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Why Stuff Happens

Reviews of five new business books -- two books about why some products fly and others fail; two business novels; and a new edition of a treasured favorite. Plus: What Ken Lowe, founder of HGTV and CEO of Scripps Networks, is reading.
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Book Value

Insights into why one product fades when another prevails

  • The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown, 2000)
  • The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (Harvard Business School Press, 2000)

The difference between a product that flies and one that dies often depends upon cultural forces. At least, that's the suggestion of two fascinating books.

In The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell argues that for us to understand why some products succeed, we must think of each as part of an epidemic. "Ideas and products and messages and behaviors," he writes, "spread just like viruses do."

One of Gladwell's more prominent examples is that of Hush Puppies shoes. By the end of 1994, the makers of Hush Puppies were selling roughly 30,000 pairs a year, and the shoes were viewed as passé. Then Hush Puppies started being considered hip. Top fashion designers wanted to use them in their collections. Word of mouth spread. In 1995, 430,000 pairs of Hush Puppies were sold, and the next year four times that amount.

The same three factors that cause measles to spread through a grade school classroom, writes Gladwell, can be used to explain the Hush Puppies phenomenon: (1) contagiousness, (2) the fact that little causes can have big effects, and (3) the way change often occurs at one dramatic moment rather than gradually.

Gladwell calls the big moment of change the "tipping point" and explains how companies can deliberately infect the market with a "virus."

There's an interesting connection between Gladwell's book and The Social Life of Information, by Xerox chief scientist John Seely Brown and research specialist Paul Duguid. The authors of both books recognize that the chances of a product or idea taking off phenomenally are enhanced by social groups that "provide the resources for their members to learn," as Brown and Duguid put it. For example, the reason that many people can play tapes on their VCRs but can't figure out how to record broadcasts or set the clock is that the first action is social. You might invite friends over to watch a video with you. It's unlikely that you'd invite friends over to watch you record.

The authors of both books stress the importance of getting products into society to have them succeed. Brown and Duguid recount the story of how Alexander Graham Bell, when losing the support of his investors, argued that they needed to "abandon specialists and ... put phones in people's hands." Early on, Bell had telephones installed in hotel rooms and offices and near lunch counters. "That way ... people who didn't know how to use them would be likely to see people who did know how and in this way learn about the phone system."

What's central to each book's proposition is that regardless of how you try to strategize, analyze, or conceptualize, it is still customers en masse that have the power to push even the most unlikely product over the top or, for that matter, to keep it alive.

Before ringing the death knell for any products that seem to have outlived their usefulness, perhaps it'd be wise to break out some Hush Puppies, pound the pavement, and find out what people really want.


Novel Approaches

  • Fish!, by Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul, and John Christensen (Hyperion, 2000)
  • Winning Ways, by Dick Lyles (Putnam/Penguin, 2000)

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the bookstore, along come two more of those business novels that purport to communicate valuable lessons in story form. It's not that all of these books are without merit. They aim to help you motivate your employees, get great results, and boost morale.

It's hardly fair to insist that we want our business novels to exhibit the same writing flair as our most prized novels. And they don't. But they provide the kind of tidy little business parables that seem to connect with readers. One of the reasons is undoubtedly that stories bring ideas to life and help readers see abstract concepts in action.

Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results is the tale of a manager who must transform her underachieving department into a hypercharged team. When she visits the Pike Place Fish Market, in Seattle, she notices what downright bustling enthusiasm the purveyors have and the great customer service they give. Why, she wonders, can't her people behave more like the fishmongers? In spite of our skepticism -- surprise, surprise! -- the employees turn it all around.

Last updated: Mar 1, 2000




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