The Tipping Point

Twenty years ago a smart man called Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fascinating book. ‘The Tipping Point’ explains how ideas, trends and behaviours cross a threshold and then spread like wildfire.

In the process of transforming organisational culture, we encounter a similar tipping point. It’s the moment the flow of ideas, actions and obligations in an organisation becomes reversed. From years of top down, highly directive management effort to get things done, to a bubbling up of initiatives from the bottom of the enterprise.

 The word bubbling is my crude translation of the term the French use to describe the flow of tiny bubbles in a freshly opened bottle of champagne – pétillant. No matter how many times you see it, you can’t help marvelling at the seemingly endless stream of bubbles sparkling in your glass.

This is the most exciting moment in culture transformation, the moment that the organisation realises that much more is possible if we continue to improve ‘the way we do things around here’. To a slightly incredulous leadership team it is signalled by a range of well-executed initiatives appearing at the top table. Presented in a businesslike way by groups of junior managers and employees, asking for permission to proceed or resources to be allocated or policies to be changed.

In a well-coached change programme these initiatives aren’t random. In fact they are drawn from the list of actions the leadership team put into the Business Plan at the beginning of the year. Actions as diverse as redesigning Customer Experience, engaging a Public Relations agency, creating an all-staff onboarding programme or professionalising the approach to New Product Development. Actions that would otherwise have required significant time and effort from the leadership team themselves (in addition to their other duties).

While working on these initiatives, juniors begin to learn new behaviours. Cooperation is replaced by collaboration. Narrow departmental perspectives become broader understandings of how the organisation works and its impact on customers. Discretionary effort (doing things because I want to, not because I have to) increases. A burgeoning sense of ownership lends more meaning to the working day. In due course, the most valuable of these can be consolidated into signature behaviours. Signalling the newly refreshed culture of the organisation to  employees, customers, business partners, the media and the wider public. Improving understanding and support.

Of course, the Tipping Point in culture transformation also presents the leadership team with a new set of obligations. To support great ideas, to remove obstacles to progress, to celebrate success and reward employee effort in a meaningful way. But aren’t those nice obligations to have?