Dancing Guy – when would you join in?

The ‘Dancing Guy’ video below provides a clear and striking example of non-linear behaviour.  While you are watching the video put yourself in the shoes of one of the observers.  What would be your reactions?  What sort of things would influence them?  Would they change over time?  What would it take to trigger you to join in?

Are there parallels here with change in organizations and in businesses?  Perhaps the adoption of organizational change sometimes happens this way.  Or possibly the video mirrors the progress of the introduction of a new product, or the introduction of an existing product into a new market.

For me, the video highlights a range of key observations about creating change in unpredictable and uncertain contexts:

  • For the first third of the video all we see is one man and then a second dancing enthusiastically by themselves.  But is this all that is happening?  It is all we can see externally, but a lot is also happening in the brains of the observers.  I suggest that many of them are starting to, consciously or subconsciously, think about what it would be like to join in.  They are weighing the fun and exhilaration of dancing against the risk of standing out and potentially appearing silly.  In a sense, the observers are progressively being ‘primed’ to join in.  So, in our change initiatives, we should not just rely on our external observations to monitor progress.  There is likely to be much happening below the surface.
  • What would have happened if the ‘dancing guy’ had stopped just before the first person joined him?  Would that second person have still got up and danced, this time by himself?  Would a cascade still have happened?  I think not?  This suggests to me that in complex change perseverance is critical.  If we are convinced that the change is important and valuable, we need to continue to, metaphorically, ‘dance and wave our arms’ to ensure that we are noticed and our message is heard.
  • If creating a dancing crowd was his objective, considerable effort was expended by the ‘dancing man’ before he saw any return for it.  When he did start to get a return for his effort, he achieved a very large return for little additional effort.   A traditional benefit-cost review at any time during the first minute would have suggested that he ‘cut his losses’ and stop dancing.
  • Would the ‘dancing man’ have attracted the same attention and had the same impact if he was not dancing so extravagantly and enthusiastically and so obviously enjoying himself?  I think not.  Sometimes, if we want to create change in uncertain and unpredictable situations, we need to be extravagant and enthusiastic to rise above the noise and the fear.  This creates risks, because the crowd might not join us, but they are much more likely not to join us if we don’t take that risk.
  • Would there have been the same impact if a small group of people, say six, had started dancing together in the same way?  I am not sure.  From one perspective, I think group may have been perceived as a clique and it would have been more difficult for the first additional person to join in.  On the other hand, the risk of standing out would have been reduced for the first additional person.  I think there is a lesson here when we start a change initiative with a pilot, especially if the pilot is in a distinct and very coherent area or group.

Perhaps the ‘Dancing Guy’ video triggers other thoughts and perspectives for you.  If so, please respond with a comment.

The ‘snowball effect’ – a powerful force in emergent situations


SnowballHave you ever wondered what is happening when a social media video goes viral?  Viral videos are the result of self-reinforcing feedback (sometimes called the ‘snowball effect’ or ‘virtuous/vicious cycles’).  If a video is sufficiently engaging, those who watch it will share it with their friends.  There is a good chance the friends will also enjoy it and share it with their network of friends, and so on.  Similarly, the more hits or ‘likes’ a video gets, the more likely it is to move up popularity based ranking lists which will, in turn, stimulate more hits and ‘likes’ that will drive it further up the ranking lists.  So we see at least two positive self-reinforcing feedback loops driving the success of viral videos.  One based on awareness generated through social media and the other based on attention generated by rising up ranking lists.  Because of the multiplier effect each time around the self-reinforcing loop, rapid non-linear growth occurs.

Viral video causal loopMy experience tells me the snowball effect is one of the most significant features of complex and emergent situations.  It is one the key reasons why small initial changes (weak signals) can sometimes have unexpectedly large consequences or impacts.  These, in turn, contribute to the unpredictability of such situations.

The snowball effect (self-reinforcing feedback) is at the heart of the development of most deep personal expertise.  Several feedback loops are happening in parallel:

  • I develop initial expertise.  This proves valuable for me in work or social settings, so I am motivated to develop the expertise further and to apply it with more confidence and more deeply.  This, in turn, makes the expertise even more valuable to me, and so on.
  • My expertise is noticed by others.  This makes feel good and so motivates me to develop the further and apply it more widely which, in turn, increases the number of people that notice my expertise, and so on.
  • The more I apply my expertise, the more I understand the nuances of the expertise and how it applies in various circumstances and this, in turn, creates more aspects that I can learn and develop (I like to think if it in terms of creating more ‘edges’ to my expertise that I can work on) which creates more and deeper opportunities to apply the expertise, and so on.
  • The more I apply and develop the expertise, the more likely it is that it will come to the notice of people who can help me develop further, either through coaching or advice, or the provision of more challenging opportunities to apply it.  This creates further opportunities to develop and apply the expertise, and so on.
  • The more I apply my expertise, the larger the library of related patterns and associations I develop in my brain and this, in turn, increases the speed and confidence with which I can apply my expertise.  This, in turn, grows the opportunities to apply my expertise which builds an even larger and more nuanced library of patterns, and so on.

As an aside, I think we see the snowball effect evident in many students that excel in a particular area.  They are not learning to get a good grade, they are learning because one or more of the above self-reinforcing feedback loops have been triggered.  The excellent grade is just a by-product or confirmation.

The growth and development of expertise via the snowball effect is not controlled, managed or predictable.  Although the broad progression path for the type of expertise may be able to be anticipated, the specific opportunities for development are not prescribed, planned and programmed in advance.  They are determined by the unfolding (emergent) situations triggered by one or more of the above self-reinforcing feedback loops.

The proceeding discussion has focused on the development of individual expertise, but I believe that it also applies to the development of capabilities at the group or organisational level.  It also applies to the development of many successful product or business models.  Initial success creates increased learning, exposure and reputation and that drives increased funding (sales and investors) and product improvements that, in turn, creates further success, and so on.

I believe the snowball effect (self-reinforcing feedback) is at the heart of successfully navigating many emergent and complex situations.  I will explore this further in future blog posts.

What do viral videos and ‘10 year overnight successes’ have in common? – they are both non-linear


Observe-Interpret-Design-ExperimentViral videos and ’10 year overnight successes’ are both examples of non-linear behaviour – future performance is not a simple linear extrapolation of past performance.  In the case of both viral videos and ’10 year overnight successes’ performance suddenly grows rapidly after a (sometimes lengthy) period of relatively low success.  Both the timing and extent of this rapid change is difficult to predict and plan for.  Non-linear behaviour is not always positive.  In modern cultures, a rapid fall from popularity when something unexpectedly loses its trendiness is a negative example.  A rapid loss of confidence in a business leader or politician is another.

Non-linearWhy is non-linear behaviour so interesting and important?  Because it is helps explain why certain situations change so rapidly and unpredictably.  What might appear to be just small inconsequential changes or random ‘noise’ may in fact be the early weak signs of success (or failure).  We may think that our new initiative is not working and prematurely abandon or significantly change it.  Alternatively, we may see quick success and commit further resources to an initiative or change effort only to find that it expectedly slows down or stagnates.  A deeper awareness of the nature and types of non-linear behaviour will sensitise us to the potential for these types of situations and help us look for indicators of non-linear patterns and mechanisms.  It will also help us set expectations accordingly.

Sources of non-linear behaviour relevant to organisational and business situations include:

  • Self-reinforcing feedback (snowball effect)
  • Preferential attachment
  • Percolation/connectivity
  • Threshold response
  • Synergistic effects
  • Pressure build-up – Catastrophic failure
  • Decision points
  • Diversity

A whitepaper that summarises each of these sources can be found here.

Even though the onset of non-linear behaviour is often difficult to predict, we can recognize when the pre-conditions for non-linear behaviour are starting to emerge.  Just as geologists know that the preconditions for earthquakes exist in various regions of the world, we can develop expertise in recognizing the development of preconditions for non-linear behaviour in our organization, economy, industry, etc.  I suggest that the following are some indicators of such preconditions:

  • Periods of (disruptive) transition
  • Emergence of imitation based perspectives and decision making
  • Emergence of numerous separate but related events, technologies, perspectives:
  • Emergence of new enabling technologies
  • Broad based constrained pressure for or resistance to change
  • Complex initiatives that require broad based integration and coherence for success

In many cases, non-linear behaviour is an emergent property of the situation, not something we can directly engineer and control.  In situations such as synergy and diversity, it is possible to take a leading role.  In most others, we need to read the dynamics of the situation and find ways to influence, adapt and take advantage of the emerging situation.  The following list of potential responses focuses primarily on responding to emergent non-linear behaviour.

  • Experiment/probe
  • Promote desirable and suppress undesirable trends by influencing the constraints and attractors
  • Practise ‘planful opportunism’
  • Ride the wave or get out of the way
  • Observe, observe, observe

The whitepaper mentioned above explores these preconditions and potential responses.  I will also discuss specific examples of non-linear behaviour in more detail in future blog posts.