Been thinking about this question quite a lot recently so here's the first in a series of posts to clariy things - one thing at a time.
Ok, the thing is that we assume that it's what
Of course, this is only natural given that's what we get paid for - which politician wants to stand up and say "crime is down - not that our policies have much to do with it"; it's largely due to factors beyond our control.
Which marketer is going to admit that the growth of their brand has bugger all to do with marketing's actions (premium vodkas: discuss). Which manager with a KPI to hit....
The truth is that it's all about them out there: most behaviours and ideas spread through populations because of what the members of the populations do or think or say in response to each other. That's why most big social trends surprise us - why as Freakonomics pointed out, the "broken window" strategy to clean up NYC is probably less important in explaining the 90s reduction in crime in the city than the demographic changes kicking in.
Put simply: as far as how stuff spreads, it's more Pullyou than Pushme (to bastardise the old Dr Doolittles). Folk do what they see around them; believe what their peers do - whatever their individual brains tell them. Our attempts to exert 'exogenous' (extra-system) influence is always going to be much less important than the 'endogenous' (intra-system) factors that shape the propagation of an idea or behaviour through a population.
BTW Think this is what Cluetrain really meant about markets being like conversations
If this is right, then strategy thinking needs to be rooted more in how the underlying mechanics of propagation works (human-human emulation within a given system etc) than in why individual folk do what they do.
Put another way: forget doing stuff TO folk; do stuff WITH them