Tipping Point

Chapter 7 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 another case study. This time we explore the ideas of how tipping points happen by considering teen suicides and smoking. 

Let’s return to the subtitle of The Tipping Point, How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. In chapter 7 Gladwell uses the examples of teen suicide in Micronesia and teen smoking in the United States. The central idea in both examples is the role of permission-givers.  Permission-givers make a concept cool or interesting to a specific group of people through their actions. In the world of 2019, permission-givers leverage a wide range of social media platforms that were not as widespread when Gladwell wrote the book. The proliferation of social media has made the concept of permission-giving even more important to understand. In chapter 2, The Law of the Few, Gladwell described the role of the salesperson; a permission-giver is a specialized form of the salesperson. The salesperson/permission giver provides the connections to the people that can be most impacted by an idea which pushes an idea or activity over the tipping point. Permission is not a general invitation broadcast indiscriminately put a much more targeted communication to, in the case of suicide and smoking, to those that are most vulnerable.

A July 20th 2017 article in Newsweek indicated that authorities expected a rash of suicides after two high profile rockers committed suicide due to the contagion effect. The rockers had granted others permission. In software development the same effect can be seen,  when one person or team try something new, derives noticeable benefit or is seen to be a thought leader (or just cool). For example, I have recently observed a number of groups experimenting with the use of micro-teams (two or three-person teams). In the organization I observed this phenomenon, the “outbreak” can be traced to one team that has always been seen as the cool kids in the company. They are the permission givers. The idea of permission-givers, while a problem in suicides and teen smoking is an important idea to capitalize on when changing how organizations work.  

Breaking the link between permission and action whether in teen smoking and suicides required either breaking the contagion link or to reduce the level of stickiness of the idea to the impacted market. Interrupting the contagion is difficult because it requires either making the permission-giver uncool or to stop them smoking or committing suicide. Trying to thwart the efforts of a salesman is nearly impossible. The best course of action is typically to make the action less sticky. For example, a few years ago I was asked to help with an organization where the developers had decided that unit testing should not be done, independent testers would catch the bugs later. We implemented a pairing process in which coders and testers had to work together to test every change. Unit test suddenly started to happen again because the coders had to experience the pain of bad code. Experiencing the consequences of bad code stopped the #NoUnitTest movement in the company by reducing the stickiness of the idea.  


Logistics Note: We have two weeks left in this re-read. Do you have a suggestion for the next book?

Previous entries:

Week 7 –  Case Study Rumors, Sneakers, and The Power of Translationhttps://bit.ly/2TSBtRs

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