The Tipping Point : how little things can make a big difference

Malcolm Gladwell (2000)

This blog is a brief overview of another modern day classic. It is my link to the concepts of power and influence, as central factors in time-bound intended change I have yet to formally introduce.

Three factors of extreme influence to change

Gladwell outlines three factors that can become a moment or aggregation that trigger the shift of an equilibrium, or a “Tipping Point” (TPs) of change. Namely: Law of the few; Stickiness Factor; Power of Context (pp19). The relative significance of the points, he argues, are more profound than the weighted impacts that economics may refer to in generalities, such as the 80:20 rule of relative impact (80%) by a smaller proportion of a set (20%). He advises that this is more extreme with TPs.

Each of these three factors become the individual or combined factors that describe complex and hidden determinants of epidemic change. The remainder of the book (ff pp29) introduces particular examples and what characteristics or traits come to reflect each of the three factors in turn.

Connectors, Mavens, and Persuaders

“in a given process or system some people matter more than others”, he advises. He presents examples of particular habits and traits in people that make their contribution to a change more profound.


He outlines the small world problem “six degrees of separation” (pp34) as described by Stanley Milgram. But he points to even smaller numbers of key people through whom the many are linked via a special few he terms “connectors”. These are the transient few with skills in retaining contact to many. Page 54 he references Mark Granovetter, “the strength of weak ties”. Gladwell characterises Connectors. They are word of mouth. Socially gregarious. The centre of events. Collectors of people.


pp60, unlike the collectors, our “Mavens” are collectors of information. From the Yiddish meaning accumulation of knowledge. They are traders or brokers or powerful databases of facts (page 69). But active in conveying it too, and for no reason other than to help. Less connected than connectors. But their word is more effective, because it is acutely informed. Nor are they persuaders.


pp70 our Persuaders are sales people,

“in a social epidemic, Mavens are data banks, they provide the message. Connectors are the social glue: they spread it. But there are a select group of people – Salesmen – with skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing, and they are as critical to the tipping point of word-of-mouth epidemics as the other two groups.”

Malcolm Gladwell (2000) “the Tipping Point : How little things can make a big difference” pp70

The characteristics of these persuaders are offered in some detail. I was struck by how nuanced some of them were. Terms like high energy, enthusiasm, passion, and preparedness for the counter-argument seemed intuitively correct. But others (pages 78-79) such as facial cues of the seller, the associated head movements and behavioural cues of the buyer – all reinforcing the influence of message – much less obvious.

To this end, Gladwell’s brief examination of William Condon’s “interactional synchrony” (page 83) from 1966, can be reconsidered twenty years since Gladwell outlined the Tipping Point impacts. This is contemporary research and reflects current areas of enquiry in psychology. If further reading is of interest, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2021, 1–4, Interpersonal Synchrony Special Issue, from February 2021 is presenting a significant body of 21st Century research. Article entitled “Being ‘in sync’—is interactional synchrony the key to understanding the social brain?. Open access link here

The context of Tipping Point in Projects | Within Projects

The notions of power and influence are therefore introduced. The Tipping Point gives a perspective on both that I do not believe Project Management theories fully engage, particularly where risk and the powers and influences are directing project energies toward or away from success. This extends beyond stakeholder engagement, leadership or hierarchy, or command and control. These are the wider powers and more subtle influences that can be market forces, political attitudes, or other socio-economic dynamic shifts in macro-scale. Or the subtle influences and hidden power bases working unchallenged and unseen from within the culture of a project and its actors.

The impacts upon intended (or unintended) change outlined by Gladwell as connectors, mavens, and persuaders, are my first moves towards better examining these nuances alongside visibility | behaviour | trust. In the examination of Project Finance projects in UK PFI, per my 2020 MSc dissertation, the phenomena I hypothesised presents a changing risk profile that arises because of the changing influences (not necessarily power) of differing project actors over time. I argue that the early influence of senior debt lending became less, and the new influences that emerged were differently motivated, and accordingly influenced project energies toward their own goals. One possibility I am intending to revisit is whether Tipping Points can be identified to connect these more macroscale influences upon the complexity of relationships in these projects.

My early efforts to introduce systems dynamics into this idea have been thwarted by a lack of credible and common stock unit that is able to contextually transcend system interfaces. I am therefore considering whether less quantitative dependent metrics of influence may serve to demonstrate a more simple binary direction of attention towards or away from a particular project level and its associated goal.

These may direct attention in two directions, or scales:

First, into bigger organising systems – toward much weightier interactions akin to the Great Financial Crisis (GFC), which can be examined from much wider interacting systems of influence too. Or much as the Lloyds of London LMX spiral of the early 1990s, which I think presented similar examples of the effects of losing touch with exposures. Other macro-scale modelling may also resonate, although with less relevance to intended change. In oceanography for example the Ekman spiral presents surface currents acting in one direction, whilst above and at depth air and water currents are moving the opposite way – the hidden influence of the Coriolis effect demonstrated to nudge layers directionally from one to the next. This becomes part of the multimodal perspective I believe project, risk, and people management all necessarily need to become aligned towards. Each in their way able to be defined in the project vernacular I am developing and the interplays they then reflect. Can some of these resulting identified projects become understood and characterised with similar Tipping Point influences, reflecting directional interest into or away from other projects, and thereby impact risk profile and predict the range of change over time?

Second, into more contained or smaller scale concepts of influence. TPs also offer possible means to introduce another series of comparable and perhaps connected concepts of projects. The projects of mind, and projects of management. Both of which I am separately but ever comparing as modelled in Project Management and Psychology and much else beyond. The influences within.

Gladwell offers more interconnected analysis that gives me reason to keep making such comparison. Here are seven brief quotes from Gladwell (2000) that all give possibilities of directional influences; or constraints to our attentions; or attribute or trait assumed modal confusion; all of which I argue reflect the grey spaces we create through our interfaces of projects | within projects.

pp152 “…essence of the Power of Context is that the same thing is true for certain types of environments – that in ways the we don’t necessarily appreciate, our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances…”

pp158 “when we think only in terms of inherent traits and forget the role of situation we are deceiving ourselves…”

pp160 “Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) is the tendency we all have to overestimate the impact of fundamental character traits and underestimate the impact of situation and context”

pp188 couples use “transactive memory” to share the burden of remembering based upon each other’s skill sets. This extends to family units. Over time efficiency is derived from specialism.

pp191 Keeping below 150 rule give organisational tipping potential to remain across shared memory.

pp257 start by reframing how you see the world…it does not afford to our intuition…

ppp258 the human communication has its own set of very unusual and counterintuitive rules.

Malcolm Gladwell (2000) “the Tipping Point : How little things can make a big difference”

This is therefore a first introduction to ideas and concepts that I will be linking to more. Many of which I am certain I am yet to even know exist. My MSc in Psychology begins on Monday, and already my access to university library resources is revealing just how much is there to be discovered. My mind and my theorising forever influenced and changed from my infinite unknown unknowns.

This one book has offered extensive connection between subjects and concepts. It has interest and knowledge and reason to revisit and rethink. It is well written, compelling in its examples offered, and subtly draws you into its persuasive undertones. Tipping Points abound, and this evening it was well worth another read.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

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