Tipping Points & Phase Changes

Last year I had a bit of an obsession with power law distributions (people naturally apply a normal distribution or classic bell curve to situations.) Recently I have come to appreciate the phase change to a greater degree.

The most common phase change we are all familiar with is the conversion of water to ice, liquid to solid (or reverse.)

This step change is contrasted with smooth lines found in standard math problems. Besides water there are other phenomena that exhibit this principle. The one that spurred this post was the activity of honey bees. While I’m not a bee keeper, I just finished reading “Honeybee Democracy” by Thomas D Seeley. (Confession: I thought it was a business book because of a recommendation by Michael Mauboussin. It turns out this book is 95% scientific study of honeybees and 5% questions about how humans might learn and apply the honeybee way. Anyways, all that to say the author has an engaging voice and the first chapter totally sucked me in. In fact, according to my wife, I had more “wow” verbalizations on this book than the last dozen books I’ve read. Back to the point…)

When a swarm of honeybees prepares to take flight they go from a near sedentary state in a beard, to flight very quickly. They also come to accurate consensus about their new nesting site very abruptly after a grand debate. The author calls it “reaching a quorum.” From my vantage point, it’s a tipping point, or phase change. The group has resolved to take a particular course and the cost to resist the crowd far exceeds the value of staying together, and thus the remaining dissenters concede.

This got me wondering… what other activities cross a tipping point? The term “tip” is derived from a tipping bucket, or a bucket that receives water or other material up to a volume where the weight collected amasses to a point where the center of gravity crosses over and the bucket rotates on its axis, dumping the contents. If the center of gravity is positioned properly the bucket will then reset.

In all three cases the primary variable crosses over another variable (or constant in the case of the tipping bucket.) The water temperature crosses over the freezing point. The bees cross over the super majority vote percentage. The bucket crosses the center of gravity.

If you were to zoom in on the data of any one of these you might miss the phase change. The temperature keeps changing and we keep expecting a liquid. The bees keep searching and dancing. It seems random. The water fills the bucket. It’s all normal and linear and then something happens. Something completely mysterious. A complete change! Liquid becomes solid. The bees fly away. The bucket exhausts it’s contents.

Then I got to thinking. In complex systems there are numerous variables. In complex adaptive systems there are living creatures seeking energy optimization. The center of gravity is moving. This creates lots of potential phase change situations. Business is complex and adaptive. Think about the big sales cycle. A team works, and works and no revenue. Nothing. A newbie might assume it’ll go on this way forever. But then the target customer agrees. They sign and pay. It’s on.

From afar business looks like a steady compound growth machine. Up close, it’s a see-saw, phase-change beehive.