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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > articles >  Malcolm Gladwell On Reinventing Innovation: Lesson One


Malcolm Gladwell On Reinventing Innovation: Lesson One

Posted on December 15, 2008 and read 2,719 times

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Recently, we at ihaveanidea were invited to attend a day-long conference on “reinventing innovation.” The event was hosted by Infopresse, a Quebec based publication geared towards advertising and marketing professionals. The speakers at the event included Anita Sands, VP and Chief of Innovation at Citi in New York, Lauent Simon, professor at HEC Montreal and Peter Andrews, VP of Innovation at IBM. But the biggest buzz was for the featured speaker, acclaimed journalist, author – and fellow Canuck – Malcolm Gladwell.


Gladwell has just released a new book, Outliers, The Story of Success, and his presentation nicely connected this tome to the conference’s theme. We’ve transcribed his presentation for your reading pleasure. Here’s the first part; the remaining segments will be released throughout the holidays, so if you didn’t get his book in your stocking, you’ll still be able to enjoy his thoughts going into 2009.

Thank you. It’s a real pleasure to be invited back to my homeland to speak.

The challenge today was to talk about innovation, and what makes organizations innovative. I thought about what would be the best example to use as a case study, and the best one I could come up with was the rock band Fleetwood Mac. I hope you’re not all too young to remember them!

I thought I would use the story of this band, one of the most successful and innovative bands of all time. In fact, one way to think about a successful rock band is that it is an innovative organization. It’s a group of people who get together and put their creative energies to successful commercial use. So I thought it would be interesting to start with an example of this kind of innovative organization, and see if we can’t learn some lessons about other kinds of innovative organizations.

I don’t know how many of you know the history of Fleetwood Mac, but the man behind the band is a legendary guitarist named Peter Green. Back in the day in London, where Fleetwood Mac started, Peter Green was a guitarist considered on the level of Eric Clapton, truly one of the giants of blues guitar of that period. Peter links up with a drummer named Mick Fleetwood and a bassist named John McVie, who brought along his girlfriend Christine Perfect. They played in England for a while and had a couple of minor hits, and then they moved to Los Angeles.

One day, Mick Fleetwood was in a supermarket in Van Nuys, and he ran across an old friend of his from England who invites him to visit his recording studio. And when Mick was at the studio, he hears a really beautiful voice singing in the studio next door. He goes to see who it is, and sees a young woman and her boyfriend: Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. Mick thinks they are the most extraordinary singers he’s ever heard, and learns that they’re this failed duo whose careers have stalled and aren’t really going anywhere.

“It sounds like the kind of thing that we can’t learn any kind of lessons from. It’s pure fortune and happenstance.”


About a month later, Mick feels he really needs to meet them. He finds out Stevie Nicks is working as a waitress in a 1920s themed bar in Hollywood. He meets her after work, and they and all the band members get drunk on tequila and decide they like each other. They get together and start playing in the basement of the ICM building in Beverly Hills, and they make extraordinary music together. They can’t believe how good it is. So they put out an album together called Fleetwood Mac, and that album sells a gazillion copies. Then they put out an album called Rumours, which today is considered one of the greatest albums in the history of rock ‘n roll. It sells millions of copies, and now sits at the fifth or sixth best selling album of all time. Rumours is a landmark of innovation in the field of rock ‘n roll, and it catapults Fleetwood Mac to become one of the most powerful and popular rock bands in the history of popular music.

Now I feel like we’ve all heard a story like that before, right? Whenever we talk about rock ‘n roll bands, it’s always about scruffy, young musicians getting together, and in some extraordinarily small number of cases, lightning strikes and they come out with an incredible hit, and they are catapulted into the upper echelons of stardom. And whenever we tell those stories they sound really flukey. They sound like it was impossible to predict their success, and even the people who made it think, “Oh my goodness, it just came out of nowhere.” It sounds like the kind of thing that we can’t learn any kind of lessons from. It’s pure fortune and happenstance.

But here’s the thing. If you look more closely at the story of Fleetwood Mac, and of the stories of other kinds of innovative organizations in the field of rock ‘n roll, you’ll discover that it wasn’t a fluke at all. There are actual principles at work here, and lessons we can learn from if you look closely.

So what I want to do is start over and tell you the story of Fleetwood Mac again, only this time I’ll tell it in such a way that makes it plain to see that what happen with the band and Rumours wasn’t an accident, that it was the result of a series of very real and teachable phenomena.

The first lesson you can learn from Fleetwood Mac has to do with effort, and its role in innovation. I got interested in the band because I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who’s an executive in the record business in New York. He asked me a very simple question; he asked me which Fleetwood Mac album I thought was the best they ever put out. Of course I said Rumours, and he said, “Yes, you’re absolutely right. But in the history of Fleetwood Mac, what number album do you think Rumours was?” I didn’t know. I knew that they must’ve put out an album or two in England, then the self-titled album, so I guessed that Rumours must’ve been three or four.

He said “wrong. It’s number sixteen.”

That history of Fleetwood Mac I just gave you? Totally misleading. Why? Because I left out the biggest chunk of the history. That period from when Peter Green formed the band, all the way up to Rumours is ten years. And in those ten years, Fleetwood Mac went through an enormously long and convoluted evolution.

When they started out in 1967, the band was something completely different than it was at the time of Rumours. It was Peter Green and two guys named Bob Brunning and Jeremy Spencer. Brunning doesn’t work out and he gets cast aside, and only then do they bring in John McVie, and later John McVie brings in Christine Perfect. Long before they make it big in America they’re hanging around all over Europe, playing in clubs here and there. They have a minor hit with an instrumental called Albatross. Peter Green in fact leaves the band midway through this period, and he gets completely taken up in the LSD movement and actually joins a German cult and disappears, and doesn’t resurface for some time. And at some point the band leaves London entirely, and they buy this big, decrepit mansion in Hampshire called Benifold. They all live there, and they’re all taking enormous amounts of hashish, and their children run around naked, and they raise goats, and they play music together for hours every day in this 60s style commune. And through this entire period people are coming and going through the band. Jeremy Spencer leaves and they bring in a guy called David Walker, then he leaves and they bring in a guy named Bob Weston. Bob goes and then they meet an American named Bob Welch at a train station, and they kind of like him and they ask him to join the band. And it’s only then, after years and years of this constant reforming that they moved to America. And it’s only because Bob Welch leaves the band in 1973 that Mick Fleetwood brought in Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, and then they take off.

In other words, Fleetwood Mac is not some overnight sensation. They are a band that was a decade in the making. That is a really critical fact. So often when we think about innovation, we think about it as some kind of magical process that just kind of happens right out of the gate. You either have that spark or you don’t, and that spark expresses itself immediately. But when you look at the lives of truly innovative people or organizations, you discover that the opposite is true. Innovation is what happens after a long period of intensive hard work.

“We always talk about Mozart as being a great prodigy. Mozart was no great prodigy.”


In my new book, Outliers — which I hope you all go out and buy in triplicate — I talk a lot about an idea called ‘The Ten Thousand Hours Rule.’ If you look at a really wide range of cognitively difficult disciplines, you find that in almost every case, it is impossible to be good at that discipline without putting in ten thousand hours of practice. Ten thousand hours works out to be about four hours a day for ten years. You have to practice for ten thousand hours to become good at something. This is true of chess players. There has almost never been a world-class chess player to achieve the standard of Grandmaster without playing continuously for ten years first. Nobody has ever composed a world-class piece of classical music without having been composing work for ten years. I could go on and on with examples. We always talk about Mozart as being a great prodigy. Mozart was no great prodigy. Yes, he was composing music when he was seven or eight years old, but have you ever listened to the music he was composing when he was that old? It was terrible! The first piece that Mozart composed that was universally seen as being any good was Concerto No. 9, 271, which composed when he was 23, at which point he had been composing for more than thirteen years. He’s not a prodigy; he’s a late bloomer, because other composers did it in ten years!

Think about The Beatles, another extraordinary band. When did we first really here about the Beatles? When they come America in 1964, the British Invasion. People thought, “wow, these young kids from Liverpool!” But were they mere young kids from Liverpool? No, they were seasoned veterans by 1964. When they were still teenagers, for random sets of reasons, they were invited to Hamburg, Germany and played as a house band in a strip club. They played eight-hour sets, seven days a week, for months at a stretch. They put in their ten thousand hours in Hamburg, Germany. By the time they came to America, they had already played together over 1,200 times. Go to where the bands play in your city and ask any band how long they’ve played together, and nobody will come close to this number. And that’s one of the reasons the Beatles were as good as they were. Yes, they were talented musicians, but they also put in the amount of work necessary to be an innovative organization.

“Now how many thirteen year olds in the world had access to a computer in 1968? Zero!”


Another case study I spent a lot of time on is Bill Gates, trying to figure out what made him the success that he became. They really interesting thing about him is not that he’s a genius, which he is, or that he’s some sort of business wizard, although he is. What’s really interesting about him is his childhood. In 1968, at the age of thirteen, he shows up to school and there’s a computer terminal there, linked into a mainframe. At which point he starts to practice computer programming. Now how many thirteen year olds in the world had access to a computer in 1968? Zero! Well, one at least, Bill Gates. And what does he do? He puts in his ten thousand hours over the course of his teenage years. Bill told me that when he was fifteen years old, he heard that there was this mainframe at the University of Washington that was free between the hours of 2 AM and 6 AM. Bill would go to bed at 10 PM, wake up at 1:30 AM, crawl out the window, and walk two miles in the dark to the university and program from 2 AM to 6 AM every single weekday morning. His mom famously said “I never understood why it was so difficult to get Bill out of bed in the morning.” Now we know why. And it’s because he put in that investment of time and energy that he was able to be so extraordinarily innovative.

So that’s the first lesson, and it’s an important one. Let us never forget that the kinds of insights we want to achieve as an organization don’t come overnight. If you’re Fleetwood Mac and you want to produce a work of lasting genius like Rumours, you have to be prepared to play for ten years first.

TO BE CONTINUED…


Brett McKenzie
Chief Writer/SBN2
ihaveanidea






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