Sunday, 12 September 2010

Tipping points

The theory

I'm going to deal today with the third question that's being debated about the constitution of an organization. The question is: "Should the quorum for general meetings be a fixed number or a percentage of membership?"

This ties in directly with the question of magic numbers that I wrote about in my last post. If you just think about that, it sounds like a strong case for a fixed number: It's easier to deal with a group when you know what kind of behaviour to expect. If you are thinking that when the organization grows or shrinks, the style of meetings will have to change, that makes it more difficult to prepare meetings. Keeping a fixed quorum is a way of keeping the size of meetings roughly about the same. If a meeting gets too big for comfort, the least enthusiastic people will decide themselves not to come to the next one, knowing that their presence isn't really necessary.

But there is another way of looking at this. Groups of people don't exist in a void, they exist as parts of larger groups. The people that come regularly to meetings are part of the larger group of people that consider themselves members of the organization, and that group is part of the larger group of people involved in similar issues in the city (in our case, environmental issues), and all the greenies are part of the larger group of all the residents in the city. The amount of influence that a group has within a larger group depends on several things, and one of the most important is the size of both groups.

It's magic numbers all over again, but this time think about proportions.
  • If the small group is less than 0.5% of the larger group, they will feel like a very small minority that many people don't even know anything about. The first tipping point is reached when they are roughly around 0.5% of the larger group, when they are 1 in about 200, because that's when most people know at least one member of the smaller group. This is the threshold for awareness. That changes members of the smaller group from being an exotic exception to being something everybody's heard about. In the 70s, greenies crossed this tipping point in many places, going from being part of the lunatic fringe to a group of people with some ideas that everybody had heard about.
  • If the small group is about 2% of the larger group, or 1 in 50 people, they will cross the second tipping point. This is the threshold for having a voice. At this point, the small group can have a say in large meetings, because usually there will be one of their members at most large meetings within the larger group. This point usually happens shortly after the first one. People are often surprised how new social movements can go from being almost unheard of to getting a clear voice in a matter of a few years, but it isn't so strange when you think of the numbers.
  • If the small group is about 10% of the larger group, or 1 in 10 people, they will cross the third tipping point. That's when most times that a group of members of the larger group is sitting around a table is likely to include a member of the smaller group. The person in the smaller group will have a good chance, not only to have a say, but also to discuss things in more detail, and if this person is a good talker, it's a very good chance to be a big influence in the table. This is the threshold for normality. If people belonging to the small group were considered a bit weird before, after this tipping point most people will think they are very normal.
  • If the small group is about half the size of the larger group, you'd expect that on average, if you took two people from the larger group, one would be part of the subgroup and the other wouldn't. They could have a comfortable conversation about any differences they had. If everything else is the same, they would feel like equals. If the person that isn't in the smaller group knows that everybody in the smaller group agrees on something, this person will think they're probably outnumbered and not push their case. That's the last tipping point: reaching a majority. Once a small group has a majority within a larger group, they know they are in control of the larger group.
Of course, these tipping points are only approximate, but they can give a very good idea of where a group stands.

If you were following closely the explanations above, you will have noticed that each tipping point happens when the smaller group is roughly 4 or 5 times larger than the previous tipping point. Social movements often grow exponentially: when the time has come for a new idea, the number of people that agree with that idea doubles in a fixed period of time, usually a few years, until there are as many people as possible agreeing with the idea (it's pretty much impossible for a tycoon to become communist). Once the first tipping point is passed, the rest of tipping points often appear to fall like dominoes, one after the other, in a relatively short period of time. Within 10 or 20 years, the same statement can go from "true without a doubt" to "false without a doubt" for the majority of people.



Applying this to the case of a green organization within a city: In most places, greenies have passed the tipping point of normality. In some places they are even a majority. There are so many of them now that a new green organization will find that it isn't so easy for them to cross the first two thresholds within the green community. It used to be that the first and second tipping points were crossed almost automatically, there were so few greenies that as soon as half a dozen people got together, they could be confident that all the rest of greenies within the city would know at least of one of them, and they would have a chance to have a say in any green consultation. Not any more. Nowadays, new organizations need to make an effort just so that other people notice that they exist.

When it comes to deciding on a quorum for meetings, ideally you want to pass the tipping point for control, but if your members aren't very keen on meetings, at the very least the tipping point for normality needs to be passed. Otherwise, you could have a situation where the people that go to meetings aren't even considered very normal by the rest of members, and many of them haven't had a chance to have a good talk with anybody that goes to meetings, and don't feel represented by them. You will get an apathetic membership, that even though in theory may be a significant proportion of all the greenies in the city, in practice see themselves as something else most of the time. The influence of a group is only as much as the influence of people that openly declare themselves as members of the group. You want all your members to feel and behave like they are members of the organization, not just the ones that regularly come to meetings.

If the quorum for general meetings is a fixed number, when the membership grows you run the risk that the tipping points for control and normality are passed in reverse. After the quorum passes the tipping point for normality, it's likely that the organization becomes unable to grow further, unless other factors are at play. Apathetic memberships don't usually grow very much; in fact, they tend to shrink. The only way out of this is having a quorum for meetings set at a percentage of membership, and when the meetings grow too large to work as they were usually working, change the way that meetings are done to serve the larger number.

The practice

Once again, think of all the groups of people you belong to, and order them from smallest to biggest. The first one should be only you, the next should be you and your partner if you have one, the next your family. Include anything you can think of: your circle of closest friends, the organization you work in, the team of people you work with, any association you belong to, your neighbourhood, the location you live in, your country. Estimate the number of people in each group. Think of the groups that are within bigger groups: Do the tipping points mentioned above seem to apply? If they don't, why do you think they aren't working as usual in this case?

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