When Malcolm Gladwell Speaks, People Listen


Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, among other best-sellers, is one of the most engaging speakers I have ever heard. Yesterday, my client SapientNitro held a client event called Idea Engineer Exchange (iEX), which Gladwell headlined. Other invited guests included The Art of Immersion author Frank Rose and chief marketing officers from Fortune 2000 companies. 


Gladwell’s keynote speech blew everyone away.


The late Steve Jobs would have loved Gladwell’s talk, as he clearly thinks differently than the rest of us. Actually, he thinks about things the rest of us usually don’t. He then becomes a story teller covering how he sees the world. Yesterday’s talk focused on a variety of subjects ranging from innovation, to cancer research, to China’s role on the world stage.


Gladwell spent most of his talk discussing how it is not always best to be first. That, in fact, being third is best. He cited several compelling examples, ranging from the Israeli army’s victory over Syria in the 1982 Bekaa Valley air battle to Apple. In Apple’s case, he noted that the mouse was first created by California-based research group SRI, and then taken up by the brilliant scientists at Xerox’s Research Park. But the mouse was just an idea that didn’t have practical application until Jobs, while taking a tour of the Xerox facility, recognized its enormous potential.  He tweaked the product and instantly changed the course of Apple and computer history.


What Gladwell is suggesting is that there are usually three phases in product development:

  1. Innovation: Some brilliant person dreams up a product or idea that no one envisioned.
  2. Implementation: The product is then introduced to the marketplace, but not necessarily in a way that will penetrate and get the public excited.
  3. Tweaking: It takes a third party, like Jobs, Gates or Ellison, to see the value of what has been developed and then tweak the product for success.


As for China, Gladwell feels that while they are enjoying success for now, long-term they are not equipped to dominate as everyone fears. He believes they have too many structural issues to overcome, including overdone centralization and a lack of cultural creativity.


Finally, Gladwell railed against our health care system. Among his main complaints is that we tend to throw money at health care problems but we are not getting the solutions we need. He believes that great results are often produced out of desperation. This concept is going to be the subject of his next book. I can’t wait.