people we will never know. Strong ties are those with connections we know and trust. Facebook, which is embedded in friends and communities, has strong social and weak geographical ties. Weak ties, which have a geometry like a fireworks display, are good for spreading information. Strong ties, which look more like a fishing net, are needed for influencing and behavioural change.

What’s Good

The author gives some brilliant examples of social networks and their impact on change. Some are of surprising successes – like Korea’s birth control initiative – and others equally surprising failures, like Google Glass. In both instances the outcome was shaped by their social network. I liked the summaries of research and the eccentric case studies: the Dvorak keyboard, VHS and Betamax, the British Army Pals regiments of WW1, the ice-bucket challenge, and the Aerosmith gesture. It’s whacky, fascinating, and persuasive all at once.  


The author provides seven strategies for change

  1. Don’t rely on just putting it out there. Social change doesn’t spread like a virus. Challenging ideas need ‘strong ties’ and trust to grow them.
  2. Protect the innovators. Create enough ‘wide bridges’ to allow the innovators to work together to spread the new idea,
  3. Use the network periphery. Highly connected superstars get in the way. Stop looking for special people and start looking for special places
  4. Establish wide bridges. A narrow bridge has a single weak tie between groups. A wide bridge has connections to lots of different subgroups.
  5. Create relevance. There is no magic bullet for creating relevance, no single defining trait that is always influential. Is it an issue of credibility, legitimacy, or excitement? Once you identify the kind of resistance, you will also know how to create relevance.
  6. Use the snowball strategy. Clustering is key to triggering tipping points. Strategically target locations in the social network where early adopters can reinforce one another’s commitment to your initiative.
  7. Design team networks to improve discovery and reduce bias. Networks are not neutral. They either foster innovation or they hamper it. True innovation requires protecting people from influences that reinforce the status quo.

Something to Try

Plant an idea in one of the groups you work with. Do so by speaking to people outside of the groups and asking for them to be your advocates. It turns out that 25% is the magic number. If 25% of people in a community or group advocate a certain decision or a set of behaviours, that can be a tipping point for the rest of the group to conform. Sit back and wait.