Tipping Point

The core message of this chapter is that the situation/environment plays a major role in whether an idea or event crosses the tipping point.  As we have seen in earlier chapters, it rarely brute force or the big event that drives an idea across the tipping point, but rather small, important, and very precise events that provide the impetus.  The primary story in this chapter centers around the crime epidemic in New York of the 1980s and early 1990s (http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/nycrime.htm). Gladwell connects the relatively quick decline of violence in the subways (which he uses as a proxy for the whole city) to the to the adoption of the broken window policy applied to fare jumpers and graffiti. The broken window policy shifted the context so that small indiscretions had consequences. The context shift was enough to deflect the trajectory of the epidemic and let other factors bring it back across the tipping point.

As noted in the Law of the Few, a few very specific people’s behaviors and support (connectors, mavens and salespeople) are critical to pushing an idea over the tipping point.  The Power of Context is similar: small things count. Epidemics, in this context viral explosions of ideas or behaviors, are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances found in the times and places they occur.  Changing the context can deflect or amplify an epidemic. The fact that every context is different is the reason there is no playbook for repeatedly creating a viral video. In the context of the NYC crime epidemic, the application of the broken window approach to policing graffiti and fare jumpers was enough of a context shift.  The idea that no infraction however small would be overlooked changed the energy in the system enough for other factors to stop the epidemic. Note – both the broken window approach and Gladwell’s analysis assume a rational economic player. The context shift, in this case, makes the cost of the small nuance crimes much higher for the perpetrators, therefore, they rationally stop those crimes and expend their efforts elsewhere. In situations where the actors are less rational (a different context) policing graffiti and fare jumpers may have had no impact on the crime in the subway.

Affecting how a team or organization works requires recognizing that change requires affecting the right people AND the right people when the circumstances are correct.  Change agents need to impact the environment in order to address social change. Dave Sohmer, interviewed on SPaMCAST 536 – 24 February 2019) led two very different agile transformations: one used a big bang approach and the other used more of an incremental approach. Both worked, but if the approaches were flipped neither would have been successful.  Both organizations ended up at the same place; however, the environmental context required them to travel different paths.

Previous entries:

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


Listening, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, is “to hear something with thoughtful attention.” Listening is more than receiving audio data. You also need to interpret that data. If you are a parent, I am sure that you have experienced the joy of asking your child if they were listening only to have them rattle off the conversation verbatim without them having a clue of the meaning. Listening requires hearing and interpretation. This formula sounds simple, but is more complex than it appears.  There is a number of requirements for effective listening. (more…)

Trying to read the context...

Trying to read the context…

Many people poke fun at consultants because they invariably use the phrase “it depends,” even when discussing lunch. “It depends” is code for the context of the situation matters to the answer. When I asked a sample of my readers and listeners to weigh in on whether being on-budget, on-scope or on-schedule was the most important attribute of project success, most answered without using the dreaded “it depends”. An excerpt for a recent Twitter conversation in response to the essay about being on-budget, emphasized that in real life the definition of success will be influenced context.

UntitledIn the sample I surveyed, being on-schedule was the most important attribute with on-scope a close second and on-budget a distant third. If I had added constraints to the mix the answer would probably have been different. One respondent, while explaining why they felt that scope was the key attribute of success, made a strong argument for context (without calling it out directly), “Budgets and schedules can be modified when justified, and functionality can be phased in over time.” The statement could easily be interpreted as as a statement that success criteria, at least in the short run, depends on the goals of the business and the context of the project.

We can all conceive of scenarios where a specific context lead one attribute to be viewed as the most important in project success ASSUMING the software does what it is supposed to do and in an adequate manner. As an example of context, one respondent noted that in his environment and for some projects, “regulatory requirements that say it MUST deploy on a specific date.” Failure to meet the date can result in fines or penalties. In a similar vein, another respondent stated, “Projects are often tied to an organization’s business milestones or regulatory requirements so missing the date is not acceptable.” In both cases the context of a project could lead a project team to focus on one attribute over another.

Why did I ask the question without context? As I have noted in earlier essays, we are all subject to cognitive biases. These bias act as filters and shortcuts that help us interpret data. The context of a project will provide information about the goals and constraints of the project. Our cognitive biases are usefully in helping us interpret project context. Which is why project teams with diverse perspectives tend to make better choices when sorting out which attribute is most important. Is one attribute truly more important than another? It depends!