In this article from, a Yahoo-employed researcher, Duncan Watts, challenges the “tipping point” effect most recently resurfaced by books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller “The Tipping Point”. The original premise is that there is a small population of Influencers that lead the viral spread of popular opinion, purchasing, fashion, etc. The message is that advertisers can target this group of Influencers and enhance their chances of increasing adoption of whatever is being advertised.

Watts challenges that the whole process is much more complex than this. His computer simulations show that the likelihood of one of us common folk as the catalyst to viral adoption is just as likely as it is for an Influencer. I defer to the article for additional discussion of these topics.

What interested me more than the greater social implications of the studies is how to apply these studies to our work environments. As a project manager, one of my challenges is motivating project teams and team members, individually. As an agent of change, my challenge is to create and invluence adoption of organizational shifts.

We often talk about top-down and bottom-up support or adoption when speaking about organizational change and inititatives. “We need top down support for this project!” “This should be a grass roots effort to make it work!” It appears that this may be oversimplifying the matter. If we examine Watts’ studies, the influential spread of an idea or product or opinion is much more random.

[Watts] programmed a group of 10,000 people, all governed by a few simple interpersonal rules. Each was able to communicate with anyone nearby. With every contact, each had a small probability of “infecting” another. And each person also paid attention to what was happening around him: If lots of other people were adopting a trend, he would be more likely to join, and vice versa. The “people” in the virtual society had varying amounts of sociability–some were more connected than others. Watts designated the top 10% most-connected as Influentials; they could affect four times as many people as the average Joe. In essence, it was a virtual society run–in a very crude fashion–according to the rules laid out by thinkers like Gladwell and Keller.

Watts set the test in motion by randomly picking one person as a trendsetter, then at back to see if the trend would spread. He did so thousands of times in a row.

The results were deeply counterintuitive. The experiment did produce several hundred societywide infections. But in the large majority of cases, the cascade began with an average Joe (although in cases where an Influential touched off the trend, it spread much further). To stack the deck in favor of Influentials, Watts changed the simulation, making them 10 times more connected. Now they could infect 40 times more people than the average citizen (and again, when they kicked off a cascade, it was substantially larger). But the rank-and-file citizen was still far more likely to start a contagion.

Here are some initial thoughts on applying this concept in your workplace for creating your own Tipping Point:

  • Spread the word as broadly as possible using different technologies
  • Ask permission to post a clickable banner on the corporate intranet (or locally on your departmental page)
  • Include links to a destination site (or the next step) in your email signature
  • Print out posters to place in the cafeteria
  • Place the posters over urinals in the men’s room or in stalls in the women’s room
  • Talk to your friends about it
  • Create a blog or podcast
  • Create a seed video to attract attention
  • Use humor or mystery to capture people’s attention

Do you have additional ideas? Leave them in the comments!