TCC12 Day 2 Keynote Recap: Malcolm Gladwell on Practical Innovation

With the 2012 Tableau Customer Conference in full swing, author, journalist and speaker Malcolm Gladwell addressed a packed house of over 2,200 attendees on the topic of practical innovation.

"What I want to do is to explore the question of what goes into practical innovation. What are the elements of it, what makes it possible. We talk about pioneers and innovaters, and the idea is that they are the first to do something, on and on in many different ways, but the idea that I wanted to explore this morning are that there are some very specific ways where it is not desirable to be the first across the finish line."

Gladwell turned to military history, detailing the Beka'a Valley "Turkey Shoot" where Syrian forces advanced into the Beka'a Valley, only have had all of their 19 mobile missile batteries and the entire functioning fighting strength of the Syrian Air Force.

This was remarkable for two reasons. The first deployment in force of drone aircraft, which the Israeli forces used very effectively to identify Syrian positions, and an effective use of AWACS aircraft to vector Israeli fighters and attack planes onto their targets. The use of precision guided missiles allowed nearly 98 percent of the Israeli ground attacks to strike their intended targets.

Gladwell's point was that the Israeli Defence Forces invented none of either the tactics or the technology they deployed so effectively. The former were adapted Soviet tactics, the latter US-built planes and weaponry- but that the culture allowed, if not mandated that the nation innovate in order to survive.

Pivoting from military history to technology, Gladwell talks about the inventions which came from Xerox PARC - new office machines, the personal computer, the first graphical user interfaces, the mouse, etc. He noted that many of these inventions languished until a young man working for a small computer company toured the facility, and, inspired by the things he saw, developed something which was actually a practical product to bring to market. That man, of course, was none other than Steve Jobs, the company Apple, and the product the Macintosh.

Despite all the inventions of top-flight minds in computer science, the culture at Xerox didn't allow the innovation to apply these wonders. It took someone figuratively hungry and desperate like Steve Jobs to understand how to innovate and apply the technology. Like the IDF, Jobs and Apple weren't first, they were second or third, but they had the drive, the desire, and the vision to practically apply them.

Gladwell continued talking about Steve Jobs, and shared a potentially apocryphal anecdote about a friendly rivalry between Jobs and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison.

As the story goes, Ellison buys a new Gulfstream jet, and proceeds to gut and redesign the interior. He shows his friend Steve the plane; the special African hardwood veneers, the sliding doors opened by one button and closed by another; only to have Jobs order his own jet, gut it, use a slightly different wood resulting in a brighter cabin, and with sliding doors whose functionality was toggled by a single button. Ellison reportedly remarked that it was the same plane. Jobs told him to look closer, and was forced to admit that it wasn't the same, but was better, given the adaptations and innovations Jobs made.

Gladwell postulates that it is not being first, but rather second or third which is the key to empowering practical innovation.

As demonstrated in these case studies, we seem to have those who finish first, the geniuses. These are the Soviet military tacticians, the technologists at the US aerospace companies, and the the computer scientists in Xerox PARC. They create some amazing things, but without an environment in which they are used, they languish in something of a vacuum.

Then, there are those who come after and come along second or third. Gladwell calls this set of visionaries 'the tweakers'. Like the IDF and Steve Jobs, what these people do isn't to come up with the grand concepts, but to make the little improvements which make the things the geniuses created more usable and practical. And by doing so, they forever change the world.

According to Gladwell, it's not about having limitless budgets to develop things the world has never seen; the true practical innovation here are the people who have a vision, and because of that vision, find themselves driven to create.

Photo compliments of customer Eduardo Molina, University of Southern California
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