Malcolm Gladwell on Innovation at Global Customer Meet

Malcolm Gladwell (Picture Courtesy:

Malcolm Gladwell (Picture Courtesy:

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, Tipping Point and Outliers spoke about his views on innovation at the global customer meet in Orlando this year where the theme was “I have an idea”.

For innovation, being an outsiders is a very  important position, status and characteristic.

Story of a doctor Gertrude Elion during Korean war at  the  National Cancer Institute,  a hematologist by profession meets Gordon Zubrod,  a specialist. In 1950, child leukemia was incurable , and most dreaded, children suffering bled from every orifice, it was 100% fatal  in 6 weeks, any hospital where child leukemia was treated, there was blood everywhere. It was  too depressing.  Only four known drugs existed and none could cure but could prolong the death in different ways. In four weeks the  cancer became resistant again. The drugs were poisonous and it was said that one should not even bother, any invasive cancer was incurable, all drugs where ineffective in the long run.

Gertrude Elion was fresh out of medical college and was given charge of the children ward for leukemia. Each drug was  modestly effective in a different way – curing, destroying cancerous cells. What  if we combine, she thought- what if I sent airforce, navy,army together, each are poisons- four drugs in combination. They are highly toxic in different ways- one caused paralysis, one caused the face to swell up, one destroyed the bone marrow. May be their side effects are manageable she thought. This was a new idea at the time. Today, we do it all the time and dispense drugs like antibiotics in a combination. these are broad spectrum drugs.She had no time for animal trials, she had no time to determine  what dosage, or algorithm, as kids were dying, she had nothing to lose.

What will happen, she thought. Anyone would have been afraid of this kind of experimentation. it would make news such as -“Scientist at National Hospital gives toxic drugs to children”. She had  20 different kids under care who were to die anyway in 4 weeks. She thought why not try the combination and manage the side effects. First she goes with 10 kids , first weekend one girl falls very sick but  she pulls through after lot of care. She had to infuse blood to everyone, there were no concept of blood platelets at the time. She did not sleep through the period and spend time by side of the girl. Slowly she saw 2nd, 3rd ,4th and 5th  kid pull through. She had  finally developed drug protocol for 100% cure. Today numbers of people saved are 100′ s of thousands. Pattern of combination drugs was  very creative at the time. It completely transformed leukemia treatments and other treatments as well.

Jeff  Bezos in Amazon, Galileo,Einstein. We dwell on their brilliance.  Their ability to see something was extraordinary. These  people were on the fringes of the world. Real lesson is that the risks they took were not professional but real risk was social.

For Elion , rest of world thought she was a Nazi doctor. Young doctors from Harvard were warned – don’t go near Elion and Zubrod, people used to heckle them from the back, roundly denounced by their peers, we see that pattern again and again. They were taking a social risk,  They stuck to their stance that I am right you are wrong and were dismissed by their peers.

Taking social risks is the hardest thing that a human being can do. One emotion one cannot stand is the emotion of contempt by others. Humans are hardwired to not take social risks. For children, every crazy stupid thing which  is approved by their peers, who think it is cool, is okay for them. Men and women from London to Los Angeles want to sleep with socially acceptable persons, who are stars, however strange be their behaviour.

Michael Lewis is an American non-fiction author and financial journalist. His bestselling books include The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Liar’s Poker, The New Thing, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, Panic.

During the financial crises everyone was predicting that housing market will continue to rise, It was running almost 40% above norm but nobody dared to challenge the same. People got bonuses by following the advice and continuing to provide loans even when it was unviable.

Michael  was the first person to directly call the housing market over heated. He advised  his investors to come out of housing market even when they feared that they would lose billions of dollars in potential profits. Who is in best position to do that. It is outsider, who has least social status to protect, mostly who were not in Wall Street.

Gordon Zubrod was as different,  a lousy  public school in Georgetown, he did not care, he was not one of them Ivy league doctors. How to get kids to stop them bleeding to death. To transfuse them with fresh blood platelets, he used huge sausages filled with blood. He used it like watering  a flower-pot with a flower hose. Senior officials got furious, he kept doing it. I don’t want to work if it did not give him freedom, he did not want to go to Yale.

Being outsiders gives innovator freedom. What was it that gave him the idea. Keep searching for the right drug and develop the drugs. What we got is good enough, key is putting in right combination. It comes from world of infectious disease like you  gave TB patient, two antibiotics otherwise bacteria would become drug resistance. Later three drugs became standard treatment. Why was he able to see connection because they were outsiders , they did not conform and stay with stereo type. They were generalist, went to lunch with infectious diseases people and therefore by virtue of being an outsider with others experiences they could apply the same to their fields.

Desperation is another key component required for Innovation. Gordon and Elion were desperate, why not, 10 kids who would be dead in 10 days. History’s most fruitful period was during and  just after WW-II as desperation was very high. Huge number of death with cancer and specially child cancer were the tone of desperation, only a fraction of resources were available. No budget was available. They did not have money for staff nurses. They wrote the protocol on piece of paper containing 4 double space pages. Today boxes of 24 feet high paper are required to file for new drugs, several million dollars. It requirements were nowhere near the levels of today. Kids sitting around in shoe strings budgets have brought about innovations. Being an outsider gives you motivation.  We see that pattern again and again.

Ingvar Kamprad,  founder of  Ikea, the  furniture retail store.  He found that extraordinary amount of money was spent in shipping and assembly of furniture. He invented a concept of selling do it yourself  knocked down kits and saved money on assembly as well as transportation. He started to undersell his products against competitors. All furniture manufactures refused to make furniture for him and boycotted him. Rather than comply with traditional ways he moved right across to Poland which had 500 years of worth of wood and forest. His  move to Poland for manufacturing revived Ikea which rose from ashes (almost bankruptcy) and undercut its competitors by 70%.  The notion was revolutionary. No one wanted to go to Poland at the time. In 1961, tension  was at its  highest, West and East were furthest apart and he decided to setup a factory there. People thought he was a traitor. Why did he do it?  He was an outsider, he had no stake in the game, he was  excluded in the world,he had no options as he was desperate and on the periphery. He did quickly as he was desperate. His company would have been in ruins otherwise.

Story of  Bekaa Valley air battle of 1982, Israel airforce  shot 87 airplanes and at cost of three airplanes, first country to combine three technologies, precision guided missiles, AWACS  controls and drones. The strikes were conducted like an orchestra. It was also called the Bekaa Valley turkey shoot and started a whole new concept of warfare. Why was Israel  first to use this concept . All the three technologies were invented in the USA. They had a dire need to do it, they are a tiny beleaguered country. On the first day of Egyptian war they got obliterated, next 9 years were spent in scouring for solutions. Desperation gave them motivation to look for solution.

One always faces difficulty, every time one takes steps in different directions. If  we gave traditional thinkers ( or social insiders) more money they would not do better or worse. They get locked into a notion of moving from outside to inside. It is common knowledge that if you see most of the noble prizes or inventions or innovations they are not high from Havard, Yale, or Wharton Business Schools, or advice from McKinsey or a Lehman ask as these are all bound in tradition.

When we look at super human nature of our educational system, change the system from encouraging bucking the trend to think innovation. Unexplored and significant dangers are caused by having a highly stratified educational system. Institutions take the best and brightest, high costs reduce benefits, they come out with same standard , taught by same people. Instead we should get multiple different trainings in multiple disciplines. At age of 7, kids will go through every narrow band. Get people to think differently we can help by breaking up the establishment. Think of why it is a bad thing to send your child to an elite school. It has been statistically proven that most innovation is not concentrated round the Ivy league schools but quite evenly dispersed.

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