Tipping Point

This week we continue our re-read of The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (Buy a copy and read along). In Chapter one, Gladwell suggests that there are three factors that impact whether an idea or product crosses a tipping point; they are the law of the few, the stickiness factor, and the power of context. Chapter one introduces these concepts and presents real-life examples to illustrate the factors.  

Gladwell uses the first section of chapter one to provide examples of how one person or a small number of people cause great change.  He used the example of a gonorrhea outbreak in Colorado Springs. In this case, only a few of the infected people passed the disease on to more than a single partner, Gladwell uses the term non-transmitter to describe the majority behavior. Transmitters, “the few” passed the disease on widely causing the epidemic. Social epidemics are no different than medical epidemics (which is why the term going viral is used in vernacular). Bottom line, a handful of the right people can transmit an idea or disease, the few can cause an idea to go viral or to create an epidemic. Using the agile movement as a model to consider Gladwell’s ideas, the original signatories of the Agile Manifesto are an example of how a few people can change the direction of an entire industry. 

As an example of the “stickiness” Gladwell uses a presumed outbreak of AIDS in a pediatric ward in 1950’s Europe. (Gladwell quotes virologists as indicating the documentation strongly suggests an HIV outbreak but there was no test for HIV at the time) At the time the virus was not as virulent and only a ⅓ of the babies infected died. Gladwell uses the low level of virulence of the virus at the time as a metaphor for stickiness.  Stickiness in Gladwell’s view is a reflection of how effective a virus or idea to replicate and cause change. The virus evolved and became more virulent; “stickier” to use Gladwell’s expression. The ideas in the Agile manifesto were around for a long time before the manifesto, packaging them into a cohesive whole made them significantly more sticky. They became more sticky when they were repackaged into the Manifesto and repeated key thought leaders in the technology environment. 

The third factor is the power of context.  To illustrate the power of context, Gladwell uses an example a woman murdered outside of an apartment building.  34 people heard her cry for help but did not answer.  Subsequent research has found that in situations where many people hear a cry for help, they each think someone else will respond, which increases the chance that no one will.  If only one person had heard, they would have been more likely to have interceded. Context affects action.  Continuing to use the Agile Manifesto to illustrate the idea, the Manifesto found fertile ground in the early 2000s because many firms were using rigid controls in order to standardize how work was performed.  The perception of many was that leadership was putting process ahead of people.  The Agile Manifesto states the people are more valuable than process.  The over-reliance on controlling how work was done in the late ’90s made message the of the Manifesto easier to hear and adopt. 

The laws of epidemics are a useful tool for explaining how ideas go viral.  Chapter one provides an overview and examples of the laws. Chapter two, next week, tackles the law of the few in greater detail.

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