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Observations on The Tipping Point
By Ruth Malan, February, 2006
I've been reading The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell, 2002). What brought me to The Tipping Point is investigating how we can be more effective at getting large communities to rally behind our architecture. As architects in this particular era, we face this challenge because we must simultaneously act as change-agents shifting the organizational culture toward one that is more architecture-friendly, and align the group behind our architecture. Yes, we emphasize the importance of vision in leadership. Yes, we provide guidance on making the vision more compelling (desired state interviews, vision stories presented in various visual and creative formats). But what else can we do to be more effective?
The Problem with Email
I've been getting anxious that as a technical community that has matured in the age of email, we rely far too exclusively on email to get understanding and buy-in to our architecture approach. We complain of being meeting-ed out, and claim that email does the deed well; we like that it is asynchronous. But therein lies the danger. A number of people I know read email, but they don't respond. You don't know if they've read the email, and if they did, you don't know how they took it. Face-to-face, or at least voice-to-voice, you're more likely to get feedback, both verbal and non-verbal, that will give you get a better sense of whether you're effectively communicating your message—are your stakeholders understanding it and being inspired by it. And you will get better input; input that will help you create a better architecture and a more influential end-to-end story that connects concerns with architecture decisions.
Tipping Point Take-aways
So what do I take away from The Tipping Point?
Gladwell posits that word-of-mouth epidemics cause massive adoption of a product or service, and they are triggered by mavens, connectors and salespeople.
Now, I think there are other effective ways to create intellectual contagion, that is, contagion of ideas. Talented writers inspire a following. How many people check in on Joel on Software on a regular basis? I know in the investment field, there are advisors like Casey in the energy and minerals area that inspire "epidemics" of smaller scale (because Casey controls the scale by limiting the number of people who can buy into his newsletter distribution). But even this "controlled" contagion among energy and mineral investors noticeably impacts stock prices following a recommendation from Casey.
The Problem with Email, Again
Many architects are talented writers. They can effectively and persuasively convey using written word and supporting diagrams. If only everyone in the target audience would read these words. When it comes to writing, other architects are of the right-to-the-point-and-the-point-only variety, neglecting to share their reasoning and rationale; neglecting to persuade. And many—no, too many—architects and developers have to be badgered most persistently before they'll write anything at all down! So their thinking is not communicated if you are relying on email. Email is weak on both sides of buy-in equation: not everyone is good at persuading through that medium, and not everyone is good at contributing effectively to the necessary negotiation to produce a best-fit architecture through that medium.
Infecting with Architecture Enthusiasm
Gladwell makes the point that different personality styles can tip an epidemic. I haven't yet made it to the end of the book, but so far I haven't seen him explore email and blogs as instruments in word-of-mouth epidemics. But I'd say, if you are trying to get your organization to catch fire and blaze a new architecture trail, the key is multiple communication channels and multiple personalities. Yes, email or a project blog (we need to get one going for HelpMatch) is one channel. But you just cannot get away from person-to-person transmission if you want to be infectious!
And then it is a good idea to keep connectors, mavens and salespeople in mind. In our Role of the Architect workshops we have long shared Influence Maps, encouraging architects to track and tap into networks of influence within their organizations. Gladwell introduces terminology and distinctions that help refine that tool and the way we will use it.
What we are generally after is adoption—of our product; of our architecture. And many people, with varying degrees of "maven", "connector" and "salesman" qualities, will all play a role in moving the product, or architecture, along the adoption curve. We can, and should, get more self-conscious about adoption as a goal and adoption as a process that we can influence. So it behooves us to pay attention to who has the relationships and the personal style to act as conduits of influence—yes, who are the natural connectors. And it behooves us to pay attention to selling, to persuading, to influencing, and some of us are better at this than others—yes, some of us are natural salesmen. Now, in our world we have plenty of technology experts who track technology products and trends with enthusiasm, but we could do a whole lot better at understanding our customers and their view of the marketplace.
So it behooves us to become better at understanding our market (finding the mavens), better at establishing networks of influence (connectors) and better at persuading (salesmen)! These are qualities, not caricatures. My sense is that having them in good measure is good enough, because the adoption of our products, or architectures, don't have to be rampant epidemics to be good enough.
In sum, I have to confess there are parts of book that I find really tedious, and I think the main ideas could fit into an HBR-length article quite nicely. But there are ideas in The Tipping Point that resonate with me, and judging by the reaction (it is even integrated into a Wharton MBA course) it resonates even more strongly with a good many other people.
Well, at a minimum, the Paul
Revere story was worth the price of the book! I'll be using that one!
Gladwell, Malcolm, The Tipping Point, 2002.
Malan, Ruth, Daily Journal, February 2006. http://www.ruthmalan.com/OtherInterests/Journal/2006JournalFebruary.htm