Innovation Lessons from Malcolm Gladwell

In all of my longer innovation courses, I use this video by Malcolm Gladwell in the first lecture. It’s his TED talk from a few years ago, and if you haven’t seen it yet, it is well worth your time:

Gladwell recounts the story of Howard Moskowitz, who did the consulting work that led to the development of, among other things, extra chunky spaghetti sauce from Prego. The story involves how Moskowitz conducted a number of taste tests for different products. Usually, the data did not make any sense when he analysed it trying to find the perfect taste combination for Pepsi, or spaghetti sauce, or coffee. His insight came when he discovered that instead of one optimum, there were multiple optima for each of these products. This is how Prego went from making just one spaghetti sauce to making regular, robusto and extra chunky.

One of the things that I emphasise in these early lectures is that innovation involves making new connections (Schumpeter had this idea first though, not me!). To encourage people to get some practice in making novel connections, I use a number of videos like this – which are not directly about innovation, but which have something important to say about the process – and I ask them to figure out what the innovation lessons are.

Here are some of the ideas that commonly come up with this one:

  • The first interesting bit is how Moskowitz saw the multiple optima idea ‘like a bolt of lightning’. The popular image is that this is the way that inspiration works. But note that Moskowitz was equipped to receive this bolt of lightning by many years of hard work and intensive study. It’s like the story from Gordon Gould, one of the people that invented the laser (quoted from The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun):

    In the middle of one Saturday night… the whole thing suddenly popped into my head and I saw how to build the laser… But that flash of insight required the 20 years of work I had done in physics and optics to put all of the bricks of that invention in there.

    It’s another version of “chance favours the prepared mind.”

  • The second point is that the innovation wasn’t really the new products – it was the process that led to their introduction. It was the idea that there was no perfect spaghetti sauce, just perfect spaghetti sauces. As Hugh MacLeod says:

    Products are idea amplifiers. The molecules and/or bytes are secondary.

  • The third point, and this one is huge, is that focus group testing never revealed the desire for extra chunky spaghetti sauce. Moskowitz discovered this opportunity by testing, watching and recording what people ate and what they liked. Their actions said that they wanted extra chunky, even though this desire was never articulated. That’s what design-driven innovation is designed to get at – unarticulated needs. And when it works well, the results are like those that Prego achieved with extra chunky – very profitable!
  • Finally, it shows the process of innovation. Moskowitz had his flash of insight, and he was pretty sure that he was right. But then he had to go out and execute his idea. This took a huge amount of work. And only once he had proven that process worked through working with Prego did the idea diffuse more broadly. Those are the three steps in innovation: develop a great idea, figure out how to execute it, and get it to spread.

So there’s a lot to be learned about innovation from spaghetti sauce. What ideas strike you when you watch Gladwell’s talk?

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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4 thoughts on “Innovation Lessons from Malcolm Gladwell

  1. Tim;

    My key take away from this and in some other case’s I’ve read about is that there is possible quite a bit of value in having the time and the space to digest, process and filter the information. That by having this time allows the subconsious mind the ability to play with data and think of crazy alternatives. Further I think the “space” allows the innovation to perculate to the surface.

    Moskowitz’s flash of brillance (per Gladwell) and Gould’s similar laser focus came later at an unrelated time and often while doing something else.

    Much of Google’s success has also come during their “downtime” (“20-percent time”) alloted for engineers to work on their own projects (
    3M is another company that uses this approach.

    So I would build on your earlier statement and propose that chance favours the mind that has been given the space to prepare.

    Just some thoughts I’ve had.

    Sincerely from Canada,
    Scott Wilson

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