Malcolm Gladwell: It’s better to innovate than invent

Rather than being the first to create or engage a technology, often it is more advantageous to be third in line and capitalize on predecessors’ successes and failures, said The New York Times best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell on Oct. 12 during digital agency SapientNitro‘s “Idea Engineer Exchange” in New York.

In his keynote address, Gladwell said there are three stages of innovation — inventor, implementer and tweaker — and that the tweaker is often best suited to capitalize on an invention.

“There is not a great advantage to being first; there is an advantage to being the one who sits back and reacts in an intelligent way,” said Gladwell.

To illustrate this point, Gladwell cited the Israeli military’s 1982 battle against Syria in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The Israeli military utilized a series of three relatively new weapons, Gladwell said, but the weapons had originally been conceived by a Soviet think-tank and then manufactured in the U.S. While the Israelis “tinkered a little” with the weapons, Gladwell said it was Israel’s ability to take “somebody else’s idea and somebody else’s products and [combine] them into a workable strategy” that spoke to Israel’s comparatively superior culture of innovation.

Gladwell also told the story of how the personal computer mouse came to market for consumers. Originally conceived and built by Dr. Douglas Engelbart’s team at research institute SRI International in the early 1960s, the mouse didn’t become a consumer product until after computer scientists at research company Xerox PARC showed the product and the corresponding graphical user interface to Apple cofounder and CEO Steve Jobs in December 1979. After the visit, Jobs returned to Apple, scrapped the product his team was working on and commissioned employees to build a personal computer featuring a mouse and graphical user interface, “the basis of the Mac,” Gladwell said.

“It’s interesting that we’re in a stage where the most iconic innovator is somebody [who’s] not playing the leading position but a following position. [At Apple] he built a culture that’s as much reactive as initiative,” Gladwell said.

People are obsessed with an initial conceptual breakthrough, but the payoff comes while tinkering with things later on, he said. 

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