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Gladwell, M. 2002. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Back Bay Books.

Summary by James R. Martin, Ph.D., CMA
Professor Emeritus, University of South Florida

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According to Fortune, The Tipping Point is "A fascinating book that makes you see the world in a different way." I heartily agree and recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding, creating, or reversing any kind of desirable or undesirable behavioral trend.

What is a Tipping Point?

A good definition by Claire Dederrer of the Seattle Times appears on the back cover of the book. According to Dederrer, "The Tipping Point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire." Sudden changes in social behavior and what causes these changes is the theme of this book. The spread of viruses, crime waves, fashion trends, teen suicide and teen smoking are examples of contagious behavior that have reached tipping points.

Three Rules of Tipping Points

1. The Law of the Few

Connectors, mavens and salesman are responsible for starting word-of-mouth epidemics (p. 255). The law of the few is explained by a concept referred to as six degrees of separation (p. 36). This means that a very small group of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps and everyone else is connected to the world through that small group of people. Connectors are people with the ability to bring the world together. They know lots of people, particularly the important people. Paul Revere was a connector. Paul Revere was also a maven who is a person very knowledgeable in a specific area, someone who's advice is respected and sought after (p. 60). A maven is a teacher and also a student (p. 69). Mavens are data banks, but mavens are not persuaders. Salesmen, on the other hand, are those with the skills to persuade us and are critical to word-of-mouth tipping points. What makes them persuasive? Apparently little subtle things such as expressions, non verbal cues that are more important than verbal cues (p.79).

2. The Stickiness Factor

Simple changes in the way information is structured and presented can make it contagious, memorable or sticky. In this section of the book (Chapter 3) Gladwell provides Sesame Street and the Blue's Clues children's TV programs as examples. Big Bird, Oscar, a dog named Blue and a shovel and pail named Shovel and Pail were sticky. Apparently it is not the quality of an idea, concept, TV show, or product that makes it sticky, but something about the way it is packaged and presented. The stickiness factor says that there is a simple way to package information that in the right context can make it irresistible. According to Gladwell, you find it by tinkering and experimenting with the way the information is structured and presented.

3. The Power of Context

One might think that we are autonomous and inner directed, and that who we are and how we act is permanently set by our genes and our character. But instead, according to Gladwell, we are powerfully influenced by our environment, immediate context and peer group. An example, or subset of the power of context is referred to as the broken windows theory (p. 141). The idea is that an epidemic can be reversed (or tipped) by making small changes in the immediate environment. Crime for example is viewed as the inevitable result of disorder represented by broken windows, un-repaired buildings, graffiti, aggressive panhandling and trash. The power of context says that small things like cleaning up the environment have a strong effect on behavior. In other words, behavior is a function of social context (p. 150). Teen suicide and teen smoking are provided as examples of how peer groups affect behavior. Teens apparently commit suicide, smoke and engage in other forbidden behavior because someone that they identify with does those things (See Chapter 7). Smoking is not cool, people who smoke are cool (p. 233).

Another example of the power of context is referred to as the Rule of 150. Humans (and other species) socialize in groups, but a natural limit (social channel capacity) determines the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuine social relationship. Robin Dunbar calculates a measurement referred to as the neocortex ratio of a particular species which relates to the size of the brain. For humans the ratio is approximately 150 (p. 179). Gladwell provides a number of interesting examples to support this aspect of the power of context. Effective military units are usually limited to 200 members. Hutterites split into two colonies when the size of the colony approaches 150. Gore Associates limited the size of their plants to 50,000 square feet to accommodate 150 employees after discovering that beyond 150 people per plant "things get clumsy." At Gore Associates there are no titles, organization charts, budgets, or elaborate strategic plans. Employees have sponsors, but no bosses. What they discovered is that small group peer pressure is much more powerful than the concept of a boss. Limiting the size of the business unit facilitates cooperation and makes it easier for new ideas to tip to the entire group.

How Can We Use the concepts revealed in The Tipping Point?

Other tipping points, not discussed in this book, might include the explosion of creative accounting, corporate misdeeds and unethical conduct, as well as plagiarism and other forms of academic cheating. I believe this book provides a great deal of fuel for thought related to creating tipping points that could reverse these trends. In addition, the power of context associated with the Rule of 150 seems to support the idea of designing organizations around the concept of a living system. See the Johnson 2006 (2) Summary for more on that issue.


Other Books by Gladwell:

Gladwell, M. 2005. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little Brown.

Gladwell, M. 2008. Outliers: The Story of Success. Little Brown.

Gladwell, M. 2009. What the Dog Saw and other adventures. Little Brown.

Related Summaries:

Beard, A. 2017. The theory: "If you understand how the brain works, you can reach anyone. A conversation with biological anthropologist Helen Fisher. Harvard Business Review (March/April): 60-62. (Summary).

Cushing, B. E., editor. 1987. Accounting and Culture: Plenary Session Papers and Discussants' Comments from the 1986 Annual Meeting of the American Accounting Association. American Accounting Association. (Summary).

Herzberg, F. 2003. One more time: How do you motivate employees? Harvard Business Review (January): 87-96. (Summary).

Johnson, H. T. 2006. Sustainability and "Lean Operations". Cost Management (March/April): 40-45. (Summary).

Kohn, A. 1993. Why incentive plans cannot work. Harvard Business Review (September-October): 54-63. (Summary).

McGregor, D. M. 1957. The human side of enterprise. Management Review (November): 22-28. Reprinted from the Proceedings of the Fifth Anniversary Convocation of the School of Industrial Management, MIT, April 9, 1957. (Summary).