Malcolm Gladwell is the author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and Outliers: The Story of Success - all of which made The New York Times Best Seller List. He also writes for The New Yorker magazine.
The 49-year-old British-Canadian was in Dubai recently for an event on entrepreneurship organised by the telecoms operator du, where he spoke about constraints as a key to unlocking business potential and creating a culture of innovation.
What elements are needed to build a culture of innovation?
People must be willing to take risks. It is more than just operational risk-taking, and about social risk taking. In the 1960s, Emil J Freireich of the National Cancer Institute in the United States put his reputation on the line to devise a treatment for childhood leukaemia. There are three elements that can lead to that culture. These are urgency, disagreeableness and the importance of constraint.
Tell me more about the three elements.
You can't create any form of successful culture without a sense of urgency. Apple founder Steve Jobs jumped into his car after he toured Xerox headquarters in Palo Alto, California, in 1980, raced to the marketplace with his ideas and reinvented personal computing. He didn't invent it, but he had the sense of urgency.
When it comes to disagreeableness, no one wanted to work with Emil Freireich. But he kept going because he didn't need the approval of others. It's the same for entrepreneurs. You can be open, highly creative people, disciplined and ready to see an idea through completion, but you also shouldn't back off the minute you step on someone's toe. Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad took manufacturing to Poland in 1969 at the height of Cold War, so he set up in a country considered an enemy country and people thought he was a traitor. But he didn't back off.
The importance of constraint is also necessary. Consider the National Cancer Institute and how little money they had in those days. Today, pharma companies spend US$6 billion to $7 bn a year on [research and development]. Then at NCI, Emil had no money at all. Emil later said: "If I had the money then I wouldn't have been creative, or forced to combine drugs, or have went off to a long detour". We do not value the importance of scarcity. Today the top five pharma houses have come up dry, and the innovation is driven by tiny biotech companies. By removing all constraints, a child never learns self-reliance and the importance of constraints. Putting all three together, it is dangerous to be successful. It is easy to be agreeable when things are going well.
How do the three elements apply to nation states?
At the macro level, things that are conducive to the three elements include tolerance for making mistakes, a culture that doesn't punish people for making mistakes. Cultural diversity is important as well. Many cultures that have succeeded were not part of the mainstream culture of a country, such as ethnic Chinese in South East Asia, Lebanese throughout the world, and Jews in North America. And that is one of the extraordinary things that you have going for you in this country.
What about Google, which has no constraints yet is continuing to innovate?
The jury is still out about whether some of their recent inventions will be profitable.
Would Apple be a good example of innovation that later goes into terminal decline?
The next five years will be interesting to watch. They have a lavish headquarters; it is a different place to interact now than five to 10 years ago. Their success has put them in treacherous waters. But constraints needn't be financial. To get that sense of urgency and to prod people to innovation, you have to purpose some kind of constraint. Creativity functions best when there are some kind of boundaries.
Is it harder to impose constraints in the modern world?
Yes. For example, there is too much money floating around in Silicon Valley and too few good ideas. People who should get $5 million are getting $10m.