Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Tipping Point

Ben Salinas, Chandra Little, and myself have been working on a project for the last five months. One of my more amusing assignments has been to reread The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell to see if we can apply anything towards our problem of hooking up engineering volunteers with nonprofits that need designs. (The others have similar assignments; Chandra, for instance, is looking into dating services to see if we can learn anything from them.)

The main idea behind the book is that every system, no matter how complex, has a "tipping point" where a tiny change leverages out to have large effects. These are what you want to look for and hit, as they cause the largest effect with the smallest effort. I call it "lowering the hacktivation energy." There's some critical point in every activity for each individual where the cost-benefit tradeoffs suddenly become worth it, and the best way to instigate change is to stick in some catalyst so that people reach that point faster.

Who tips?
In social groups, the tipping point is often a handful of people. Gladwell identifies three types of world-changers; Connectors, who span social "silos" and take joy in connecting their many friends to each other, Mavens, who compulsively collect in-depth information and take joy in sharing the fruits of their knowledge with others, and Salesmen, skilled at harmonizing with others in a way that blends their ideas and passes them virally on.

Our project is trying to leverage a hive of Maven engineers - but others have done this before. We need to train those engineers to become Salesmen, since engineers are stereotypically poor at empathy and communication; we also need to network them with technically literate Connectors who understand their skillset well enough to hook them up with the right people. So many engineers languish in suboptimal positions because nobody knows what they do well enough to help them find their best fit in the larger picture.

Tipping at the start
Getting things started is a perennial problem. Gladwell mentions that the first mover in any action gives the others "permission" to do the same; a suicide "permits" other suicides, a broken window "permits" further vandalism. Less depressingly, an act of kindness encourages like acts to happen, as long as the positive feedback for committing a good deed is sufficiently rapid, genuine, and impressive enough to serve as incentive. This is the wisdom of beta tests and pilot programs; there's no better sales pitch than "we've done it before, and it works." A lot rides on your beta testers; you want to make sure they come from a place of abundance so they can be unafraid of taking risks since they're confident those risks will do them no harm.

Once a movement snowballs, it needs the right kind of environment to nurture it. The book claims 150 people is the maximum size for an "agile" group. My theory as to why this happens is that information overload sets in; there's no way to keep up with what everyone does and knows. Once you pass the 150 mark, insitutional memory becomes inorganic; documentation and rules start replacing things that were formerly just strong cultural norms. The solution is to allow small groups to break off when critical mass grows near. IDEO's "T-shaped" person (specialty depth, broad vision) and Unix's "do one thing and do it well" and "every program is a filter" philosophies exemplify the ideal of specialization that can still connect to others. "Small pieces loosely joined" is a description that's been applied to the internet. It can be applied to people and organizations as well.

Tipping happens again and again.
I'll be the first to admit that people have written about these ideas thousands of times over, and will continue to do so thousands of years from now. Nothing I've said here is actually new. Life is about spiral learning, and spiral learning is about repetition; as the saying goes, "everything old is new again." And so it goes.

1 comment:

Gui C said...

I don't have trouble starting things and initially inspiring people. The biggest problem I have found is keeping people inspired further into the process while I maintain my own inspiration - there's a tricky balance between wanting lots of people to explore a dream of yours and losing control of said dream. The worst situation to end up in is losing personal inspiration before the group becomes inspired enough to carry forward, at which point everything goes to hell (remember trying to make the PVC instrument a few years ago?).

Not sure which classification I fall under, interesting to think about. I think I have strong characteristics from each class. Fun.