Three Characteristics of Innovators from Malcom Gladwell

By Amanda Lewan on June 3rd, 2014 / Comments

Last week best selling author Malcolm Gladwell spoke to a packed room at the Mackinac Policy Conference on what can help spark innovation in Michigan. Gladwell outlined the characteristics that help lead any company or city through transformational change.

In contradiction to what most people may think, Gladwell stated that most innovation doesn’t result most from a large amount of resources or expertise that an entrepreneur has at hand. It’s really about the person and their characteristics. Gladwell described the ideal innovator as creative, conscientious and disagreeable all at once. A fiery combination, it isn’t too surprising that true innovator is a “rare find” he said.

Have any of those in your neighborhood?

Gladwell did cite that entrepreneurialism in America over the years has declined when looking specifically at business formation. But on a positive note, there is a new generation brimming with ideas looking to get involved. Gladwell described the twenty something’s generation  as experiencing “generational frustration” – they aspire to be entrepreneurs and they aspire to make an impact but many haven’t found a way yet.

If Michigan cities can attract this generation through affordable opportunities and show how their generation can be creative here, Gladwell believes we’ll see more interest coming to cities like Detroit.

“You’ve got to make the argument you have more freedom to be creative here than anywhere else,” said Gladwell. “This is the generation that can be powerfully persuaded to make a difference.”

This generation’s true innovators won’t need a ton of resources or expertise to execute on their ideas. But it can help the rest of us average creators. How can we strive for transformational change in our industries? Gladwell suggests developing these three characteristics below:

1You must be able to re-frame the problem. It’s important to re-frame what the problem is, to change the narrative of the story, and to change your own perception of it. Gladwell cited Dan Gilbert’s work transforming Downtown Detroit. Gilbert, he said, was taking large risks and changing the perception of opportunity where empty buildings stood. In regards to Michigan’s urban cities like Detroit, we have to help people focus on what’s coming instead of what’s behind us. We can’t change the past, but we can change how we perceive the future together.

2. You must have a sense of urgency. If you’re in the business of transformation you have to be in a hurry. Startups often have this as a value. If you have a sense of urgency you work harder to create your results. Gladwell really pushed that an extraordinary sense of urgency is needed for transformation. This is true for Detroit, and true for any startup wanting to create a large change in their industry

3. Underdogs don’t need resources. They need to hustle. The only advantage you have as the underdog is that you can out hustle the “goliathes” of your industry. Small businesses and startups can pivot faster, they can launch changes and new features much quicker than large corporations or the established “goalithes” of their industry. Malcolm again said it’s not always about expertise or about the resources, it’s about leadership and the people hustling.

It was a really fascinating talk, and I think we all know that crazy friend who’s full of ideas, the one who’s “creative, conscientious, and disagreeably” all at once. These tips can help us all think like Galdwell’s innovators.

“We think that innovation is knowing what you want to do and having the resources to make it happen. But change agents didn’t have great resources. They had very few resources at all. They didn’t have great expertise. They were less experienced. They didn’t have more information, they had less in some cases,” said Galdwell. “They figured it out.”

What set them apart? The characteristics that result in hard work and creating change.

About the Author

Amanda Lewan

Amanda Lewan

Editor @michipreneur. Co-founder Bamboo Detroit. Follow me @Amanda_Jenn. I love telling the story of entrepreneurs and innovators.