Home » Blog From the President/CEO » Change: How to Make Big Things Happen

Change: How to Make Big Things Happen

Book Summary By Katherine Harrington, President/CEO | West Des Moines Chamber of Commerce

Many of the conversations I have with business leaders are about making change. Leaders want to make change in their organizations, and in society at large. But, how do you make change? What is the best approach? I purchased Damon Centola’s book, How to Make Big Things Happen. It had numerous scientific examples of how change occurs. Here is a summary of what I learned.

In today’s rapidly evolving world, change has become an inevitable force. Sociologist Damon Centola, a renowned expert in network science and collective action, offers invaluable insights into how we can make big things happen and drive transformative change in our societies. Through his groundbreaking research, Centola challenges conventional wisdom, unveiling new approaches to understanding and facilitating change that can reshape the way we address complex social issues.

The Power of Networks:

One of the key aspects emphasized by Centola is the power of social networks. Traditional models of change focus on individual behavior or top-down approaches, often failing to capture the dynamics of interconnected networks. Centola’s research demonstrates that collective action and change can be more effectively achieved by influencing networks and the interactions within them.

Centola’s studies highlight the “complex contagion” phenomenon, where ideas or behaviors spread faster when multiple social contacts adopt them. For example, if one person adopts a new behavior, such as recycling or healthy eating, it may not lead to significant change. However, if that behavior is adopted by multiple individuals within a social network, it can trigger a cascade effect, resulting in widespread adoption. Understanding this phenomenon helps us design interventions that encourage change by targeting influential individuals within networks.

Networked Change and Online Platforms:

The emergence of online platforms and social media has revolutionized our ability to connect and influence others. Centola explores the power of these platforms as catalysts for change. Contrary to popular belief, he argues that virtual interactions can generate genuine behavioral change when designed with network principles in mind.

Centola’s research demonstrates that the structure of social networks on platforms plays a crucial role in fostering change. It might be surprising, for example, but he found that hierarchical networks with influential leaders are less effective in driving sustained change compared to more decentralized networks. When networks are flatter and allow for multiple connections and interactions, they promote the spread of new ideas and behaviors.

Centola also emphasizes the importance of diverse connections within networks. Exposure to diverse perspectives can challenge existing norms and facilitate the adoption of new ideas. Online platforms that foster interactions between individuals with different backgrounds and beliefs can create fertile ground for transformative change.

Nudging Networks – The Role of Small Interventions:

Another significant aspect of Centola’s work revolves around the concept of “nudging networks.” He emphasizes the impact of small interventions that can lead to significant behavioral shifts. By targeting specific individuals or influential subgroups within a network, these interventions can have a cascading effect, altering the behavior of the entire network. It is what Des Moines’ successful ‘Hummingbirds’ are capitalizing on. They are ‘hyper-local content creators & influencers’.

Centola’s research reveals that people are more likely to adopt new behaviors when they perceive them as popular within their network. By strategically introducing a few early adopters or leveraging social proof, change agents can create a perception of popularity and influence, paving the way for broader adoption.


Damon Centola’s research challenges conventional wisdom surrounding change by emphasizing the importance of networks, online platforms, and small interventions. By understanding the dynamics of social networks and leveraging them effectively, we can drive transformative change in our societies.

Centola’s work provides practical insights for policymakers, social entrepreneurs, and change agents seeking to address complex social issues. It urges us to move away from individual-centric approaches and embrace a networked perspective, recognizing that collective action is essential for substantial and lasting change.

As we navigate an ever-changing world, Damon Centola’s research serves as a beacon of hope, offering valuable guidance on how to create positive societal transformations. By harnessing the power of networks, leveraging online platforms, and strategically nudging behavior, we can unlock the potential to make big things happen and build a brighter future for all.

Skip to content