Making a complex project take off and be adopted by its targeted population may be similar to getting a tipping point. Tipping points refer indeed often to rapid and irreversible favorable changes. Tipping points make a project, a program, or a portfolio performance take off in an unexpected and favorable way. You surely do not plan their emergence. Yet, you can profit from a variety of specific features that help this emergence. Let me share with you seven of these features that I learned by experience.
1 – Sand Piles And Tipping Points
Imagine first that you are on a beach of fine, golden sand.
You have a shovel and a bucket. You build a castle by pouring wet sand regularly on what will become the chateau of Sleeping Beauty. The pile of sand becomes higher and higher. Now and then, the heap of sand slides in avalanches from the top. Isn’t it frustrating?
Per Bak, Chao Tang, and Kurt Wisensefeld, a group of physicists at the Santa Fe Institute built this experiment in the 1980’s.
What’s interesting is that, when piling higher, sand piles achieve a rest angle and a rough stationary state. As the sand is poured ever more upon the sand pile, we see many small avalanches of sand occurring, and from time to time, we see a large or very large slide occurring. The sand rest angle weaves around a critical value without ever stabilizing. Figure 1 describes this phenomenon.
Figure 1 – Sand piles produce avalanches around a critical slope.
2 – Weights And Frequency Of Adult People
Still more interesting is the finding that there is no typical size for sand pile avalanches.
If you try to estimate the weight of adult human beings, the more people you will weigh, the better you will become in ability to estimate their mean weight.
Summarize your findings with a graph that displays different body weights on the horizontal axis (the X-axis) and the frequency (% of subjects) of each weight on the vertical axis (the Y-axis).
Figure 2 shows the results. It is bell-shaped with a single peak in the center, and it is rather symmetrical with at the center the mean weight.
Figure 2 – The bell-shaped curve of weights in a population of adult human beings
3 – Size And Frequency Of Avalanches In A Sand Pile
Conversely, if you try to estimate the size of the sand piles avalanches, the more avalanches you will measure, the bigger the maximum size of the avalanches will become.
Repeating the experiment long enough, you will see massive avalanches, although these may be rare in occurrence. This remains true whatever the grain of sand. The same tiny (and invisible or undetected) cause can trigger very big events.
Per Bak and his friends have shown that the size S of the avalanches is inversely propotional to the frequency f of these avalanches. What does it mean?
It means that the more frequent the avalanches, the smaller they are and the less frequent they are, the bigger they are. This is a power law where very big but improbable events happen.
The graph of such avalanches has a “fat tail”. Figure 3 shows this graph with linear axis. The green part comprises almost all avalanches. In the yellow part, you find rare but big, or even some day, exceptionally big avalanches.
Figure 3 – A power law shows how the size of avalanches varies in 1 / frequency
Power law graphs prefer logarithmic scales. They deliver a straight line on a log–log plot. The Figure 4 illustrates this avalanche frequency – size relationship on such a logarithmic scale.
Figure 4 – Avalanche size distribution in the two-dimensional BTW sandpile model by Christoph Adami.
4 – Avalanches in Social Organizations
Per Bak’s experiment applies to catastrophic events (like snow or sand avalanches) but also to favorable events like tipping points in projects or in business. Malcolm Gladwell proposed such examples in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.
Can we help to generate (or avoid) large avalanches in social systems? This is a question everyone leading change in an organization considers one time or another.
Such an avalanche is that point in a system’s development where a (sometimes invisible) small change leads to a huge effect, in a very rapid time frame, and spreads through the system in a contagious fashion.
For whoever wants to foment rapid change, the principles or components of an avalanche or a tipping point model are worth examining.
The rapid growth is usually started by a handful of people who exhibit some kind of exceptional behavior.
A small number of people (like skateboarders) have the ability to “infect” a large number of other people with a new idea (like a style of clothing or an interest for a new singer).
Yet this is not enough.
A tipping point may require a certain number of favorable features to have a chance to produce. Here are indeed the seven key success factors I learned myself in projects that took off in an unexpected way.
5 – Seven Features Favorable to Tipping Points in Projects
The presence of these seven elements does not guaranty the emergence of a tipping point. But there absence puts it at risk. I identified them late in my career. It was by “looking backwards to connect the dots” (Steve Jobs), and especially after the success of the implementation of a new Global-500 company Project Portfolio Management Platform (PPMP).
a) A cause and its social value.
Only the strength of a cause can make a change program succeed. Projects fail when they are not solving a big customer problem. While your organization controls all tangible sources of power, your cause is the intangible strength of the problem you want to solve. Make it absolutely powerful. For example, “get rid off Excel in project portfolio management”. In the case of the PPMP, people did not care for a new PPM (their company had already 11 of them!). They cared for “dividing by 2 the number of boring coordination meetings”.
b) An emotional benefit.
The change must create a positive emotion. For example, your PPM Platform must be beautiful, user-friendly, and an “All-Seeing Eye” solution everyone will envy to get on their smartphone. Offer this emotional benefit to the community of people using the platform. They will feel like belonging to a “Porsche Club”.
This may not be enough. Your project should also hook the users. This is what the PPMP team discovered after a while. The secret sauce was Nir Eyal’s 4-step Hooked model. People loved especally to check their PPMP application and discover the latest updates of the portfolio status.
c) A rational benefit of high value.
The solution must also bring rational benefits. Users of the PPM platform are even more important than the executive team members. If users recognize that using it saves time and stress, they will use word of mouth to spread this good news very quickly. They will explain how the new PPMP eliminates the painful need to build, share, consolidate spreadsheets and reduces, by 50%, the number of preparatory transversal meetings for Project Management teams.
d) Several connectors
Connectors have a large number of connections, a wide reputation, and a strong interest in your project output. They act as influencers. In the case of a new project portfolio platform, they can be an Executive Vice President or a highly recognized thought leader that appreciated the benefits the platform offered to them and their (large) teams. When implementing an organization-wide transformation, focus your efforts on the most connected employees rather than on the most powerful ones to help generate momentum and accelerate impact.
e) A high level of visibility.
At a certain moment, a project needs to become highly visible. This visibility comes from its high level, or its large scope. For example, the project portfolio performance platform will be used in real time during leadership team meetings or during an executive team meeting. Everyone must have it installed on their personal Smartphone.
f) A certain level of adherence.
Users will adhere to the platform because they easily memorize the message it carries. This is the “stickiness factor” of Malcolm Gladwell. In a typical example such a platform was named PIMS for Progress Initiative Management System. However, PIMS is also a delicious cookie with as a base an orange marmalade layer added to a chocolate layer. This single name gave the tool the stickiness factor no PPM will ever get on its own.
Figure 4 – The project name PIMS evokes a lovely cookie and creates adherence
g) A favorable context.
The context is placed at the end of the list. However, its importance is the biggest. It is the context that allows avalanches to produce. Most tipping points are achieved because the environment and the solution converged at a certain favorable time with a level of ripeness on each side. The urgent need for a single version of truth related to a new vital strategic initiative can be the trigger for implementing a new PPM System.
6 – More About the PPM Platform Tipping Point
These seven features served as key success factors in deploying a new Project Portfolio Management System in a large global company (120,000 employees, 75 countries, 4,500+ projects)
The initial PPM goal was to support a critical program (context) based on a portfolio of around 300 projects.
A strong community of local PMOs run portfolios of 10 to 50 projects. They all looked for the easiest way to monitor and share progress and impact of their portfolio (cause and social value).
The executive committee required a single version of truth for this program (the high level of visibility).
The PMO community installed a Saas (Software as a Service) platform with very simple functionalities, just enough to offer everyone this 24X7 single version of truth. Project data were as simple as “are we going to deliver on time” and “will the project deliver the promised benefits” (a benefit). But above all, customer support was outsanding.
The platform name became PIMS for “Progress Initiative Management System”. Yet, as said above, PIMS was also the name of delicious cookies with as a base an orange marmalade layer added to a chocolate layer (the adherence).
Seeing that, two unexpected champions (a regional EVP and a functional EVP) loved the platform (the connectors). They asked that all projects under their responsibility be monitored with the platform.
As a result of these lucky factors, 4,500 projects were on board a few months later. The platform achieved its tipping point.
7 – Your Call to Action
Why not apply what you read to your own life?
What is your current top project? What do you want to achieve? Which is your target population? How do you intend to make people adopt your project, use its outputs, and benefit from its outcomes?
Why not sense your own environment and see if you profit from one or more of these seven features?
What can you do to develop them further?
Trust they will help you anticipate and benefit from the next big avalanche!
To Your Continued Success!
The article is inspired from my book the High-Impact PMO that you can buy on Amazon
Or read my most successful articles here:
- Order and abscence of order
- Nine tips for an agile PMO
- Most projects are complex and nonlinear
- Seven recommendations for your career in project management