Malcolm Gladwell Takes Stage at PTC Live Global

Malcolm Gladwell

Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell took the stage this week at PTC Live Global to talk about what it takes to be a true innovator.

Gladwell, who wrote Tipping PointBlinkOutliers, and, most recently, David and Goliath, is one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.

“I want to talk about transformation,” Gladwell told a packed out audience at the Grand Olde Opry in Nashville. “We are in the middle of the third revolution—the Internet of Things—and this could be the biggest of the three.

With reference to 1950s America transport entrepreneur Malcom McLean, Gladwell argued that transformation is not only about technology. Psychology is also a driving force behind successful innovation, he said.

McLean, who began his career as a trucker, transformed the shipping industry by developing the modern-day shipping container. But more impressively, he did it in the face of fierce opposition and ingrained values, during a politically contentious time, Gladwell said.

The ability to dream big but then follow through with a laser focus were McLean’s strongest traits, according to Gladwell.

Here are some other psychological characteristic highly innovative people highlighted by Gladwell.

Persistence in the face of disapproval

Mclean didn’t require the approval of his peers to do what he thought was right. He was a risk taker. Innovators tend to be very creative and open to new ideas, said Gladwell. And all innovators are ‘disagreeable’.

“These are the people not afraid to do the unpopular thing,” Gladwell said. “They would rather do something unpopular and fail than be agreeable. Agreeableness is a character flaw.”

Re-imaging the nature of the problem

When McLean set out to transform the way goods were transported in the U.S. and across oceans, he didn’t look at how he could improve individual components of that journey, but rather how he could make the links in the journey more seamless. He reimagined the problem.

The transformation of a struggling Radio Corporation of America in the 1920s is another great example of re-imagining who you are and what you do, Gladwell said. RCA was initially envisioned as an international communications company, but moved into the broadcasting field after it experimented with a live broadcast of the 1921 heavyweight boxing championship. This required an enormous act of imagination and a change in self-perception, Gladwell said.

A sense of urgency

Innovators are always in a hurry, and Steve Jobs and the evolution of the Macintosh computer is one of the best examples, according to Gladwell.

When Jobs visited Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in the winter of 1979 he was blown away by what he saw. The bit-mapped screen, the graphical user interface, the computer mouse.

Xerox had smart people who knew they were on to something, Gladwell said, but it was Jobs’ sense of urgency that drove Apple to the top of the pack, popularizing technology that we all use today in our PCs, smartphones and tablets.

Gladwell’s parting message: Embrace revolutions. But remember they happen in a hurry. Don’t get left behind.

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