Tipping Point

Chapter six of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (remember to stop borrowing your best friend’s copy and buy a copy of the book for yourself!), is a case study of a firm that went over the tipping point twice.  Once on the way to explosive growth and once in the way to explosive de-growth.

Gladwell uses the story of AIRWALK (a wicked cool footwear company originally focused on skateboarders) and The Lambesis Agency.  The two firms worked together to drive the AIRWALK brand over the tipping point. The story in the chapter is used to explore how an idea germinates, becomes cool, and then crosses the tipping point to exponential growth.  In this case, there is a return trip as the same idea crosses back over the tipping point.  The pattern of an idea defusing into the population and then catching fire observable in other fields.  The idea of Agile followed a very similar path of being cool then jumping into the mainstream.

One of the classic product adoption models begins with a few innovators developing an idea, followed by early adopters, early majority, later majority, and laggards. Gladwell’s premise is that innovators and early adopters (a very small portion of any population) act as opinion leaders. These two groups think and behave very differently from those in the early majority and the rest of the population.  Innovators and early adopters are incompatible with the other groups in the lifecycle. Geoffrey Moore’s classic paper, Crossing the Chasm, goes into depth about the need to connect the two portions of the product adoption curve. Agile, as an example, had been evolving and becoming cool in a small segment of the software development world before the Agile Manifesto, but there was no path for it to become mainstream.  Enter Gladwell’s connectors, mavens and salespeople that were discussed in the power of the few. The “few” are a mechanism to create a bridge to the mainstream.

The few translate an idea that the innovators and early adopters have developed and then tweak it so the early majority can consume the idea.  The Agile Manifesto and Scrum were the tweaks that allowed agile to cross the chasm.  Later tweaks, such scaling frameworks, are examples of changes needed to push agile adoption from the early majority to the late majority.

As an example of the tweaking process, Gladwell explores the psychology of creating a rumor.  The three steps are:

  1. Level – begin by removing all of the details needed to establish the true meaning of the story.
  2. Sharpened – what remains is made more specific to increase the credibility of the story.
  3. Assimilation – the story is changed (embellished) to make more sense in the context of those telling it.

Gladwell uses the story of a Chinese tourist visiting Maine in World War II.  The story quickly became the rumor of a Japanese spy surveying the coastline. A quick read of trending topics on Twitter will provide contemporary examples. The ideas expressed in the psychology of a rumor are patterns that mavens, connectors, and salespeople (the few) can use to translate ideas so they are consumable to the early majority.  

As a further example of the tweaking ideas to make them cross the tipping point, Gladwell discusses the Baltimore needle exchange program. The example shows how tweaking an idea and then leveraging super-connectors can be used to accelerate crossing the chasm.

Returning to agile, the Manifesto and the loose framework of Scrum provided a platform to excite the early majority – they felt cool like the early adopters while at the same time they were able to customize the day-to-day activities within the framework to meet their context.  The combination of cool and loose framework helped the early majority make their own translation.

In AIRWALK’s case, the trip over the tipping point was not a one-way ticket.  AIRWALK went full mass market and abandoned making a special product for their boutique distributors (where the innovators and early adopters shopped).  Innovators don’t want to wear or do the same things as everyone else they want to be cool. The majority can have the same brand but they can’t have the same “cool” product.  When the same shoe styles became available at Payless and JCPenny stores as the boutiques, the innovators and early adopters moved on to something else. AIRWALK recrossed the tipping point by making this mistake.  In agile, on the other hand, has not fallen prey to the same problem — yet. Scrum, SAFe and DevOps are the mass market frameworks while the cool kids are now exploring ideas like mob programming. Both sides of the tipping point have the same brand and while the innovators and early adopters have new, cool, concepts to explore.


Previous entries:

Week 6: – Power of Context (Part Two)https://bit.ly/2tZQ92O

Week 5 – Power of Context (Part One)  – https://bit.ly/2GVxGwx

Week 4 – The Stickiness Factorhttps://bit.ly/2GuSJ96

Week 3 – The Law of the Fewhttps://bit.ly/2Buau46

Week 2 – The Three Rules of Epidemicshttps://bit.ly/2DQnRNV

Week 1 – Plans and Introductionhttps://bit.ly/2S8PPwc