Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Tipping Point

This book is an interesting and easy read. Gladwell introduces the idea of a tipping point - a moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. He integrates observations from a variety of applications from Paul Revere's ride to the lowering of crime in New York to the spread of Hushpuppies to epidemics, among others.

He concludes that there are three rules of the tipping point - the law of the few, the stickiness factor and the power of context. In defining the law of the few, he reiterates some of the well-known observations about networking, but adds some additional structure. He identifies three types of people that have to be operating in the network - connectors, mavens and salesmen. Connectors are people who have many connections. But, he goes on to describe the importance of weak links (links with people we don't know well). It's apparently not telling friends about something that helps, its telling acquaintances.

Using job hunting as an example, he reports that successful job applicants found their jobs in a variety of ways in a 1974 study - 20% applied directly, 19% used formal means and 56% used personal connections. Of those who used a contact to find a job, 17% saw that contact often, 56% occasionally and 28% rarely. "People weren't getting their jobs through their friends. They were getting them through their acquaintances." Why, because we share much in common with our friends so nothing new is added. Our acquaintances have their own networks that bring entirely new people into the web.

Mavens are experts who act as sources on information and can qualify the idea or product. And, salesmen are well, sales people.

The stickiness factor becomes harder to quantify. There is not a science of what makes something stick, that is stay in a person's mind. It's an art. If you create something, peoples' response to it can be tested. Stickiness is not in the content but in its package. "There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it."

The power of context refers to the conditions and circumstances of times and places for a tipping point. "But the lesson of the Power of Context is that we are more than just sensitive to changes in context. We're exquisitely sensitive to them." In reviewing studies on crime and behavior he states, "Weird as it sounds, if you add up the meaning of the Stanford prison experiment and the New York subway experiment, they suggest that it is possible to be a better person on a clean street or in a clean subway than in one with trash and graffiti." The other major part of the context he discusses is the influence of groups. "Once we're part of a group, we're all susceptible to peer pressure and social norms and any number of other kinds of influence that can play a critical role in sweeping us up in the beginnings of an epidemic." If you want to introduce new concepts and beliefs and bring about change that will persist, "you need to create a community around them, where those new beliefs could be practiced and expressed and nurtured."

This is a good book for anyone interested in innovation to read. It's the type of book I like, one that synthesizes knowledge from many fields. And, I believe it offers some insights of value to innovation practitioners. Read together with Ubiquity, it can provide insight and meat for a lot of discussion.

Malcolm Gladwell is a former business and science writer at the Washington Post. He is currently a staff writer for The New Yorker.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown & Company, 2000
301 pages

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