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Tipping points, from threat to opportunity

It won't come as a surprise to most people that something seems to be amiss in society. Without much effort, our thoughts drift to terrible conflicts far away and in our own backyards. Increasing polarization over a wide range of issues is playing out right up to and even beyond our doorsteps. The tension is palpable, and it's evoking a range of emotions...

  • The fear of "what if...?"

  • The anger of "but that can't be...!"

  • The sadness of "how can it be that...?"

It seems that we have reached several tipping points. But what exactly is a tipping point, and why does it make sense to pause and consider it?

Tipping Points

Technically speaking (for the enthusiast), a tipping point is a critical threshold in a system where small variations or disturbances can cause a major change in the state of that system. In physics and mathematics, this is often described using dynamic systems and nonlinear processes. A classic example is the concept of "catastrophe theory," where a system can abruptly (chaotically) switch from one stable state to another stable state at a certain critical value.

In practical terms, we can think of a tipping point as a situation in everyday life where a small action has big consequences. For example, consider:

  • Climate change. The melting of the ice caps could be a tipping point. If the temperature rises just a few degrees, it could lead to a significant rise in sea levels, which would have a major impact on coastal areas and ecosystems.

  • Health. Imagine a person who eats unhealthy for years. There is a point at which the body can no longer compensate for this lifestyle, and the person may suddenly develop serious health problems, such as diabetes or heart disease. That critical moment is a tipping point.

  • Social. In society, we can see the effect of a tipping point in the spread of ideas or behaviors. A small number of people who start using a new technology or social trend can reach a critical mass, after which many more people suddenly follow suit and it becomes a new norm.

So, a tipping point is a moment of great change caused by a relatively small change.

The best metaphor I have been able to find for this is the following. Imagine you want to roll a large, heavy stone over a mountain. The moment you balance that stone on the tip of the mountain is when it is easiest to push it over or let it fall back. That moment of movement is a tipping point.

Great, so now what...?

Now that you have been involuntarily introduced to tipping points, the more important question remains: what can we do with them? What can or should we do with these insights? We have three ideas about that that we would like to share with you.

Opportunity Awaits

  1. At the moment of a tipping point, the system is at its most movable. Since we (humans) prefer stability, this almost always evokes negative feelings. Perhaps it is time to accept these feelings for what they are and to simply endure them. If we let ourselves be paralyzed, there is a good chance that we will regret it. Taking action right now requires courage and a well-developed moral compass, but the alternative is often unbearable in hindsight.

  2. Tipping points are just as much an opportunity as they are a threat. Yes, it is realistic that a tipping point may not turn out well. Historically, tipping points have also led to a lot of suffering. But the opposite is also true. They are also moments when we have made the most meaningful strides forward that we have been able to benefit from for a long time. It is important to remember here that doing nothing is also an action.

  3. Although we believe only very limitedly in the "makeability" of life, the chance to make a real difference is greatest right now. Think of it as a wave coming towards you. You can try to stand in the sea, hands out, and bravely hold back the wave. The chance is great that you will end up on the shore with a mouth full of salt water... Or you can anticipate the wave, move with it, and use the momentum. Because it is precisely at a tipping point that you can make a lot of change with little effort. If you only stabilize things again afterwards.

In short, it comes down to keeping our heads as cool as possible, looking for the opportunities (with awareness of the risks) and using the tipping points, it doesn't have to be just problematic.

The beauty of tipping points lies in the fact that you don't have to go out of your way to make a difference. You can start doing it today, right in your own organization. For example, in our field, guiding organizations that want to be meaningful in the transformation of their employee or customer experience starts with asking questions like:

  • How aware are we of our social responsibility?

  • To what extent are we committed to making a difference? For whom exactly?

  • How can we implement more inclusive, sustainable, and valuable employee and customer journeys?

And precisely because small steps can lead to big changes at this point, it is extra important to be very aware of the direction you are going with this.


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