Moving Mountains

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New York City…circa 1984.  Crime had overwhelmed New York at all levels.  It was chaotic, seedy, drug ridden and dangerous.  And then suddenly, in just a few short years, things changed.  By the mid 1990’s, New York had become the safest “big city” in the nation.

How?  How in the world did a large, crime infested city successfully change its fortunes?

You, like me, might believe big problems require big solutions.  They don’t.

You may be sitting in your office right now dissalusioned, excited or overwhelmed.  And you may be wondering, “How in the world am I going to make positive change take hold?  How can I get my idea off the ground?”

Last week I had meetings with two mental health providers, both of whom were facing similar challenges.  One is a dear friend and therapist who decided to start her own private practice.  The other is a well respected therapeutic group home looking for new opportunities to grow in the face of a poor economy.  Both parties were excited about the possibilities but unsure where to begin.  In their eyes, the kind of change they desired was going to take a herculean effort.

But the transformation of New York in the late 1980’s offers a valuable lesson for these two providers – it’s possible to do a lot with a little.  The saving grace for New York City and its crime epidemic was not a sweeping “change campaign”.  It was a well thought out, precise, and purposeful process.  Rather than declaring an all out “War on Crime”, New York targeted an area where crime was rampant – the subway system.  Instead of jumping in to solve all subway problems, New York officials chose to address two: graffiti and subway fare beaters.  They shifted the context of their message to a focused location, and made the message stick through a relentelss pursuit of two goals – no graffiti and no farebeating.  The message permeated the entire social infrastructure of the city.  And finally, New York officials found a surprisingly powerful new messenger to help spread the word.  Their most effective champions were “potential” criminals who simply chose not to act.  Things changed and they changed quickly.

Three modest steps.  That’s what it took for New York to make change happen.

(1) Change the Context of Your Message
(2) Change the Message
(3) Change the Messenger

(Reference: From “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell)

Making These Principles Work For You

Consider the efforts of a therapist I once knew.  She had a modest private practice specializing in children and family work.  She wanted to grow her practice but didn’t know where to begin.  Until one day, everything changed.  She didn’t suddenly go out and spend her entire savings on advertisements, or create a groundbreaking new therapeutic model that put her at the forefront of the therapist community.  She made a small gesture that pushed her closer to her goals.

Considering Context

One day, during coffee with friends, she decided to offer help to a schoolteacher friend.  This act helped to completely change the context of her message.  She created a simple one page reference guide focusing on developmental disabilities.  It was a short and sweet bullet point guide designed to help her friend manage a difficult classroom.  In the past, she did very little to promote her work outside of the yellow pages and family friends.  Her reference guide put her skills on display for schoolteachers, counselors and families to see.  Her message was now targeted towards a social setting that mattered most.

Change the Message

Her willngness to give of her expertise selflessly, and to package it in a completely different manner, served to change the message entirely.  It was no longer watered down therapy speak.  Her unique reference guide spoke volumes about her work, and it made her stand out from the crowd.  Her message stuck because it helped others.  It had teeth.

Find New Messengers

Once her friend benefited from the guide, she shared it with other teachers, and the message spread quickly.  Instead of passively sending her message out to everyone, she targeted a group of people who had credibility with families and served as the gatekeepers for children.  Once this audience believed in her message, it spread rapidly, and her book of business began to grow at an incredible pace.

In Closing

If you are looking to move mountains, know that big changes can come from small efforts on your part.  As Malcolm Gladwell says in the closing sentences of his book, The Tipping Point,

“Take a look at the world around you.  It may seem like an immovable, implacable place.  It is not.  With the slightest push – in just the right place – it can be tipped.”



  1. Tamarisk  May 4, 2010

    Great post David – I really like that shift in thinking. I’ve already begun to think about how that might work for my practice.

    Consider the difference between sending out a bland letter of introduction vs. sending out something short and sweet that the recipient could use straight away (just like in your example). If you then call to follow up, I’m sure they’d be delighted to hear from you and would want to know more! Inspiring stuff!

  2. cordes  May 4, 2010

    After being inudated with so many marketing and technology information, it’s nice to know that I can take it in small bites or bytes instead of trying to accomplish too much. Sometimes enthusiasm can run away with you!

  3. Ana M. Sierra, Ph.D.  May 5, 2010


  4. Katherine Graber  May 5, 2010

    Great advice. I am at a point of trying something new to tap into a need that I know is out there. I liked the suggestions.

  5. David  May 5, 2010

    Glad you all enjoyed. I’m curious what people would like me to discuss in the future. Any ideas?

  6. Susan Giurleo  May 5, 2010

    David, great post, as always. Have you read “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath? Similar ideas. They talk about the psychology of change in such an approachable way. Highly recommend the book.

  7. Lisa Holland  May 6, 2010

    In Malcom Gladwe’s book, when he discusses the graffiti…he suggests that “graffiti was symboic of the system.”

    so I’m thinking about the therapist’s gesture you talked about – her gesture “to them” is symbolic of the kind of work she does .

    in all the work we do to market ourselves, these small gestures, “that I have no doubt we’ve all done” really do matter. they create an impression of the work we do; even if we might not see it on the books the next month!

    thanks David, this is one of my favorite posts!

  8. Lisa Holland  May 6, 2010

    sorry for the missing “L’s” from my post… seems I’m having a bit of a challenge with my keyboard!

  9. David  May 6, 2010

    I’m definitely excited about reading “Switch”. I read their first book, “Made To Stick”, and really enjoyed it. Thanks for the book rec Susan. I’ve read quite a few of your suggestions in the past and they were fantastic.

    Lisa – I really enjoy Gladwell. Just started reading “What the Dog Saw” and will let you know what I think. And I agree, the small things have a big impact.

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