When Disruption Happens

Hundreds of consumers standing in line at your local Apple store. Thousands of protesters rushing to flood the streets of Cairo, Istanbul—or Manhattan.  Millions of people choosing to watch a hit TV show streamed on Netflix.

Everywhere we turn our world is being disrupted.  From the mightiest dictators to the biggest companies, no one is safe anymore.  While revolutionary ideas and movements are nothing new, they have become more frequent, intense and far reaching.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when we seek to find why disruption happens, we look to the disruptors themselves— the Henry Fords, the Steve Jobs’s and the Elon Musks.

The truth is that disruption has little to do with individuals, but is primarily a function of networks and, if we are to deal with disruption, it is the unseen connections we need to understand.

The Influentials Myth

Probably the most pervasive (and misleading) explanation for disruption has been that a few special people with remarkable powers of influence are able to change the way we think and act.  The idea was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book The Tipping Point in which he states his “Law of the Few:”

The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.

Unfortunately, Influentials are a myth.  Studies have shown that they are neither necessary nor sufficient to create viral chains or social epidemics.  Great change happens when ordinary people act in unison—in effect, everybody is an influencer.  Ascribing magical qualities to certain individuals after the fact obscures more than it reveals.

Yet we don’t need any fancy research to tell us something is wrong with the Influential idea, common sense will do.  Where, after all, were the Influentials during the Arab Spring?  Anybody who had influence beforehand was powerless to stem the tide of protests.  The protesters, for their part, played little role in what came after.

And what about corporate titans like Blockbuster Video and Kodak?  What would a theory of Influentials have done for them?  Would higher Klout scores have prevented their demise?  Of course not! If a theory cannot predict nor prescribe, what good is it?

The Threshold Model of Social Change

Go to a new country or even a new place of work and you’ll encounter people with strange ideas.  After a while though, you’ll find yourself agreeing with the majority on a number of issues—you will begin to conform.  A landmark study done by Solomon Asch in the 1950’s showed we have a tendency to do this even when the idea in question is obviously wrong.

Take the concept a little further and it becomes obvious that influence is a function of groups rather than individuals.  That, in essence, is what the threshold model of collective behavior predicts.  An idea usually takes hold among people who are most receptive to it and, as they increase in numbers, more people join in.  It builds on itself.

This makes a lot more sense than the notion that a select class of people with magical powers of influence tells the rest of us what to do.  Someone sees a funny video and passes it on to friends.  They, in turn, share it with others and next thing you know, the whole office is talking about it and it spreads further.

We’ve all had experiences like this and it rarely, if ever, has anything to do with influence. We simply take cues from those around us and, if the majority of people in our local environment start doing something, we’re likely to join in.

The Diffusion Of Innovations Reimagined

In the early 1960’s Everett Rogers noticed that successful innovations follow a peculiar pattern.  They don’t catch on all at once, even if there is a clear benefit.  Rather, a small group of enthusiasts try it first and then it spreads to those who are more reluctant.  This became famous as diffusion of innovations model:


Notice how there is no reason to assume that the innovators and early adopters possess any special qualities, they just need to be interested.  We are all early adopters in one area or another.  Some of us like gadgets, others like fashion, while still others are thoroughly ensconced in music and art.

However—and this is a crucial point—we’re much more likely to adopt an idea if people around us do.  So if we live in Silicon Valley, we’re going to be more likely to try a new gadget, if we live in Manhattan a funky new hairstyle won’t seem particularly off base.

So what determines whether an idea catches on is not who the early adopters are, but how they are connected to people with higher thresholds of resistance.  Once it hits the early majority, chances are it will break through and become a viral cascade.

New Rules For A Disruptive Age

As noted above, the threshold model is nothing new.  Important figures such as Mark Granovetter, Robert Axelrod and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling wrote about it decades ago.  What is new is that digital technology has made us all much more connected, which means that disruptions are more frequent and intense than ever before.

And that means we need new rules for a disruptive age.  Here are the basics:

Seek Out Interest, Not Influence:  While there has been much discussion about Influentials in recent years, the idea itself is a red herring.  As attractive as these magical people are in theory, the empirical research—as well as common sense—shows them not to exist in any significant way.

If we want our ideas to spread, we’re much better off seeking out people who will be interested in it than chasing phantom “Influentials.”

Build Inside Before You Build Out: One of the most common mistakes that people make when trying to spread a disruptive idea is to try to spread it far and wide.  This is almost always a mistake, because it makes it less likely that you will ever build up the density you need to influence those with higher resistance thresholds.

The strength of a community, after all, is not defined by how many people are connected to an idea, but how those people are connected to each other.  Businesses as diverse as Harley Davidson and eBay thrive because of the bonds they have forged not only to the brand, but among consumers themselves.

Connect To Higher Threshold Groups: We tend to think about communities as isolated and distinct groups, but that’s not really the case.  In Ukraine’s Orange Revolution the disruption started at universities and students flocked to build tent cities in protest.  If the movement had stopped there, it would have fizzled out just as #Occupy did.

Change only became truly possible when groups with higher resistance thresholds joined in (the same was true in the Arab Spring and the recent unrest in Turkey). Revolution these days looks more like The Good Wife than Homeland.  It’s not the “special people”, but everybody else that transforms a niche idea into a powerful movement.

It’s Not The Nodes, It’s The Network

All too often, disruption is portrayed as a mysterious process that requires almost superhuman abilities.  We look to people like Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk to lead us or, alternatively, seek out softheaded theories of influence to explain it.

Make no mistake—it’s not the nodes, but the network that creates disruption—and there are natural laws that govern the connections and interdependencies that underlie it.  By understanding these laws—and the science behind them—we can manage organizations more effectively and drive disruption, rather than fall victim to it.

As digital technology makes disruption not only more important, but more common as well, it’s time that the business community learns what science already knows—the way things connect determines how they will behave.

image credit: appadvice.com

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Greg Satell is an internationally recognized authority on Digital Strategy and Innovation. He consults and speaks in the areas of digital innovation, innovation management, digital marketing and publishing, as well as offshore web and app development. His blog is Digital Tonto and you can follow him on Twitter.

Greg Satell




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