Skip to content

How Disruption Happens

2013 October 13
by Greg Satell

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.
– Greg

24 Responses leave one →
  1. jarek wiewiorski permalink
    October 13, 2013

    Thank you for another great post, Greg.

    As for creating social epidemics. As a kid I always wanted to meet someone who thinks up the jokes we all repeat, only to discover, that such persons do not exist. Rather than one influencer, it’s us who start passing some obscure story and thus polishing it up to the point that it becomes really funny… I often recall this when working on a Client brief for preparing a viral content.

  2. October 13, 2013

    Dzieki Jarek!

    Great point!

    – Greg

  3. Kuldip Singh permalink
    October 13, 2013

    Slightly off topic; however I think you might enjoy this rather longish post.

    THE SATURDAY ESSAY: How to lose an Empire, an economy, reality, legality and democracy in 75 years | The Slog.

  4. October 13, 2013

    Hi Greg:

    I agree with your point of view about How Disruption Happens.

    But I have to point out that it’s not very different from Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”.

    I know you’ve quoted Gladwell’s comment on Influencers, but you yourself admit that it’s good to seek out people who are likely to be interested in your disruptive idea.

    I think your interpretation that Influencers are always well-known Opinion Leaders may be slightly off-base.

    They are, as you’ve pointed out, early adopters. An early adopter for one kind of idea (say net based technology) is not necessarily an early adopter of another kind of idea (say hairstyles.)

    You still have to get to “the density you need to influence those with higher resistance thresholds”. In other words, a tipping point.

    Note the way you use the word influence in your own sentence.

    In that sense, Malcolm Gladwell may (also) have been right.

  5. October 13, 2013

    Thanks. I’ll check it out.

    – Greg

  6. October 13, 2013


    I see what you’re saying, but Gladwell was talking very explicitly (i.e. he repeated the assertion throughout) that these were people with “rare talents.” The evidence clearly shows that anyone, given certain conditions, can be an influencer. Network density is, after all, a function of a system, not a personal characteristic.

    However, I will concede that network central individuals can, again under certain conditions, be identified and exploited through social network analysis or using shortcuts like the “friendship paradox”. However, again, this is not a function of “rare talents” but a function of the network.

    So I would agree that certain aspects of Gladwell’s argument, taken out of context, may be valid in certain cases, but not in the way he meant them and not in the way “Influentials” are currently used. After all, if the only thing that was important about so-called “Influentials” was that they had a specific interest, we wouldn’t need a fancy new term for them, “target consumers” would do.

    – Greg

  7. October 13, 2013

    Hi Greg:

    Just “target consumers” may not be sufficient.

    If I have a disruptive idea for popular music that musicians are more likely to appreciate first, I need to find a way to share the idea with those “influencers” / “early adopters” first, though my “target consumers” might be the ones who will finally pay money to come to my concerts.

    Just think of how Jimi Hendrix idea of the disruptive “distorted guitar solo” worked.

    It wowed musicians first.

    The devoted fans who now treat him as a god followed.

  8. October 13, 2013

    Again, you’re not positing any special qualities except for passion and interest. Basically, you are saying that if you want to disrupt music, go to hard core musicians, if you want to disrupt art, go to hard core artists, etc. That may be true, but there’s nothing mysterious or new about it at all, so why do we need a mysterious new term?

    – Greg

  9. October 13, 2013


    You don’t need a new term.

    I agree that you just need common sense.


  10. October 13, 2013

    It does help:-)

    One important point though. While it is important to build a strong, interconnected base, it’s also important that you continue to build connections among groups with higher resistance thresholds. Many movements fail because they become to insular and focused on the core, initial group (#Occupy is a great example).

    – Greg

  11. October 14, 2013

    Nice post! We’ve also seen that it’s the network that matters as you point out, while the nodes are important as part of that network, creating the ebbs and flows of activity, information flow, and influence of ideas as they travel across that structure. We’ve found in our innovation networks that it’s the combination of behavioral characteristics of the nodes and structure/connections within the network that combine to generate healthy and ever-growing interactions.

  12. October 14, 2013

    This makes a lot of sense. The theory of influencers implicitly believes that people blindly follow some super influencers without applying their mind. For example, consider the endorsements received by electoral candidates from other political players. It baffles me that simply because a politician I would prefer endorses another, I would therefore automatically prefer the endorsed. Absolutely no data points to this, yet it is paraded as fact. Major movements have never needed influencers. Just look at facebook, twitter, linkedin, or any other popular network for that matter. Trust in networks is not transitive function of reputation.

  13. October 14, 2013

    Tim Kastelle has done some strong academic work in the area and found the same thing:-)

    – Greg

  14. October 14, 2013

    Very true. Thanks Manas!

    – Greg

  15. October 14, 2013

    I’m not “endorsing” it, so don’t get “influenced” too readily, but most 20th Century Marketers did believe that consumers are basically, sheep. 🙂

    Grab the leader’s ears and lead them up your road, the rest will follow, seems to have been the belief.

    The millions of dollars spent on “celebrity endorsements” seems to be based on that tenet.

    In India, “celebrity endorsements” has assumed epidemic status where marketing practitioners seem to believe that the route to brand heaven is to hire a “god”, their devotees will follow. And since it’s well known that the gods of Bollywood and Cricket are easy pickings, (all you need is money), why put your gray cells under stress for an insightful idea that the consumers will champion?

    Fortunately, the sheep now are beginning to have a voice. More and more are turning black and creating their own tribes.

    I’m for co-creation of brands. Listen to your chosen tribe, satisfy their needs, and the tribe will grow. Listening in and productive brand conversations are now so much easier.

    However, where you start those conversations do have a direct bearing on how quickly your evangelists, and thus your tribe, grows.

  16. October 14, 2013


    Yes, I do think there is something to the Tribes idea and it is consistent with what we know from network science (I sometimes call them tent cities:

    I do think that celebrity endorsements can be useful though, if they help personify the brand values already present. Unfortunately, too many brands use it to gain awareness, which inevitably leads to the celebrity overshadowing the brand rather than promoting it.

    – Greg

  17. November 4, 2013

    Nice post Greg!

    I think it’s interests but even more problems and weak points in society. These problems and social issues are what bring many together.

    Take Arab spring – and I would guess most such social disruptions. It isn’t because of interest that it sprung, and network effect and influencers were all consequences.

    It is the common cause, the deep realization that life was getting worse rather than better than brought those people together. The rallying cry was around the cause and no one – and I mean no one – could predict that it would become what it did in Tunisia or Egypt or anywhere.

    The influencers joined in the melee not from the beginning but they definitely helped amplify and spread he es word about it. Snowball effect.

    Self-organization coupled with serendipitous spark is what brings about such tumultuous happenings note just in society but in business, politics, etc.

    Yes, the influencers can up the volume, but their influence is limited.

    Humans don’t realize that autopoiesis, serendipity and network effects are what make anything widespread and viral. We should take cue from nature, which has been doing this since forever. Viruses and bacteria being the best example!

  18. November 4, 2013

    And to add one more thing.

    No idea is disruptive except in retrospect. Originators, or spark providers usually have no idea about repercussions.

    In business – and this is only normal – disruption usually happens at lower end, in established industry or market where a new entrant, with low proposition and price tag, enters and initially attracts early adopters or those who don’t mind going with “lower” quality product/service initially. The real disrupters then build on the original offer and improve and while doings of attract even bigger and bigger following and adoption.

    Disruptors original offerings are also usually simpler and more appealing to masses who immediately see benefits, not least cost-wise and solving their basic problems/issues, for going for a newer, less-proven but obviously more beneficial product/service.

    Google, Facebook, Twitter etc are all cases in point.

  19. November 4, 2013


    My experience in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine was similar. It started out with a small group of passionate clusters, but what turned the idea into a movement was that it quickly moved to include others, especially educated professionals, who were somewhat receptive to the early adopters, but not ready to take to the streets until they saw others doing it. As the professionals joined in, so did others and the momentum gained critical mass.

    So I think there are two things at work: a core group that is receptive and passionate and adjacent groups with higher resistance thresholds who are encouraged to join in. That’s what creates the cascading effect.

    I think another interesting example was the Tea Party vs. the #Occupy movement. While the Tea Party made concerted efforts to create linkages to the political class, the #Occupy movement did not and quickly fizzled out. The Tea Party eventually had an important effect even amongst mainstream Republicans.

    – Greg

  20. November 4, 2013

    Yes. The irony of disruption is that it happens to successes, not failures.

    – Greg

  21. December 10, 2014

    I am enjoying and learning from this little knowledge nugget thread. ty.

  22. December 10, 2014

    Thanks Robin! Have a great holiday.

    – Greg

  23. Mitch Freeman permalink
    August 8, 2017

    Greg–I just found your article. Great work! Thanks so much for sharing it with us. You’ve really helped me to understand the concept better. One question: what if the high thresholders refuse to get on board because they view the group as a threat? Should you continue to move forward w/o them, wait until/if they come around, or jettison the whole thing?

  24. Bob Goldman permalink
    May 25, 2022

    I found this post and your discussion with Sumit interesting. Greg, I take your message that the underlying network is critical and think the response to George Floyd’s murder is a reasonable example of this principle with its non-linear response in action; large number of loosely connected groups all reaching threshold for engagement. It is my understanding that Gladwell’s tipping point does not adequately address the significance of the underlying network. Would you think it fair to say that Greg’s framework provides a richer understand, whereas as Gladwell’s tends to oversimplify.

    Individuals, though, are important. As Greg states so well in his book, there are fundamental attributes found in successful movements. Leaders and individuals can matter and can make a difference; however, without the present of a large underlying network structure and without the ability to energize a large network, an individual would have too tough an uphill climb, regardless of their talents. The black freedom movement serves as an example. A small group decided to resist, travel on interstate buses into Alabama. They were arrested, they spoke out, they attracted attention…and, perhaps most important, energized a large network to engage in nonviolent disruptive activism.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS