Friday, 3 December 2010

Finding Tipping Points

Malcolm Gladwell has written the book The Tipping Point in which he proposes a framework to better understand some complex social changes. In particular he is interested in "How little things can make a big difference". He is keen to identify these little things - aren't we all !!!

Of course in giving examples of his ideas he has the benefit of hindsight which enables retrospective coherence possible. The rest of us are trying to predict the small things that will make a big difference in our present situations - but complex social phenomena are unpredictable in anything but the short term.

Does this mean that we should disregard Gladwell's ideas? Not at all !! I like the notion that we should
    "Pick something small and try it. If it works, extend it. If it doesn't, learn from it."
But what to pick? The Tipping Point suggests that we might consider

(1) Enabling the contributions of  just a few people, but right ones - those who are
  • Connectors - people (and characters*) whose ideas and practices readily influence what they are doing in our area of interest
  • Mavens - people who have extensive knowledge in our area of interest and are keen to share it
  • Salespersons - people who are influential especially in actively promoting and support new ideas and practices
Gladwell calls this part of his framework The Law of the Few - a small number of the right people can make a big difference.

(2) Introducing small things that will make the new ideas and practices "sticky"**, that is, those small things in the situation that will cause a much bigger and sustained uptake of the ideas and desired practices.

Gladwell calls this part of his framework The Stickiness Factor.

(3) Looking for small things in the context (environment, history, purposes...) that will make a big difference in the uptake of the ideas and practices. It could be as simple as making it easier for people to know what's happening, getting the timing right...
In fact Gladwell believes that the context is often largely responsible for what happens and for what we do. He goes so far to argue that we may be far less rational and even less 'ethical' than we might like to think.

He calls this part of his framework The Power of Context.

Finding these small things that can make a big difference is not always easy. Hence the value of the "Pick something small..." idea. Similarly, Dave Snowden advocates "safe-fail experiments" - initiatives that are safe to try on a small scale because they wont be too costly to implement and can be easily undone if they prove unsuccessful.

Three questions
This is a different approach but worth some consideration. So, when we are trying to improve the social and emotional learning in our schools, Gladwell would suggest that there are basically three questions we might ask
Who are the few people who can make a real difference (three types, and don't forget the students themselves!!!)?
What will make it stick?
What contextual changes should we focus on?

* Connectors may be some steps removed from those they influence, eg, pop stars, book or film charatcers
** Stories, myths and legends are often powerful in making ideas and practices "sticky"

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