Five Reasons Why Malcolm Gladwell got it wrong
In November 1997, I was the program director of knowledge management in the World Bank. At the time, people were pressing me to say what I was doing to the World Bank, since in every other area, that organization moved like a snail. But in my area of responsibility, knowledge management, the World Bank was racing ahead, as fast as any organization in the world. What was I doing?
I wasn’t really sure. My initial thinking was that the rapid forward progress was because I had a good idea and I was managing it well. But no one was convinced by these reasons. They kept pressing me. “In other areas,” they said, “good ideas are being pursued by good managers, but in those areas, things still move at a snail’s pace. What are you doing? You must be doing something different!”
What else could it be? One crazy possibility was storytelling. I had begun to use stories to explain the strange idea of knowledge management to people. I had noticed that when I didn’t use stories in my presentations, everything was turmoil and confusion, and hardly anyone “got it”. When I used stories, the presentation was a success. Problems would disappear. Everyone seemed to “get it.” Maybe my success in moving knowledge management forward in that change-resistant organization had something to do with storytelling?
The idea seemed almost absurd to me because my whole life up to this point had been based on reason and analysis. Everything in my experience at school and several decades in the workplace had reinforced the idea that analysis was good and narrative was bad. So the idea that storytelling could effective in a rational organization like the World Bank seemed nonsensical.
A little nudge of recognition
But as the World Bank kept racing ahead in knowledge management, people kept pressing me. "What are you doing differently?"
So In November 1997, I was making a presentation in North Carolina and I put up a slide saying, in effect, “Maybe it’s got something to do with storytelling.” That was all. I didn’t elaborate. I just mentioned it in passing as an implausible possibility.
But immediately after that presentation, someone came up to me from Harvard Business School Press and suggested I write a book about organizational storytelling. So I thought to myself, “Wow! The idea of storytelling in organizations may be crazy. But if Harvard Business School Press thinks there could be something in it, maybe I should check it out?” So I checked it out. I did some research. I carried out some experiements. I ended up writing five books about leadership storytelling and becoming an international expert on the subject.
A little recognition goes a long way
That tiny sliver of recognition gave me the impetus to start looking into something I suspected at first was absurd, and it ended up changing my life. Without it, I might have gone on pursuing my career as a rational manager, continuing to do what everyone else was doing. I might have gone on thinking that storytelling was an interesting and clever trick, but nothing serious.
Einstein said, insightfully, “If at first an idea isn’t absurd, there is no hope for it.” Any really good, big new idea at first is going to seem absurd to the person who has stumbled on it. It takes courage to set aside conventional wisdom, to abandon what everyone knows to be true, and start pursuing a path that you and everyone else think is absurd. And yet a little recognition—even a sliver—can be the nudge that does the trick. Recognition can be the element that makes the difference between major innovation and passively going along with the flow.
What’s interesting is to note how slight the nudge of recognition was. It wasn’t a big fanfare or a public accolade. It was a quiet, private one-minute conversation with someone I had never met. True, it came from someone in an organization I viewed with respect. The conversation was merely a hint that I had stumbled on something that other people thought interesting, something worth looking into. And yet that slight nudge propelled me into action and changed my life, and ultimately, in a modest way, the entire world: unlike ten years ago, leadership storytelling is now a generally accepted part of the essential skills of a leader.
Why Malcolm Gladwell Got It Wrong
I am the biggest fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s writing. But his recent article in the New Yorker, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted” seriously underestimates the impact of even weak recognition. It was great news that he highlighted a wonderful book like The Dragonfly Effect by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith, but sad that he got it all so wrong.
First mistake: His argument is that the platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter and Facebook connect people who may have never met.
The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.
This is where Gladwell makes his first mistake: “Weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”
What he misses is that the difference between acting and not-acting is very slim.
Often people have ideas, have passion. All they may need is a little nudge to push them into action.
Second mistake: Gladwell correctly recognizes the weaknesses of networks:
Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?
But what Gladwell misses is that networks can give individual leaders the confidence that comes from knowing that they are not alone. Their ideas may sound absurd, at first glance, but they are not crazy. They may give the innovative person the little nudge that they need to move into action.
Third mistake: Gladwell imputes views to “the evangelists of social media” that no sensible person ever held:
The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.
No sensible person ever equated friends on Facebook with real friends in person. This is straw man argumentation at its worst.
Fourth mistake: These poor enthusiasts of social media, he writes, just don't understand:
Some of this grandiosity is to be expected. Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model.
The same objection has been made to every human invention since the wheel. “Everything is now different!” Well, yes. A certain amount of grandiosity is to be expected. And warranted. In fact, it’s the very grandiosity that we find in Gladwell’s own writing about innovation in The Tipping Point and all his other articles and books. Innovation does warrant some grandiosity.
Fifth mistake: Gladwell fails to see that knowing you are not alone can move people into action.
“Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.
What Gladwell misses here is that there are vast numbers of people who could be leaders, who should be leaders, who would be leaders if only they got just a wee bit of recognition. What Gladwell misses is that people often already have motivation. They don’t need to increase their motivation. They simply need to act on the motivation that they already have. They need the courage of their convictions. And as my own experience shows, even weak ties can give them that courage.
The Desperate Need for Recognition
Now as I look ahead to the daunting taks of changing the way all organizations are managed, I see a challenge and an opportunity.
Radical management is in one sense fundamentally different way of managing, as compared to what is happening in most established organizations today. Yet one of the astonishing things that I discovered in my research over the last couple of years is that almost everyone knows some individual who is already practicing radical management.
Thus I would ask everyone I met: “Can you think of a time in your life when you were in a group where everyone was pulling together and the group was vibrantly alive and extraordinarily productive, when it was all for one and one for all? Can you think of a time like that?” I talked with hundreds of people in many countries and all walks of life these questions, and almost all of them could recall at least one such an experience.
It might have been in the workplace, at school, in a community, or in a network. Generally the groups they mentioned were small. Sometimes it was listening to the experiences of others that jogged their own memory. But in the end, almost everyone knew of an experience like that.
Often the people leading such experiences were doing so without any recognition. Often they were being blamed for “stepping out of line” and “doing things differently” from the Dilbert-cartoon-style management that prevails in most established organizations today.
So I started discussing with my colleague, Rusty Shelton: what if all those courageous leaders were to get some recognition? What if they were to get the kind of shot in the arm that I got back in November 1997 when a brief conversation with a HBSP editor I had never met helped change my life? My new book, The Leader's Guide to Radical Management. does recognize a few of those leaders. But obviously there are thousands and even millions more of them, all around the world. What if those people got recognition for the successes that they were achieving and encouragement to continue? Then we could really accelerate the necessary revolution in management!
Recognize A Leader In Your Life
How could I make that happen? With Rusty's inspiration and help, I created an instrument whereby large numbers of those people could get recognition. It’s a website at http://www.recognizealeader.com/ where anyone can recognize anyone else who is providing leadership worthy of the 21st Century. Anyone can go there and tell the story of the person they believe should be recognized and the website will send an email to that person announcing, “You have been recognized!” The site was only created a few days ago, but already people whom I have never met are starting to use it and pay tribute to those leaders who deserve recognition.
In my experience to date, the effect of recognition is electric. The person who is “recognized” levitates for about a day from the exhilaration of being unexpectedly recognized. And the person who does the recognizing usually gets extraordinarly positive feedback for having had the courage to deliver some much-needed recognition.
So why don’t you step up and help lift up the human spirit and make the 21st Century one that is worthy of the human race? Why not recognize someone you know who is courageously providing leadership we can all be proud of?
Watch the two-minute video here: http://www.recognizealeader.com/about.
Or better yet, recognize a leader in your life NOW at http://www.recognizealeader.com/. Help make the revolution happen!