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Bruce Holland

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Occasionally you come across one of life's little-known secrets, which, if only it were more widely known, would make this a far better world to live in.

The Tipping Point

I recently came across such a gem when I was reading the fascinating little book: "The Tipping Point - How little things can make a big difference" by Malcolm Gladwell. The basic idea in the book is very simple. It is that the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow or crime waves, and the emergence of any number of trends that "take on" is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviours spread just like viruses do. The Tipping point has numerous examples of trends that have "taken on" and it examines the conditions necessary for them and how we can help to promote these conditions.

A story

I'd like to share just one story from the book and then show why it's important to business and how you can use it in your organisation.

The story is about crime in New York. In the 1980's, New York was a city in the grips of the worst crime epidemic in history. Experts said that this epidemic would be overwhelmingly difficult to fix ... requiring a solution to fundamental social injustice, structural economic inequalities, unemployment, racism, broken families, low levels of education, poor health and drugs. Others said it was genetic. Yet, the solution New York found, was ridiculously simple. What really mattered was little things.

Broken windows

The little things became known as "The Broken Windows Theory". It was the brain child of the criminologists James Q Wilson and George Kelling. The basic theory argues that the unwanted behaviour was not a result of a certain sort of person but rather the result of a certain sort of environment. What they found was that in an environment which was obviously uncared for, people behave in a criminal like way. In an environment that was obviously cared for, people behaved in a law abiding way.

So during the 1990s Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took steps to tidy up the environment. He fixed little things that showed that people did not care for their environment (and therefore it was okay for others not to). He fixed all broken windows (if one is broken it's okay to break more), he cleaned all graffiti (all trains were inspected each day and those with graffiti were taken out of service until they were completely cleaned), and he cracked down on all petty crimes, especially in the underground stations (if you can get away with small crimes, why not try a bigger one?).

The results: Within four years (during a period when the poorest neighborhoods were hit by welfare cuts and immigration), murders dropped by two-thirds and felonies were cut in half. THAT'S RIGHT 2/3 AND 1/2!

I've seen the results. During a recent visit to New York I felt safer heading towards my hotel off Broadway than I do in Cuba Street.

What's this got to do with business and why should you care?

In my experience, changing organisations is at least as much about changing the environment as it is about changing people and attitudes. And, just like Broken Windows, it's always the little things that matter. Indeed they are so little that often managers think they can't possibly matter.

A few examples

A few examples may help to make the point. As you read these please don't be misguided into thinking that they don't apply to you, because while you probably don't do any of these things, I bet that there are other things within your environment which are stopping people behaving as you'd like them to. And, if you are anything like the managers in the following examples, you'd be telling me to stop worrying about trivia and get on with the things that really matter.

  1. In 1988 when I joined the BNZ as Group Strategic Planning Manager, it was incredibly bureaucratic. Managers knew exactly their pecking order through some complicate system based on the colour of your chair and whether it had arms, the size of your office and its proximity to the boss on the 24th floor. The Bank would still be a bureaucratic gridlock had a new CEO not closed his personal lift which took him (and only him) from the basement garage, three levels below ground, up to his 24th level office. People said: "You mean you want me to give up my chair when the boss has his own lift?". "You want me to talk to my staff when the boss has a lift specially built so he can get to his office without seeing anyone, let alone talking to anyone?".

  2. I introduced a major empowerment process throughout a large manufacturer who wanted the front-line to take more initiative and be more responsible. I worked with the senior managers and with every staff member but made almost no progress as long as the company maintained separate cafeterias for managers and staff. People would say to me: "You say we matter, but they won't even eat with us!".

  3. I was working with a major inner city printing company that was trying to introduce more customer service. The whole thing was just words and hot air as long as managers reserved three out of the five car parks for themselves, leaving only two (in a crowded street) for customers.

  4. I was helping a major manufacturer introduce a culture of trust, however we made almost no headway as long as the front-line were expected to "clock in".

  5. I was working with a major electronics company who wanted to improve teamwork, cooperation and communication, areas where they were having real issues. The trouble was that people were individually partitioned and one part of the team was separated from the other part in a different room. To make things worse there was only one meeting room which we had to rearrange each time we wanted to have a group meeting.

The examples could go on and on and on. The common factor in all is an almost total denial by managers of the importance of these small environmental factors and a strong resistance (sometimes refusal) to change them.


Small things in the environment are far more important than most managers believe and certainly more important than almost all change consultants think.

So, if you see the wisdom in what I'm saying, I strongly recommend that you put together a small Project Team charged with identifying those small things in your work environment which are stopping you being as effective as you'd like to be. If you still have doubts I strongly recommend that you read the "The Tipping Point" because it is very convincing.

I am a Change Agent working mainly in larger organisations. In this work I have as much experience as anyone in New Zealand. I typically start working with the Board or Senior Managers on strategy and organisational strengthening, but often I end up working with every person in the organisation (sometimes in gumboots and overalls) helping them become tall poppies.

If we are to prosper we can't afford to have short poppies. I want build organisations which are tall poppies: stronger, faster, more creative and more strategic. In my experience many organisations are just fractions of themselves, lop-sided towards top-down management, controls and analysis, individual accountabilities and competition. Don't get me wrong, I think that these are important aspects and they need to be retained, however to become whole again many organisations need to give a boost to self emergence, innovation and synthesis, team cooperation and collaboration. Both sides are important and when either side is weak we become less than whole.

My life's work has been remarkably constant over the nine years since 1992 when I resigned from the BNZ ... I see my role as helping change the way people in business think and work.

I call it "Lifting the Lid" (on creativity).... Wall to Wall" (across the organisation). It's exciting work and worthwhile.

Being the best is important to me, but I'd rather be the best FOR the world than the best IN the world.

Very best wishes,


Bruce Holland

Helps large organisations be focussed, fast and flexible. Places where people have more meaning, depth and connection.

Expert in Strategy, Structure, Culture and Leadership Development.

One of NZ's most experienced change agents.

Liberating the Human Spirit at Work
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