Malcolm Gladwell


Happy Birthday Malcolm.

Malcolm Gladwell’s own birthday today coincides with Labor Day in the USA this year, so I’m celebrating it with a post inspired by him on the subject of the working world. His piece ‘The Creation Myth’ (thanks Chris) underscores once again the power of failure in creativity with a reference to my professional alma mater…

  • “’When you have a bunch of smart people with a broad enough charter, you will always get something good out of it,’ Nathan Myhrvold, formerly a senior executive at Microsoft, argues. ‘It’s one of the best investments you could possibly make-but only if you chose to value it in terms of successes. If you chose to evaluate it in terms of how many times you failed, or times you could have succeeded and didn’t, then you are bound to be unhappy. Innovation is an unruly thing. There will be some ideas that don’t get caught in your cup. But that’s not what the game is about. The game is what you catch, not what you spill.’…[psychologist Dean] Simonton’s point is that there is nothing neat and efficient about creativity. ‘The more successes there are," he says, ‘the more failures there are as well’ – meaning that the person who had far more ideas than the rest of us will have far more bad ideas than the rest of us, too. This is why managing the creative process is so difficult…[Xerox’s missed opportunity] is an example of the imaginative poverty of Xerox management… But he got nowhere. ‘Xerox had been infested by a bunch of spreadsheet experts who thought you could decide every product based on metrics. Unfortunately, creativity wasn’t on a metric.’"

The reflections echo one of my business aphorisms – “Business is not a coin operated spreadsheet’” The key thing that keeps it from being so is risk. Even probabilities can’t be counted on. And a necessary artefact of ‘risk’ is ‘failure’.