The Tipping Point

I recently finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference.  The basic premise behind the book is best summarised in the author’s own words:

…the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves, or, for that matter, the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth, or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics.  Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.

Under Gladwell’s hypothesis, there are three Agents of Change behind any tipping point: The actions of a Few, a Stickiness Factor and the right Context.

1. Law of the Few

The Law of the Few states that three personality types are required to work together before a trend will “tip”: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.  I’ll try to summarise them as best I can below…

1a. Connector – essentially a person who “accumulates” people.  The type of person that loves to know everybody, and everybody loves to know.  Connectors move up and down and between disparate social circles.  They are experts at networking, forming friendships and cultivating acquaintances.  Connectors are the people who really spread the message from one group to another.  They act as the “feet” of a tipping point.

1b. Maven – “one who accumulates knowledge”.  Mavens are experts in all the technical details about products, services and pricing.  Importantly, they enjoy helping other people with purchasing decisions by sharing this unique knowledge of the marketplace.  Mavens allow you to compare the relative benefits of one thing to another in an objective, quantitative way.  Continuing the body analogy from above, I would describe mavens as the “brains” behind a tipping point.

1c. Salesman – as the name implies, salesmen are experts at selling a concept, product, service or movement.  However, Gladwell uses the term in the informal sense in that they “sell” an idea to those around them, not in the formal sense as in that they are employed by a company to push a particular product.  Essentially the “heart” behind a tipping point, salesmen are those charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills that can successfully persuade people.

So, according to Gladwell, a trend really needs these “champions” to help push it out to the masses and hence over the tipping point.  Of the three, it seems to me that the Salesman would be the most important.  And I’d say it’s possible to be two or even three of the above personality types at once.  In fact, wouldn’t most salesmen also be connectors, and vice versa?

2. Stickiness Factor – OK, it’s one thing for The Few to get your attention.  It is another thing entirely to keep that attention.  This is where Gladwell’s “stickiness factor” comes in.  There has to be a certain je ne sais quois about the concept that resonates with the target audience, transfixing its attention.  I think Gladwell tends to focus way too much on children’s TV (Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues) in this section of the book to stake a solid claim.  But he at least highlights something curious: when watching TV, young children don’t stop viewing because they’re bored.  They stop paying attention because they don’t understand.  Personally, I think this applies more generally to adults too.  If you want to sell something – an idea, product or concept – then your message needs to follow the KISS principle.  Keep It Simple, Stupid.

3. Power of Context – An idea, product or societal movement can be a bit like Goldilocks – all the conditions need to be just right before a big change goes over its tipping point.  Gladwell argues that people behave according to their surroundings and to those around them (particularly their peers).  It’s these environmental factors that will determine ultimately whether a tipping point can be reached.  Perhaps this is obvious – after all, you’re hardly going to see an explosion of air conditioner sales during a Siberian winter.  It’s intuitive that a person will respond, sometimes in a very primal way, to their conditions.   Gladwell uses examples from New York City’s “Fixing Broken Windows” anti-crime strategy, and the famous Stanford Prison Experiment to support his case.  I found The Power of Context section to be the more engaging chapters of The Tipping Point.  I particularly enjoyed Gladwell’s discussions on how our peer groups play a far more significant role in our upbringing than our own parents, and how groups/organisations tend to become dysfunctional at a seemingly universal number of 150 people, for example.

In summary, I thought Gladwell’s Tipping Point was a very interesting concept, and presented some compelling arguments.  Tipping Point is a worthwhile read, if only because it’s a meme that has effectively entered our collective consciousness.  And it does make you think, which is never a bad thing.

Having said that, I remain unconvinced that tipping points, in fact, follow Gladwell’s “laws” in any kind of consistent, predictable fashion.  Perhaps the three “Agents of Change” that Gladwell defines are elusive and impossible to measure.  But it seems to me that sometimes a tipping point can be reached without all of Gladwell’s factors being present.  Conversely, sometimes a tipping point fails to be reached with all of the necessary agents in place.

At the end of the day, it all seems rather random.

Final note: The website FastCompany has published a comprehensive rebuttal to The Tipping Point here.