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For a recent design event, we looked long and hard at the idea of “tipping points,” or the instant where the forward motion of a movement increases to the point at which it becomes unstoppable. In his bestselling book, “The Tipping Point,” author Malcolm Gladwell defines tipping points as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point,” when a collection of small events suddenly “tips” over like a wineglass, and the resulting contagion becomes inevitable. Inspired by Gladwell, we studied a number of different movements, from the US Civil Rights movement, the rise of streaming media, the mainstreaming of hip hop music, the adoption of the hybrid/electric car, to the improbable rise of Donald Trump, and discovered that within each, there was a specific point at which the movements tipped, and the subsequent outcome became unavoidable.
And yet many times have you experienced efforts to create a movement – perhaps to launch a product, a way of working or create a whole new culture shift – and seen them fall flat? What about that restaurant you love that despite your best efforts at evangelization has closed anyway? Or that time you tried to get your team to go paperless? What is it that movements with tipping points achieve that these efforts have not?
Gladwell’s research indicates that a tipping point is reached by three very specific means: the “law of the few,” or the involvement of people with a particular set of social gifts which allow a small number of them to influence a wider population of the rest of us. Perhaps the most influential of the three, the “law of the few,” relies upon connectors, the people in a community who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions—the kind of people who know everyone, know who needs to know someone else, and whom everyone is happy to see (word of mouth epidemics are the work of connectors). Secondly, mavens, the information specialists we trust and rely upon to connect us with new information. For example, the friend we all have who knows everything there is to know about computers or television sets or restaurants. And finally, salesmen, who are just as they sound, the persuaders with charismatic personalities and powerful negotiation skills who have an indefinable trait—beyond what they say—that makes others want to agree with them.
Our experience with the movements we’ve helped create within client organisations backs this up: it’s the people within any movement who are most likely to make it tip. We know that you are more likely to follow that lone nut if he is a friend of yours, or even, if you have seen his work and likes what he’s doing. The 2016 US presidential election was swayed by content shown on Facebook’s news feed, a mechanism so massive that it filters content by what your most active friends are saying. You don’t read what the larger population is saying, only what your friends post. And if your friend is voting one way, you are more likely to follow her. Simon Sinek, in his book “Start with Why”, says between 13 and 15 percent of a population must be affected in order for an idea to catch fire. In most of our social networks that’s a small enough number to reach personally, and indeed, within the movements we studied, we found that when people were influenced and supported by their friends or people whom they knew personally, the movements were more likely to gain momentum.
The implications for creating a movement – culture change, employee engagement or reinforcement of core values and behaviours – in a large organisation are therefore clear. How do you meaningfully reach those hundreds and thousands of people who will be your firestarters?
The other two criteria for a tipping point are the “stickiness factor,” specific content of a message that renders its impact unforgettable, and the “power of context,” or the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which the epidemic occurs. When Gladwell says that the environment must be right for a message to spread, what he means is that there must be a critical mass within the population already, such that it is ready to tip on a slight change. For example, my efforts to get my family to adopt a vegetarian diet were destined for failure because none of them enjoys eating vegetarian food (in our case, vegetarianism was neither sticky nor in context).
A common problem we’ve seen within a lot of the populations we touch is the misleading idea that “if we build it, they will come.” A fantastic, world-beating idea doesn’t necessarily guarantee people will rush to embrace it. If that were true, everyone would eat healthily and get 30 daily minutes of brisk exercise. When you’re trying to create a movement for lasting change, great content must get into the hands of the influencers who will touch other influencers, who will bring their whole tribe with them, and only human connections can make that happen. It’s because his best friend was sitting next to him that black student Ezell Blair was brave enough to sit at the Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter in 1960, an episode widely regarded as the tipping point of the American Civil Rights movement. It’s because my friend encouraged me to buy an iPad Pro that I did. Without specific personal connections, any movement will ultimately fizzle, because accountability is weakened: there is no one to answer to when you make a decision, no one to get you up out of bed when you just don’t feel like marching, no one to encourage you to reach for the next level, the next flag, the next victory. So, if you’re trying to get a movement off the ground, make sure you count among your number the connectors, mavens, and salespeople with infectious personalities who will spread the idea like a virus. Then the next step is working out how to mobilise them…and even in this day of virtual connectivity, nothing works better than face-to-face interactions.
This is not to say that social networks don’t have their place, if there are genuine connections between the people within them. You might be able to have a thousand Twitter followers, but it’s a person within your real-life network who will be able to tell you which restaurant to visit, or who will connect you with the right person to get your project off the ground. Twitter and Facebook make it easier for activists to find other activists, but harder for their activism to have any impact, because social networks favor the sharing of information over accountability.
What happens next? The main thing to remember is that ideas will travel faster through personal networks than they will through institutional ones. In January, the original Facebook post about the Women’s March was posted on a specific group page with millions of like-minded followers, but I probably wouldn’t have put on my pink knitted hat and marched if I had seen only that. I marched because my best friend and my sister told me they were going. If the idea of stomping around outside on an icy winter’s day can spread throughout the world by word of mouth, it’s hard to imagine what couldn’t.
Do you want to create a tipping point in your organisation but not sure where to begin? Give us a call, we’d love to help.
The answer lies in the way the teams are working together. There is a tendency to look at the output of a team that is generating a lot of ideas in a non-judgmental, uncritical way — no idea is a bad idea — as being very productive. And it’s true that a team that is cooperating in this way will deliver an abundance of possibilities and possibly finish the project quicker than a single person working alone. However, a team that is debating, challenging, building upon one another’s work and questioning the ideas presented will produce more creative ideas of higher quality because critique allows people to dig beneath the surface and come up with ideas that aren’t predictable. Creativity is ignited when diverse ideas are united, or when ideas from one domain influence those of another, which is the true meaning of collaboration. We said in a previous post that creativity is the process of eliminating options; through collaboration this is not achieved with voting but with hard-won convergence. A team cooperating will make light work of solving a problem. But a team that argues, influences on another, inspires and connects—collaborates—will achieve a more satisfying result.
So, what is the perfect template for a collaborating group? Many years ago, I worked in the theatre, as an actor, designer, and artistic director of a theatre company, and believe one of the best models of group collaboration comes from the Broadway stage (stay with me here). I can tell you that no matter how ambitious you are, no single person can create a Broadway show—there are simply too many different kinds of talent required: a composer has to work with a librettist and a lyricist, a choreographer has to work with a director who is probably getting notes from the producer; there must be actors, an orchestra to play the tunes, and a small army of designers and craftsmen who bring the world of the play to life. And the most important collaborator of all, the audience, whose reception of the work can change the entire course of a production.
Setting all the razzamatazz of Broadway to one side, play-making at its core is an important collaboration between the actor and the text and music. The playscript sets out the words and the score sets the music, but neither is meant to live on the page—it is the actor’s voice which brings them to life. And when both are put before an audience, who receives it in a certain way—boom! Something new is created. Not completely of the playwright, not completely of the actor, not completely of the audience, but something wholly of each. To add further complication, a successful production must be financially viable as well as artistically creative, and each party involved in the making of it has his artistic reputation riding on the outcome of every performance, so the stakes are high. A forgotten line, a missing prop, a door that doesn’t open, or a wardrobe malfunction can stop a show, and that is a risk no one is willing to take.
Successful collaboration in the theatre also relies on the interconnected webs of people in the relatively small universe in which that world revolves—there aren’t many degrees of separation between Kevin Bacon and anybody, or between the librettist of “Guys and Dolls” and the choreographer of “Cabaret.” In my experience, certain directors often chose to partner with an artistic team they had worked with before, a pattern often repeated in theatrical collaborations, as producers view “incumbent teams” as a safe financial bet (Elton John and Tim Rice, I’m looking at you). However, intimacy with an artistic collaborator doesn’t always guarantee success, because knowing each other too well could mean that ways of working become stale. The opportunity for real magic happens when a new variable is injected into an already established collaborative relationship—a new set designer or an unknown actor, or possibly even when an old team works on a debuting play—when fresh thinking challenged already established ways of working. A famous example of this collaborative alchemy is the creative team behind “West Side Story,” one of the most commercially and artistically successful Broadway musicals of all time. The concept of a musical based on “Romeo and Juliet” was the brainchild of composer Leonard Bernstein, playwright Arthur Laurents and choreographer Jerome Robbins—all Broadway legends—but the project, in 1957 a departure from theatrical conventions both for its focus on social problems and its extended dance scenes, made history thanks to the fresh talents of 24-year-old Stephen Sondheim, a then unknown lyricist who had never worked on a Broadway musical before.
Can collaboration work with other types of team work the same way it works in the theatre? Of course, because on any given project the high stakes are the same—it must be completed, the reputations of the people working on it depend on its success, and each person involved will have a view on the best way to deliver it. Assemble a team with strong opinions and a defined amount of time, stimulate conversation, criticism and conflict and fruitful interactions will happen. And do this in a communal space—large and open so that any one person can talk to another, but not too precious that it can’t be altered as necessary. From the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, the National Theatre, Building 20 at M.I.T. to the public spaces at Pixar, the most creative environments provide opportunities for one idea to bump up against another.
Bit by bit, putting it together, diverse teams trust each other to work in parallel, the only way to make a collaborative work of art. Whilst in the theatre the entities are all answerable to a director with a vision for how best to serve the play (and who in turn is answerable to the opening night audience), at work we look toward project owners and visionary leaders to provide clarity on objectives and help guide us toward success. Having just a vision is no solution, everything depends on execution, and in both worlds, failure is not an option.
The lesson we can take from the theatre is that when there are enough people with different perspectives and skills influencing one another in unpredictable ways, the group dynamic will inspire excellence from each person working to put the show on the road. In this creative process, every moment makes a contribution, every little detail plays a part. All those hundreds of micro-interactions add up…but don’t expect them to be without friction. In fact, the challenging conversations you’ve been avoiding so long could well be the most important part of the process. They might be confrontational and not always pleasant, but it doesn’t mean they can be avoided: collaboration is not about getting along, it is about getting it right.
For many years leaders have wrestled with the discomfort of giving up management-style control in order to reap the benefits of achieving mastery in personal and organisational leadership. Leaders have looked to various theories which offer possible ways to ‘safely’ approach this ideal. For example:
Considering the X, Y and Z theories in the last post, and applying them in the practical sense, we could conclude that at a deeper level of understanding, there is no ‘one best way’ to influence people; it is largely a consequence of a number of different elements. Situational Leadership defines these as being the amount of guidance and direction (task behaviour) a leader gives, the amount of socio-emotional support (relationship behaviour) a leader provides and the readiness level that followers exhibit in performing a specific task, function, or objective.
The concept defines four leadership styles: Telling, Selling, Coaching and Delegating. The ultimate aim is to be able to reach the level of organizational maturity where delegation is pervasive. Hersey and Blanchard, the proponents of Situational Leadership, argue that when we take on a new task we all begin on the ‘dependent’ end of a continuum from fully dependent to fully independent. Then, each of us will move up the maturity scale at different speeds, depending on our experience, our abilities, our sense of self-worth, and the responses we get from our leader. At each stage, the leadership style to be employed can be determined by two points of view: the worker’s ability to do the task and the worker’s willingness to do the task.
J. Stacy Adams identified that workers are in a constant process of observation of the fairness of the outcomes of their own work compared with the outcomes of the work of their perceived peers. In this sense the worker defines his or her value based on a notion of equity with the organizational environment, implying a strict relationship between the two. Where there is little or no discrepancy, the worker perceives equity and is therefore satisfied. Where there is discrepancy, there is a perceived negative equity and the worker then actively seeks to restore the imbalance. This may take the form of negative action such as a drop in performance or a psychological or physical withdrawal from the status quo.
Positive equity, on the other hand, has the opposite effect. The role of the manager in this situation is to identify, understand and take appropriate action to stem negativity and build positivity; this means re-establishing and building ‘willingness’ through dialogue and, if appropriate, matching perceived value.
Victor Vroom’s 1960s theory states that an employee’s ‘Motivational Force’ is dependent upon three concepts: Expectancy, Instrumentality and Valence. Expectancy is the belief that the worker’s effort will result in the achievement of the desired performance goals (the desired end state of Cybernetics?). Instrumentality is the belief that should these goals be achieved a reward will be given. Valence is the value the worker places upon the value of that reward.
This provides a closer match to our understanding of situational leadership: if a worker is to be motivated, he or she not only has to believe the performance measure (or ‘task’) is achievable but that, once achieved, the reward will be of an appropriate value.
In OB Mod, the motivation of workers is said to be a direct result of the external consequences of that workers behaviour. As such, behaviour can be seen to be reinforced according to a continuum of consequence, the poles of which are positive and negative.
Positive Reinforcement implies strengthening a behaviour through the application of a pleasant consequence. Negative Reinforcement implies strengthening a behaviour through the removal of an unpleasant consequence. Within this continuum also lies a neutral consequence which is said to lead to an extinction of behaviour through no reinforcement at all and a punishing consequence which, again, is said to lead to an extinction of behaviour.
The above theories are all interesting models which in the past have provided leaders and managers with a set of tools to understand and maybe develop their own mental models. However, they all share something in common: a very pragmatic way of managing and one that is not necessarily appropriate in the world of today.
Maybe that’s you?
This shift away from physical to mental labour is interesting when we think back to the idea from cybernetics that people are a dynamic, purposeful component of the complex system. Perhaps when the majority of workers were concerned with the transformation of physical inputs into a final product, their scope for influence on the system was relatively limited, and the management hierarchy was relatively flat. Now though, we know this is rarely the case. Knowledge workers certainly fit the picture of purposeful components within a purposeful system, operating within a context of responsibility, which may be either management-driven or leadership-driven depending upon the developmental maturity of the organisation.
When we start to investigate the purpose of these ‘components’ in order to understand how they engage with the broader system, it’s useful to explore the different theories of employee motivation.
Douglas McGregor in the 1960s expounded the notion that workers conform to one of two types of categorisation: They are either Theory X or Theory Y. Theory X infers a dislike of work and a need for coercion, direction and control to meet the needs of the organisation: A need to be managed. Theory Y implies the opposite: Work can meet their higher psychological needs but to do so, self-direction and self-control must pervade. This is an interesting proposition. Considering we are all model-making, meaning-seeking beings this model immediately forces us to recognise that we may or may not be operating from one of these points of view. It is a potentially useful model as it allows us to consider where we stand vis-à-vis our colleagues and collaborators.
In the 1980s William Ouchi developed another category: Theory Z. This is an extension of the Y point of view, stating that people in this category actively seek responsibility and in light of this, organisations should empower these employees to participate in decision-making activities. (Interestingly, there had been proponents of this since the 1950s born out of disagreement with Taylor’s doctrine of ‘Scientific Management’). The notion of a ‘Self Managing Work Team’ was given a theory-based grounding and has since come to embody all that leaders desire and yet, simultaneously, fear.