How little things can make a big difference is what Malcolm Gladwell sets out to show in his book The Tipping Point. He does this by outlining how epidemics can be characterized. This book certainly was an interesting read, as it offers a way of looking at change from a different perspective. Because how is it that a brilliant idea might not become a huge success, and other lesser ideas turn into the biggest current thing?
The standard reaction, stemming from a century of command and control mass production, of managers would probably be that there must be some big and crucial factors at play in such a situation. Malcolm says it’s more likely to be trivialities that determine the outcome. Trivialities that turn your idea into an epidemic. Or do not. The tipping point is the moment in which something suddenly spreads in exponential fashion, and becomes epidemic.
There are of course technological examples of how trivialities determine outcome. We now all have electrical refrigerators humming in our kitchens in stead of the more efficient and totally silent gas operated ones, because one of the original players in the market in the 1920’s and 1930’s, GE, also had a stake in energy production, and added $0.50 worth of revenue for electricity consumption per annum for every refrigerator sold. Now this is a trivial fact, but clearly not a trivial business decision. Here evidently the better idea lost out.
The problem with technology assessment as with predicting the future in general is what inputs to adhere weight to and not. Usually this is easily done with 20/20 hindsight, and that is also the bit that bugs me reading the Tipping Point. The big question that remains after reading this book is, how to apply this, how to combine this very interesting epidemic perspective with my own decisions and e.g. attempts to implement KM ideas in organisations? And also very important, how to apply this without it becoming pure manipulation? In short I would like to see planned for epidemics documented which took this book’s construct as a basis for action, in stead of cases that in hindsight fit the description.
But let’s have a look at a summary of the book to familiarize yourself with its terminology. (or read a summary by Robert Paterson)
Central to the book are three theories regarding epidemics:
The Law of the Few
This ‘law’ says it takes only a few, but crucial, people to turn something into an epidemic. Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen. The mavens are knowledgeable about a certain topic, the Connectors know a lot of people and can spread ideas from one circle to another, the Salesmen ‘sell’ the idea within their own circle. It takes one or more of these chains of maven connector and salesman to make an idea reach a broader audience and become a success.
The Stickiness Factor
Now an idea can be great and it’s spreading can be huge thanks to the types of people above, but if a message is not sticky it will only be a temporary blimp on anyone’s radar, and then die. No buzz, in short. Stickiness is the packaging of a message you have to choose in order to make it irresistible. Stickiness in this book remains somewhat elusive, except that stickiness might be greatly enhanced by knowing a lot about the people you want to reach with the message and design the packaging accordingly, and that simple changes to the packaging if it’s not catching on are often much more effective than total repackaging. But in the end, there is a simple way to package information, which under the right circumstances can make it irresistible. You just have to find it In Dutch we would call such a statement kicking in an already open door.
The Power of Context
Context is also important in reaching the Tipping Point. Malcolm Gladwell names two contextual factors, environmental aspects, and our social networks.
The first factor, environmental aspects, is based on the notion that our emotions and actions can be shaped by the space we live in. If a street is full of graffity and broken windows, the resulting atmosphere attracts crime like street robbery etc. However if it’s neat and clean, with flowers from every window that chance is much smaller. Likewise if next to a waste bin at a bus stop there is already one piece of litter on the ground, chances are people will add to that. If there’s nothing on the ground, people tend to throw their litter in the bin as well. Change these environmental factors and you can change behaviour. It is on this notion that the New York City Police based its zero tolerance policy.
The second factor is the number of people around us. We have a limited capacity in dealing with keeping track of the relationships between us and the individuals of the group we live in, and those between other individuals in our group. This channel capacity is seems to lie around the number of 150, with a much smaller group of about 12 to whom we feel the strongest ties. Go beyond the 150 and alienation between individuals will occur. Nomadic tribes seem to adhere to these numbers, as do military units.
For an idea to become epidemic you will have to keep this threshold of 150 in mind. It will not do to convince a whole stadium with 15.000 of something; the mass will go home not remembering you. But reach a 100 of those groups of 150 and you’re rocking. Now the book seems to imply that each of us functions in a context of about 150 people.
That does not sound right to my ears, especially if I look at the examples given. For instance a company is mentioned that is organised in independent business units of 150 people. But each of those 150 employees will have a life outside of the company as well, so even if those workers indeed know 150 people, they won’t be all colleagues. Is Malcolm Gladwell implying we can only keep track of a group of 150 people at any one time, but can easily switch groups, because that is what seems to fit my own experience more? Or is it that I’m more the connector type that I think that threshold of around 150 people doesn’t hold up?
What seems to be unsettling to me in this book is that, even if it places human interaction, and especially face to face conversations, at the heart of epidemics of ideas, it also seems to provide a mechanistic, command and control like approach to stuffing you ideas through someone’s throat. Find the right people, find the right package and you’re in business. Or did I miss the part where he says that if the message stinks, or is some bogus marketing line, an epidemic will not happen even if you got the right people and message?
Nonetheless the book is intriguing, and well worth reading, because it promises the possibility of success, of reaching the tipping point without having access to vast resources. In the next post I’ll try and go into questions and consequences.