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


Malcolm Gladwell On Reinventing Innovation: Lesson Two

Posted on January 25, 2009 and read 2,481 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 Part Two, and if you missed out on Part One, you can read that right here.


One of the interesting things about Fleetwood Mac’s history is how rocky their road to success was. It’s not like they were a rock band that started off doing reasonably well, with a fan base that grew with each passing album, each one selling a little more. If you were to graph their progress, it wouldn’t be a steady line gradually moving up towards rock ‘n roll superstardom. It’s the exact opposite. Their first ten years were terrible. They had one disastrous album after another. If you listen to their earliest records, they’re not good at all. Listening to them, it’s almost impossible to imagine that this was a band that would be one of the most influential bands in history. And more than that, they go through an extraordinary crisis. Peter Green, the band’s founder, a musical genius, lead guitarist, spiritual leader, songwriter, everything that made Fleetwood Mac, he leaves midway through that period to join a German cult and take LSD and pretty much disappear.

Fleetwood Mac didn’t not build from strength to strength. On the contrary, they built from weakness to strength. That’s a very critical distinction, one that’s very important in order to understand the roots of their creativity and innovation.

Psychologists talk about two different learning achievement strategies. One of these is called ‘capitalization strategy,’ where you build on your strengths and try to be innovative that way. You have a good education, good colleagues surround you, you receive good feedback in the early going, and all of that snowballs until you are capable of doing something quite extraordinary.

There’s another strategy, and that’s called a ‘compensation strategy.’ That’s the kind of innovation that occurs when we compensate for our disadvantages, when we find a way to work with what we’re not good at. Compensation is a much harder strategy, and few people are adept at doing it. But I think one of the things that is interesting about this strategy is being able to understand how much more valuable it can be when it comes to producing breakthrough ideas.

I don’t know how many of you here are football fans, but there’s this really interesting fact about NFL quarterbacks. Every year, all of the college quarterbacks in America are graded. You know, ‘we like this person most, and this person second most, and third most’ and so on. Then you have the draft, where all the professional teams select the college players, and they generally draft them in order of their ranking. The best-ranked quarterback gets picked first; the twelfth ranked quarterback goes twelfth.

A couple months ago, a sports economist I know wrote this paper where she asked what is the relationship between how high you were drafted and your actual performance in the NFL. What’s the relationship between how good you are in college and how good you are in the pros? Her conclusion? There’s no relationship! None! Someone who’s a good college quarterback is not at all more likely to be a good professional quarterback than someone who was ranked near the bottom of the list. In fact, the quarterbacks taken in the bottom half of the draft slightly outperform those in the top half of the draft.

Think about that. That’s a remarkable observation. The quarterbacks at the top of the draft are the biggest, the fastest, they have the strongest arms, they have the best stats coming out of college, they won the most college games, they’re the smartest, they went to the best schools, they had the best coaching. We could go on and on about the advantages they had, but despite all of those advantages, they end up not being better, and in fact end up slightly worse than the ones who are shorter, slower, not as smart, who didn’t go to top schools and won far fewer games.

“At the end of the day, being hungry is more important to being successful and innovative in a given field than entering the field with all of those advantages.”


How can this be? It seems totally and utterly counterintuitive. Well one possibility is when we rank all those college quarterbacks, we’re not doing a good job. The football experts who rank them aren’t all that “expert.” I don’t agree with that. They know their football. Another possibility is that the game in college is different than in the pros. The pros are a whole new level. I think there’s some truth to that, but the most plausible explanation is that the people drafted near the bottom perform better in the pros because not being as strong, as tall, or not going to as good a school, makes you hungrier. It makes you work harder; it makes you more willing to learn. At the end of the day, being hungry is more important to being successful and innovative in a given field than entering the field with all of those advantages. For NFL quarterbacks to play the game well, capitalization is a less effective strategy than compensation for weaknesses.

To carry this even further, we know the IQs of every quarterback drafted into the NFL. We know these because we believe that being a quarterback is so complicated that you need to be smart to master it.

There’s a lot of sense to that. An NFL quarterback may be expected to master up to five thousand plays, and you can only do that if you have a certain amount of cognitive ability, right? Well since we know their IQs, we can test that assumption, that smarter quarterbacks do a better job in the NFL.

Here are the quarterbacks with the seven highest IQs recorded.

Drew Henson

Alex Smith

Eli Manning

Tony Romo

Drew Bledsoe

Matt Leinart

Kellen Clemens

Now here are the names of the quarterbacks with the seven lowest IQs coming into the pros. Keep in mind that the IQ test these guys took is not like the ones most of you have taken at some point. It’s way, way easier. So when I say these seven quarterbacks did badly, I mean BADLY.

Tarvaris Jackson

Derek Anderson

Vince Young

Dan Marino

Terry Bradshaw

Donovan McNabb

David Gerrard

For the benefit of those of you who don’t know anything about NFL quarterbacks, let me let you in on a secret. That second list, those seven quarterbacks who scored embarrassingly low on the IQ tests, is in every respect superior to the first list. The ‘dumb’ quarterbacks include two of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, a third one who’s almost guaranteed to be headed to the Hall of Fame, and a fourth one who is one of the most promising young quarterbacks in the game today.

In others words, ‘dumb’ beats ‘smart’ when it comes to playing football.

Is that because you don’t have to be smart to play football? No. It says that compensating for your weaknesses is a more effective strategy than capitalizing on your strengths. It says that because those quarterbacks were dumb, they worked harder, they applied themselves, they put more thought into their position and took their job more seriously. They were aware of what their weakness was. At the end of the day, when people are aware of what their weaknesses are and they try to overcome them, that makes them better, more innovative, more creative than people who capitalize on their strengths.

There’s been some really wonderful work done on the links between learning disabilities and entrepreneurialism. There was this study done not too long ago by a researcher at the London School of Business. They looked at several successful entrepreneurs and discovered that a third of them had been diagnosed with some form of dyslexia at some point in their lives. That list people includes some of the most famous names in business. Sir Richard Branson; Craig McCaw, a pioneer in the ell phone industry; Paul Orfalea, the founder of Kinko’s; John Chambers, CEO of Cisco; and Charles Schwab, founder of the famous brokerage house. In these cases, the argument is that these entrepreneurs succeeded not in spite of their disability but because of it.

Compensating for dyslexia teaches you things you wouldn’t learn otherwise. What do you do when you’re a little kid in school, and you can’t read and write like everyone else? Well if you’re going to succeed, you learn really good oral communication skills. You have to talk your way around problems, because you can’t solve them with reading and writing. You learn problem-solving skills. You learn really good teamwork skills; the only way you can get through school is by having other people do your work for you. You realize that the only way you’ll survive is if you recruit a team around you. And if you’re going to recruit a team, you need to be a leader, and to learn leadership skills at a really early age. One interesting fact from this is that amongst successful dyslexic entrepreneurs, 80% of them were captains of sports teams in high school, compared to 27% of non-dyslexic entrepreneurs. These kids are compensating for their disability by being good leaders, good problem solvers, good communicators and good delegators. And when they get out of school and into the real world and want to start a business, just think about how beautiful those skills are. They’re exactly the skills you need if you want to be a successful entrepreneur.

“When we’re facing difficult times, we have an ability to be creative and innovative that was denied to us when everything came easily.”


This is a really difficult idea to deal with. If we hear of a child who’s dyslexic, we think that’s a terrible thing. We feel sorry for that child, and we’d never wish that on anyone. And that child will absolutely go through some really difficult times. If you look at the childhoods of all those entrepreneurs I mentioned, they were difficult times, with lots of extraordinary setbacks and disappointments, and all lived with the prospect of being labeled a failure. As a result, they got stronger, and emerged with skills that they might not have had otherwise. And every one of the aforementioned entrepreneurs will tell you that their dyslexia is one of the most important components of their success.

This is true of Fleetwood Mac as well. When they looked back on their early history, they were grateful, in some perverse way, for all of their setbacks. They were grateful that their leader left them, and that they had to struggle. In the process of compensating for all of those difficulties, they learned all the things that would help them be such a creative and innovative band.

To me, this lesson is one of the possible silver linings to the economic recession that is now enveloping us. There are some things you only learn in hard times. Compensation is such a powerful learning skill that we ought to look at what’s going to be happening over the next few years as this recession deepens. We should look at it as an opportunity. When we’re facing difficult times, we have an ability to be creative and innovative that was denied to us when everything came easily.


Brett McKenzie
Chief Writer/SBN2
ihaveanidea






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