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The Tipping Point (M. Gladwell)

2005-07-12 3 min read Books marco

I had heard about this book, “The Tipping Point”, for a while and decided to give it a read. At first, I thought it was going to be something like “Built to Last” or “First, Break All the Rules”: a book with a single message that could have been written as two sentences, but is fluffed up with examples and discussions. Not the case here.

A tipping point, according to the author, is a sudden change in the state of a mass of humans according to which something that was not popular just before the tipping point is popular after. The tipping point fits in the theory of the chasm, according to which there is a strong difference between the first people that adopt a technology and the next group. This book is about what kind of things help moving across the chasm and generating a tipping point.

“The Tipping Point” goes into detail about what exactly constitutes a tipping point, and how to get there. The author focuses on three elements:

  1. The Law of the Few – in any given environment that is subject to a tipping point, there are a select few that can make the tipping occur. There are Connectors, who have lots of people they know and thus function as spreading agents; there are Mavens, who have specialized knowledge and like to pass it on; and there are Salesmen, who are able to convince people who are doubting.
  2. The Stickiness Factor explains that only those changes can cause a tipping point that are inherently sticky. If something is quickly forgotten, it will disappear soon no matter how contagious it is. This is akin to the spreading of viruses: Ebola is highly contagious, but it soon kills the host and an epidemic never occurred on a global scale.
  3. The Power of Context asserts that even a small change in the environment can have a very strong global impact, if it works with the other two principles to pursue a change.

Examples are well chosen to illustrate the problems and definitions. In particular, the examples in the Power of Context section are very powerful and credible, even though they touch on debatable and debated topics.

I would have wished for the section on Stickiness Factor to have more bulk and more relevant examples. The two examples found in it are quite weak and quite frankly contradict the thesis somewhat. I hope future releases of the book will fix this particular issue.

As a scientist-by-study, I would have wished a more interesting discussion of the math behind tipping points. Indeed, tipping points have become a very interesting field of study in theoretical physics, where they are part of catastrophe theory: sudden changes in physical systems that occur at unpredictable times.

Take the example of a heap of sand onto which you pile one grain after another. Nothing happens for a while, and then the heap becomes unstable, a little avalanche rolls down and the pile is stable again. Nothing about the pile or the grain of sand that falls tells us when the avalanche will occur – we just know that the pile is becoming increasingly unstable.

Although not exactly what The Tipping Point is getting at, such catastrophes explain very well how it can be that a system refuses to adopt a change that is necessary or beneficial. Instead, The Tipping Point explains a methodology on how to facilitate such change. The latter is very useful, but the former would have opened the path to more methodologies.