In Vancouver in April 2010 to deliver the F5 Expo keynote, Malcolm Gladwell chats with BCB digital editor John Bucher about innovation, optimism, and the inherent virtue of disruption.

John Bucher's Q&A with Malcolm Gladwell (recorded April 1, 2010)

John Bucher: How do you define innovation?

Malcolm Gladwell: I don’t know if I have a simple answer. I guess it would be the willingness to disrupt the normal way of doing things. I think it’s as simple as that. I think it all starts with a mindset; you have to want to change things if you are going to change them.

JB: Would you agree that many people regard your approach to innovation – and how it happens – as unconventional?

MG: At the moment, I am writing a long piece that takes a look at serendipity. So much of what is truly interesting in innovation happens – well, not entirely by accident – but at some point along the way, things took a serendipitous turn. The innovator has to be willing to exploit that unexpected turn – and not everyone can.

Sometimes people are so focused on the particular paths that they are on, that they are not open to finding out “oh wait a minute, there is a whole new universe out here that I have not imagined.” This piece that I am currently writing about is about being able to throw yourself in the way of fortune, to be willing to be able to go wherever this serendipitous journey make takes you. It takes a lot of courage to do that.
JB: In your 2002 article "Group Think" you said "losing sight of what you truly believed when the meeting began is one way of defining innovation." Can innovation disillusion?

MG: I am really interested in how people respond to failure. When you start edging out into the fringes of what is known; you start getting into areas where you have no choice but to engage in trial and error. You have to be willing to accept the very real possibility that failure is inevitable and you won’t know why you failed. That again takes an extraordinary amount of courage.

I am writing about this company that is working on a cancer drug that ultimately failed. They knew when they started out that their chances of failure were overwhelming and that if they failed, they may well have no clue why. And yet they did it anyways. I find that to be a really extraordinary and courageous act. To do things in the full knowledge that they may well be futile in the end, to me is a defining feature of an innovation culture or innovative organization.

The kind of problems we face in our present day, are insanely complicated and they cannot be solved the first time out. We have to instill that expectation in people, to VCs who are funding things! You can’t get your money out of three years; you have to be willing to back somebody through all the failures first. The innovative organizations are the ones always looking to disrupt what they are doing; they never feel like that they have solved the problem in front of them. That’s absolutely the case; you have to understand that it’s a never-ending process.

JB: Would you call yourself an optimist?

MG: Yes, I’m pretty optimistic, it’s hard to be a writer and be a pessimist. Why would you invest all kinds of time and energy and imagination in a project if all you are going to do is be the bearer of bad news? It makes it hard to keep building. I am just trying to prompt people to reexamine their experience in some way. I think that is a very noble goal in itself. I don’t know whether I have a larger goal beyond that. If you can give people a different perspective, if you can give them a different way of organizing their experience, you’ve accomplished a lot.
JB: You have spoken on Canadian identity before. Is there a particularly Canadian quality to some kinds of innovation?

MG: Innovation styles grow out of your cultural heritage. I have always been a big believer, like many Canadians, that our cultural heritage is dramatically different from our neighbour. If I have a criticism of the current government, it’s that I think the goal of Canadian policy should be to accentuate Canada’s differences with its neighbour and not blur them. If all Canada is trying to be is a smaller version of the United States, it has no chance to compete. But if Canada is trying to do something profoundly different and create a very different type of society, then I think it has enormous advantages. If you look around the world now, there are plenty examples of small countries that are insanely innovative.

Israel is clearly the most innovative place on earth right now. For a tiny place they have a very distinctive and youthful culture, and it is this distinctiveness that gives them an incredible advantage over their much larger counterparts. Canada ought to look at that and say, we ought to be as different as we can from our neighbours and our trading partners—that is where our advantage lies.

JB: What particularly Canadian qualities should we accentuate to foster innovation here?

MG: One simple thing is, one of the ways that Canada differs from America, is that it’s a place of much smaller income inequality. It’s a much more equal place, socially and economically. There is whole argument to be made that much innovation comes from a place where there is a degree of economic and social equality. Canada should be aggressively pursuing policies to accentuate that quality, as America is going in the complete opposite direction. America is closing its borders, Canada has a chance to aggressively open them even further and say, we are open to every bright young mind around the world and open to creating opportunities for the broadest number of people. America is going in one direction; Canada ought to go in the other.