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David Diana
Aug 26, 2010

Moving Mountains

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 disillusioned, 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 relentless pursuit of two goals – no graffiti and no fare beating. 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) Changing the Context of the Message
(2) Changing the Message Itself
(3) Changing the Messenger

(Reference: The story above and the three steps come from “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell)


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 willingness 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.


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.”

David P. Diana is a counselor, author, and a director for a behavioral healthcare organization. He writes a weekly blog on sales and marketing for counselors (

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