Why I don’t buy the 10 percent tipping point

Paul Herbert reckons HR people are sweating too much over culture change. His argument runs like this:

Here’s the truth… you’re working too hard to change culture.

Recently, Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.

Read that again – 10% = ALWAYS adopted by the majority of the society.

There are naysayers (read some of the comments on the post from the Freakonomics blog about this.)

The Net Net

Find a smaller contingent of employees who hold the beliefs and values that best represent your company. Invest in them and their ability to have conversations about their point of view with others in the organization. Let them have blogs and other communication tools that let them reach out to the rest of the organization.

Let that 10% do your job for you.

But the bottom line for HR pros – you’re probably better off focusing your efforts on a few committed folks in your organization than trying to run a big campaign to change a “majority” of employee opinion.

There has been a lot of discussion about this 10 percent tipping point but I just don’t buy it.

The press release from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute says:

Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The scientists, who are members of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) at Rensselaer, used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion. The finding has implications for the study and influence of societal interactions ranging from the spread of innovations to the movement of political ideals.

The details of the research are not clear from this and the study itself is not, as far as I can tell, in the public domain. I’d like to know where the data came from and the groups of people studied. I’m prepared to believe that 10 percent may be the tipping point for the takeup of new fashions or products aimed at a particular demographic. But would it be enough to cause a shift in long-held ideas, beliefs and assumptions? I very much doubt it.

The press-release continues:

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”

As an example, the ongoing events in Tunisia and Egypt appear to exhibit a similar process, according to Szymanski. “In those countries, dictators who were in power for decades were suddenly overthrown in just a few weeks.”

Ah, now I’m glad they brought that one up. Sure, the overthrow of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt happened very quickly but, in other places, the rulers hung on. It’s difficult to get exact numbers but it’s reasonable to assume that over 10 percent of the populations of Syria and Libya want to kick out their current leaders. Just as importantly, though, a lot of people in those countries support the regimes. In Libya, some parts of the country are still pro-Gadaffi. The same is true in Syria where many people, especially members of religious minorities, feel that the devil they know is better than what might come afterwards. In these countries, the 10 percent didn’t cause a tipping point. It will take a lot more than that.

It may be that 10 percent of the population with an unshakable belief can influence everyone else if the rest of the population is open to new ideas or even simply ambivalent. However, if one group of people with an unshakable belief comes up against another group with an unshakable belief, even 60 or 70 percent won’t change the minds of the remainder. That’s why we have divided societies, be they Sunni and Shia, Protestant and Catholic or Red and Yellow.

The same is true in organisations. If you have a workforce which is largely ambivalent about the management’s plans for the company, then sending your change-champions to start small fires can achieve great results. Getting 10 percent of your people committed might indeed be enough to swing the rest. But where you have strong oppositional forces, it will be much tougher.

In many organisations, there are deeply entrenched beliefs and assumptions about what the organisation is for, what it should be and how it should be run. Often a kind of organisational patriotism gives rise to a belief that the company belongs to the frontline workers and that their resistance to change protects it from the ravages of senior management. You’ll find such attitudes in parts of the public sector but in some private sector organisations too. Cultures like these will chew up your 10 percenters and spit them out.

I can imagine going to the board of London Underground, or British Airways or some of the more difficult NHS trusts and saying, “Don’t worry folks, all we need to do is get 10 percent on board and the culture will change. Don’t sweat it. Your seemingly intractable employee relations problems will just melt away.” Good luck with that one.

Of course, there may be examples of organisations where 10 percent of the people have led a change in culture. However, the chances are these were not a random 10 percent but a very powerful 10 percent. That’s how most organisational change goes. Get as many of the powerful people on board as you can, persuade bribe and cajole the rest and ‘exit’ those who refuse to comply. Culture change, like everything else in organisations, is a power game, albeit one that is usually disguised with more soothing language.

The 10 percent tipping point looks to me like an attempt to apply marketing logic to major social change. It might work on social network discussions, as the experiment described here indicates, and it might be true for the adoption of new trends. But that doesn’t mean that 10 percent of the population can change the deeply rooted attitudes and beliefs of a whole society – be that society a country or a large organisation.

Changing cultures is hard, precisely because they are founded on such deeply held beliefs. The suggestion that getting people to adopt new beliefs is as easy as persuading people to wear a new style of jeans is absurd. A lot of people are getting very excited about the 10 percent tipping point, probably because they think it has given them the answer to complex social and organisational change. I hate to disappoint them but it hasn’t.

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3 Responses to Why I don’t buy the 10 percent tipping point

  1. Pingback: Why I don’t buy the 10 percent tipping point - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Vince Lammas says:

    I read about this research earlier in the week and was also unconvinced things were so simple. Perhaps the research model assumes only a single group of people with unshakeable beleifs whereas in the real world there are always many contrary views at play within organisations – as you highlight.

    Like you, I would like to read more about the research and the conditions they established in their model … I consider there are differences between viral trends – patterns of adoption in fashions and trends across society and the kind of culture change the press articles have referred to.

    I’m not convinced though effective and meaningful culture change can be delivered using only the coercive approach you describe, I think things are far more complex and subtle than this … though I accept organisations often fall into internecine warfare and “power games” commonly ensue.

  3. Nirav Desai says:

    What do you think of just doubling that percentage and using 20% as a good number for a tipping point – in the context of adopting new technology? I realize it’s not scientific but without real scientific backing it seems far enough beyond a few early adopters while leaving lots of upside room for the high adoption curve.

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