Some features of rapid irreversible changes are referred to as tipping points. Tipping points changed my own life as a Portfolio manager, a program manager and a PMO. I wish you can also see tipping points develop in what you do. Let me explain these seven features.
1 – What Avalanches Teach Us
Imagine 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?
This experiment was built by Per Bak, Chao Tang, and Kurt Wisensefeld, a group of physicists at the Santa Fe Institute 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 – Avalanches and Power Laws
Still more interesting is the finding that there is no typical size for sand pile avalanches.
If you try to estimate the weight of human beings, the more humans you will weigh, the better you will become in ability to estimate their mean weight.
However, if you try to estimate the size of the sand piles avalanches, the more avalanches you will measure, the bigger the size 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.
This is a power law. A power law is a functional relationship between two quantities, where one quantity varies as a power of another.
Per Bak and his friends have also shown that it was a law in 1/f, where f is the frequency of the avalanches and the function is the size of the 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.
3 – Avalanches in Social Organizations
Can we help to generate (or avoid) large avalanches in social systems? This is a question everyone leading change in an organization, and especially agile PMOs, 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.
4 – Seven Features Favorable to Tipping Points
Here are seven elements that supported the emergence of a tipping point in my experience.
1. A cause and its social value.
Only the strength of its cause can make a change program succeed. For example, the PPM platform you wish to implement will radically elevate the project management maturity and reputation of its users. The cause is something like PM 4.0. People getting on board will belong to an entirely new world.
2. An emotional benefit.
The change must create a positive emotion. For example, your PPM solution must be beautiful, user-friendly, and an “All-Seeing Eye” solution everyone will envy to get. The community of people using the platform gets also a real emotional benefit, like belonging to a Porsche Club.
3. A rational benefit (an outcome) of high value.
The solution must bring rational benefits too. 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 PPM solution eliminates the painful need to build, share, consolidate spreadsheets and reduces, by 50%, the number of preparatory transversal meetings for PMOs.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
Conclusion: how a PPM platform achieved a 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 (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).
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 a tipping point.
Speaking about tipping points, I remembered Steve Jobs saying that “you only connect the dots afterwards“. This story only confirmed what Steve Jobs knew.”
Sense and facilitate these seven features in your own environment.
And trust they will help you anticipate and benefit from the next big avalanche!
To Your Continued Success!