Malcom Gladwell on Innovation


I had the good fortune to hear Malcolm Gladwell speak at The Conference on Marketing held in Naples, FL earlier this week. His talk (refreshingly delivered entirely without slides) explored the concept of two distinctive types of creative innovation: Conceptual and experimental.

Conceptual innovation, he argues are those bold, breakthrough ideas that are well articulated quickly and delivered into the world. Experimental innovation is the slow, iterative process of exploration that may happen over a lifetime before it’s gotten right.

Examples of conceptual innovators include Orson Wells, Picasso and Herman Melville. Conceptual innovators tend to peak early – often the value of their output decreasing over time. The highest price Picasso ever fetched for a single painting occurred at the age of 26. Work done in his 60s is valued roughly at 1/4 of his peak prices. And we all know what happened to Orson Wells after Citizen Kane. Not much.

Cezanne, on the other hand, was an experimental innovator. He painstakingly painted the same scenes over and over again, evolving his genius in slow, iterative, baby steps. Cezanne peaked in his 60s, his later work valued at roughly 15 times work done in his 40s. Another experimental innovator, Alfred Hitchcock, explored the thriller genre again and again over a lifetime delivering perhaps his best picture, Vertigo, at the age of 59.

Gladwell argues that much to its detriment, today’s culture has lost patience with the experimental innovators. Musicians are now routinely dropped from the roster if their first single isn’t a blockbuster. Yet the traditional music industry is now in complete free fall according to Gladwell, because “you cannot run a creative business unless you have a combination of Picassos and Cezannes to create lasting value.” Long term, lasting value comes from a portfolio of ideas that include both the bold and groundbreaking as well as those that need iterative experimentation in order to mature.

Moreover, consumers form a very different bond with Picasso and Cezanne ideas. Picasso ideas get a lot of attention, but don’t develop lasting loyalty or significant influence (Friendster who?). Cezanne ideas may take a while to mature, but have much greater impact and create more lasting value over time. The Sopranos, we are reminded, didn’t have much of an audience in season one or even season two. But with a little patience, HBO allowed the writing, the characters and even the audience to mature and the series has now arguably has changed the face of in-home entertainment for a long time to come.

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