(network dynamics) “Change: How to Make Big Things Happen”

I recently finished reading the book Change: How to Make Big Things Happen by Damon Centola. I highly recommend this book to any leader or developer interested in network dynamics, go-to-market strategies, internal team structures, or product design.


Damon Centola is a Professor of Communication, Sociology and Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is Director of the Network Dynamics Group. He is a leading world expert on social networks and behavior change.

Summary / Key Points (network dynamics):

1. Don’t rely on just putting it out there, contagiousness. Social change doesn’t spread like a virus (simple contagion). Challenging ideas and significant changes (complex contagions) need ‘strong ties’ and trust to grow them.

2. Protect the innovators – innovations that face entrenched opposition can work if the innovators have less exposure to the entire network. Target the clusters in the network periphery, where they can reinforce one another without being overwhelmed by countervailing influencers. Create enough ‘wide bridges’ to allow the innovators to work together to spread new ideas.

3. Use the network periphery – influencers can be a roadblock to change, being connected to large numbers of people conforming to the status quo. People in the periphery are less connected, and therefore less likely to be stopped by countervailing influences. Stop looking for special people and start looking for special network clusters.

4. Establish wide bridges – redundancy is required between groups to establish trust, credibility, and legitimacy. This is the concept of wide bridges and facilitates behavior change shifting from one group to another. A narrow bridge has a single weak tie between groups. A wide bridge has connections to lots of different subgroups.

5. Create relevance – this relies on understanding the change: if proof is required, then similarities between adopters are key; if excitement needs to be generated, then similarity is again key; when legitimacy is required and the behavior needs to be widely accepted, then diversity among groups is required.

6. Use the snowball strategy – target those special places in the network where you can create small pockets of legitimacy, where the early adopters can reinforce one another. To be effective, you firstly need to understand the network, and secondly also target groups which can bridge to other groups. Clustering is key to triggering tipping points. Strategically target locations in the social network where early adopters can reinforce one another’s commitment to your initiative. If 25% of people in a community or group advocate a certain decision or a set of behaviors, that can be a tipping point for the rest of the group to conform.

7. Design team networks to improve discovery and reduce bias, especially implicit bias. Networks are not neutral. They either foster innovation or they hamper it. True innovation requires protecting people from influences that reinforce the status quo.

Fireworks Display (weak ties) network vs. Fishing Net (strong ties) network


How could you adopt some of these principles to influence change in your internal organization network, in your network of users, or in networks of potential users?

Could social media apps or other social services design their network structures based on the takeaways from this book, and would that better facilitate the spread of true, quality, and innovative information?

In terms of network dynamics, this book primarily focuses on the effects of network structures, however information flow is not determined solely by the static network topology, but also by the nonlinear dynamics characterizing the interactions between the nodes. Hence, the same network may exhibit fundamentally different patterns of information flow under different dynamics: epidemic spread, ecological interactions, or genetic regulation. The patterns of flow are a consequence not just of the topology, but of the intricate interplay between this topology and the system’s interaction dynamics. Understanding the rules that govern this flow is a crucial step toward establishing a theory of network dynamics. How might the key concepts of this book be expanded upon by including research about the nonlinear dynamics characterizing the interactions between the nodes in a network?