Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell spoke last week in Denver at the BAI Retail Delivery conference. The annual gathering typically packs its general sessions with an array of speakers that offer new and exciting perspectives on the world of financial services. Past personalities include Twitter co-inventor Biz Stone, former President Bill Clinton, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson. This year, Gladwell did not fail to deliver a speech that held up to his predecessors’ standard.
The overall theme of the three-day conference was “Ideas to Action,” and Gladwell focused his observations on why it is important for leaders to think differently if they hope to become trailblazers in their field. In classic Gladwell style, he used the British-American rock band Fleetwood Mac as a metaphor around which to build his argument that — contrary to popular mythology — true innovation requires hard work and diligence.
1. Innovation Requires Patience, Not Haste
Fleetwood Mac hit it big in the mid-’70s with the release of its self-titled album Fleetwood Mac in 1975 and, more importantly, Rumors in 1977. But the band had been toiling on the London scene since its formation in 1967, and by the time it came to United States in the early ’70s, its discography was into the double-digits.
Fans of Malcolm Gladwell will find this 10-year-timeframe example familiar. In his book Outliers, he lays out the 10,000-hour rule, which purports that it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours to achieve greatness in any given field.
“The process of producing something of lasting value is more protracted than we generally perceive,” he said at BAI.
2. Innovation Requires Constant Experimentation
In the 10 years before Fleetwood Mac released Rumors, it embraced an array of sounds and styles — including R&B, acid rock, and calypso — before it settled into a sweet spot that was reminiscent of artists such as Jackson Brown, The Eagles, and Linda Ronstadt. The result — free-spirited pop music with a touch of country, layered harmonies, multiple guitars, and freewheeling lyrics and concepts — launched the quintet into super stardom.
But what sets Fleetwood Mac apart isn’t its musical genius, argues Gladwell, it’s its capacity for trial and error. In this way, Fleetwood Mac is an experimental, rather than a conceptual, innovator. The difference? Conceptual innovators have an idea and execute it in one swoop; experimental innovators do one thing over and over … and over … again, continually refining until they strike gold.
3. Innovation Requires Nurturing
According to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Rumors has sold more than 40 million copies and is among the top 10 best-selling albums of all time. But as Gladwell points out, Fleetwood Mac’s history is not all sunshine and bliss. Band namesake John McVie was reluctant to even join the group, an original guitarist left to join a German cult in the early ’70s, and romantic drama and infighting almost put an end to Fleetwood Mac before it started work on Rumors. Still, the band persevered and turned those hurdles — a constantly changing lineup and personal heartbreak — into a core strength.
Gladwell calls this ability to work around obstacles “compensation learning,” which is more difficult to master than the ability to build on strengths, or “capitalization learning.” However, compensation learning offers stronger results than can typically be achieved through natural ability.
For Fleetwood Mac, the pinnacle of its career is the direct result of the struggles it endured.
“Success is born of bad times as much as good times,” Gladwell offered as parting insight at BAI.
That’s a reassuring sentiment for an industry rebounding from the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression and facing intense regulation for years to come.