Crawling to the Tipping Point

On Darren Rowse invited bloggers to answer the following question:

What Was Your Blog's Tipping Point?

This resulted in lots of interesting and valuable contributions. I read suggestions like "listening to readers", "redesigning the site", "focusing on one goal", "thinking strategically", "writing good posts", "receiving an award", "getting digged or stumbled", "replying to comments", "receiving links from A-bloggers", etc… It is safe to say that, of the many responses to Darren's article, no two experiences were the same. Ah, darn. So that means there's no silver bullet for me to turn this little blog into that big success I'm so desperately craving for…

Of course, this doesn't surprise me.
I read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, and many other books on complexity.
I was prepared…

Complex Adaptive Systems
Tipping points are an important feature of complex adaptive systems. Physicists call them phase transitions, and biologists call them puntuated equilibria. But don't let those pesky scientists intimidate you! It's mere jargon and obfuscation. They all mean the same thing: tipping points.

Each blog is a complex adaptive system. It's a system because it consists of a writer, posts, features, readers, and many connections between them. It's complex because the behavior of the system cannot be predicted. And it's adaptive because the writer (that's me!) is furiously and tirelessly trying to find out how to change blog posts and features to attract more readers.

Complex adaptive systems have a few important characteristics:

  1. Only very few of the many changes have a big effect. (Those are the tipping points.)
  2. These tipping points cannot be predicted. (But you may be able to calculate their probability.)
  3. Tipping points are not isolated events. Their occurences depend on all the other changes that happened before them and that only seemed to have little effect…

Now, most people understand 1) and 2). They say things like "I cannot predict what's going to make me successful, so I will have to try many different things. And the more I try, the better the chance of reaching a tipping point."

That's true, but it's only a half truth.

Everything is Important
Stuart Kauffman, one of my favorite scientists, explained beautifully in At Home in the Universe how a slowly growing primordial soup of molecules could, with a little patience, become self-sustaining and alive. Such a transition would be sudden and unpredictable, and mathematically it would be highly probable! It would be a tipping point. But that final molecule added to the soup, just before the sudden transition, would not be the only important molecule. All the other molecules would be just as important!

Many people don't realize the importance of item 3) in the list above.

It's not just trying many things. It's doing many things.

All those other changes in the system, all those things you do to make your blog successful, only seem to have no effect. But in fact they might be crucial to pave the way for the tipping points to arrive. I corrected the title of my blog, improved its focus, added new widgets, changed some layout, and did many more things that had no measureable effect on the number of readers. Nothing. Zip. Nada. It's enough to make you bang your head against the walls sometimes. But I now better. I read the books. And I'm sure that the real tipping point can only come along, unexpectedly, when a lot of the groundwork has been done.

Process Improvement
It's the same with process improvement in software development. You have to implement stand-up meetings, iterations, evaluations, refactorings, and many more best practices. And each time you might think: "Alright, when are things finally going to improve around here? When is my success going to be real and measurable? Our progress is so slow and small. Where's our tipping point?"

But there is no silver bullet. It's a lot of hard work. And you shouldn't expect miracles straight away. You have to do everything. You're a bit impatient, aren't you? Well, it took the primordial soup 1.5 billion years to reach its tipping point. So why should you have a shortcut?

You have to crawl your entire way to reach your tipping point.

(I only hope this post is another vital step along the way…)

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