Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and Outliers, was the keynote speaker at the PMI Global Congress North America in Dallas last month. He spoke about the paradox of successful cultures. “They’re followers and borrowers, not leaders and inventors,” he said. In other words, our culture puts a premium on new things but actually in organisational cultures, new isn’t the best thing. There is value to be had in letting someone else try out the ideas first and then you adapting and blending them to produce something of real value. In short, you don’t need a lot of money and a huge research team to be a business success story.
Obviously someone has to come up with the new ideas, and the world is a better place because of it. “There are costs to having a culture arranged around innovation,” Gladwell said. For example, the very culture that makes some companies good at innovating makes it hard to do the things critical for implementation, like working collaboratively and being able to operationalise innovations for public use and commercial value.
Followers and borrowers take ideas from others, put them together and put them into practice. This is a different kind of innovation.
Don’t be first: follow
“The first clear advantage of this way of innovation is that it gives an organisation the chance to properly understand a technology before it implements it,” he said. Gladwell talked (without notes or slides) about the early social networking site, Friendster. MySpace took those ideas and developed them, but Facebook was the one that really took off. Facebook had the chance to see how the technology was evolving. Friendster was too narrow: it was only used for dating. MySpace had a focus on music. Facebook could see that people wanted something wider than that.”Nobody could have known at the beginning that this was the way the technology was going to end up,” Gladwell added.
Adapt the ideas of others
Tweaking other people’s ideas is positive, he said. “It’s a reminder of the fact that innovation at its best is a mass phenomenon and not an elite phenomenon. Google tweaked online search. “There’s a real benefit to being the one who toys with the idea and gets to be the one who perfects it,” he said.
Money constrains creativity
Finally, he addressed the topic of cost. “Invention requires a great amount of resources but implementation – the kind of culture that thrives on something real – doesn’t need resources at all.” Gladwell said that creativity and daring are the key criteria for taking an idea and making it into a practical, implementable idea. Too much money, he said, compromises creativity and can be stifling. “We privilege resources far too much and we privilege being first far too much,” he said.
So there you have it. Follow, borrow, tweak. And don’t let money be a barrier to creativity.