At some point I’ll take issue with Mark Earls to prove that he’s not paying me to shill for his book. But for now I’m really digging his stuff.
His latest post points to Duncan Watts’ fascinating analysis of influencers. The research suggests that we easily overestimate the power of “key influencers”. Mark does a good digest. Read the whole thing for the argument, but here’s Watts’ handy metaphor for seeing his alternative paradigm:
Some forest fires for example, are many times larger than average; yet no-one would claim that the size of a forest fire can be in any way attributed to the exceptional properties of the spark that ignited it, or the size of the tree that was the first to burn. Major forest fires require a conspiracy of wind, temperature, low humidity, and combustible fuel that extends over large tracts of land. Just as for large cascades in social influence networks, when the right global combination of conditions exists, any spark will do; and when it does not, none will suffice.
As a former planner, like Mark, I’m all too aware of our talent for post-hoc rationalisation and therefore our ability to come up with plausible but actually quite mistaken stories about how stuff happens. This gives rise to what I’d call the cult of leadership, a tendency to exaggerate the role of charismatic figures in making stuff happen. It’s also why I generally avoid the management porn in airport bookshops.
What this opens up for me is the possibility that those we identify as the firestarters are themselves the effect of a series of more complex causes. We might be confusing cause and effect; they may be bellweathers of trends but not the people we need to influence to make things happen.
And apart from anything else, it might be another reason to take Hugh’s advice and not to get all gnarled up about the influence of A listers.
(There may be a pun about the fires and the futility of cool-hunting but I’ll spare you that.)