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Why coming first does not always mean winning: Malcolm Gladwell on innovation.

by Nextness published June 20, 2011 posted in Innovation

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell’s job applications were turned down by 14 advertising agencies in his native Canada. Lucky, because since then he’s busied himself  with The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and – today – the best talk so far at Cannes Lions.

Here’s Malcolm’s talk, recreated from notes in as close to his own words as possible.

Should we care about being first or not? In our culture, all the glory goes to the person who’s first: in science, the person who discovers something first gets the Nobel Prize; in business, the patent; and I just read Keith Richards’ autobiography so I know that coming first in rock and roll means you get to sleep with thousands of girls.

But we don’t need to be first. We need to be third.

Consider the case of the 1982 Bekaa Valley fight between Syria and Israel. The PLO had moved into Southern Lebanon and made Israel nervous; Syria moved into the Bekaa Valley and put missiles near Israel’s border. Israel attacked the Syrian Army in what was known as the Bekaa Valley turkey shoot, knocking out 17 out of the 19 surface to air missiles and shooting down 39 Syrian planes on the first day alone. The next day, they took out another missile and 27 more planes.

The lopsided military engagement continued: the Israelis made brilliant use of drones to take perfect photos of what they wanted to attack. They made use of the most modern airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft to orchestrate the most complicated mixture of planes, overwhelming the Syrians so much they were almost too scared to fire their guns. And they used precision guided missiles. Back in Vietnam, these missiles hadn’t been accurate, but the Israelis were using missiles that were 90% accurate, which is why they could shoot down a total of 87 Syrian planes with a loss to their own forces of only three.

A crushing advantage over their competitors, an astounding victory – one that everyone would look at and say “that’s what we want to be.”

But Israel were not the inventors of a single thing they used in the 1982 war.

The Soviets laid out the future of Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) in the 1970s with brilliant long term thinking. All the technology was actually American, developed during Vietnam. The Israelis weren’t first. They were third.

You can see why the Soviets, the US and Israel all did what they did by looking closely at their culture.

The Soviets had a centralised, bureaucratic and intellectualised military, basically a thinktank given time to ponder deeply the future of war. Russian culture values holistic thinking, and values the person who takes time to step back and think and this is what they did.

The US has a highly decentralised military – Marines, Air Force, Navy, Army all with different HQs and leadership who don’t talk; all with ties to the highly innovative private sector. It makes perfect sense that Americans would be best at coming up with new gadgets.

The Israelis’ previous military experience was the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where they experienced a huge first day loss due to surface to air missiles fired at them by Egypt. It devastated the strategic advantage of their air force, and they scoured the earth for the answer to this problem so it never happened again. Russia’s thinking, America’s weapons and technology. They put these things together in a brilliant way, and that’s how you get the Bekaa Valley turkey shoot.

Russia and the US show us that being good at one thing means you are necessarily bad at another. Russia can’t innovate because they are centralised and slow. The US is decentralised and innovates brilliantly in partnership with the private sector, but can’t tie it all together because it’s so decentralised.

The thing that made them the best at one thing is what made it impossible to do it properly. It imposes a cost on first.

Xerox PARC was a beautiful modernist building, filled with a huge staff of geniuses, staff with high salaries given the task to “imagine the future of the office.” They came up with laser printing, Ethernet, the modern personal computer, and the graphical user interface (GUI).

One day they were visited by a 24 year old from down the road in Cupertino: a young man called Steve Jobs. “What’s this?” he asked. “That’s a mouse.” “What’s this?” “That’s an icon.” At that time to use a computer you had to type in and execute a complex command. The GUI and the mouse changed all that. Steve Jobs started jumping up and down with excitement. “Why haven’t you done anything with this?” he cried, and ran back to Cupertino where his engineers were working on the Lisa. “Stop everything, we’re using a graphical user interface. I want a mouse!” And that was how the Macintosh was born, the breakthrough that has launched Apple on its trajectory ever since.

Xerox built the culture for innovation: time, money, palatial quarters. But they capitalised on none of it.

A culture of invention is not optimised for implementation.

Apple are always late to the party – late to the mp3 player, late to the smartphone, late to the tablet. This is a man who has made a business out of being late… The people who make all the money come along second or third, not first.

What are the reasons behind this paradox?

  1. It’s a lot easier to figure out technical solutions that what customers want. Xerox thought the computer was an office application, like their Xerox copiers that cost $400,000. It was not a stupid assumption. We did not know what the computer was for in 1970, least of all consumers. It took a few years to realise its consumer potential. Who gets the value of hindsight, or the learning curve? Steve Jobs.
  2. Mass strategy versus elite strategy. Why did the industrial revolution happen in England? England has some notable inventors but their real advantage lies in tweakers and innovators. Steam engines are measured in “duty,” or how much steam you get from the coal. Watt’s great achievement was to double a steam engine’s “duty.” Years later, tweakers incrementally improve it. They’re not geniuses. There are no statues of them in St Paul’s Cathedral. There were thousands of them in their garages and workshops, sharing ideas informally. They took a promising technology and transformed it into a transformational one. The person who was first gets all the glory; the value is extracted by the tweakers.
  3. Material circumstances. When it came to revolutionary military strategy, the two pioneers (Soviets and the USA) were rich with endless resources. The luxury to sit and think deeply. Billions of dollars for technology with no constraints. What about Isreal? they were incredibly constrained – not rich, and no time to to waste. They had just got their butts kicked in the Yom Kippur war. Yet they’re the ones who show how all these pieces fit together.

 

The National Cancer Institute cured four types of cancer that were thought to be incurable. They had no money. They took existing drugs and tweaked them. They were desperate, so they were forced to be creative and improvisational.

It is a lesson we’ve forgotten.

In the glory of being first, we have thrown resources at problems that might benefit from less, focused on a small about of geniuses when maybe what we need is tweakers and been in a hurry when we should be slow.

Maybe we don’t want to be the US. Maybe we want to be Israel.

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