27 January 2018

Learnings from Malcolm Gladwell

1920px-Malcolmgladwell[1]I first discovered Malcolm Gladwell 10 years ago when I discovered his book Blink, and have been a fan of his ever since, reading all of his books, and often searching for whatever he is thinking and posting online. What I have always enjoyed about Gladwell is his in-depth research and ability to connect ideas and events and put them together in fascinating stories. He doesn’t express particularly strong opinions on topics, but rather stimulates you to do your own work and come to your own conclusions. There are definitely themes there but he is not an absolutist, instead he regards himself proudly as a generalist.

Last month I had the great pleasure of listening to him in person in Auckland. His focus of the seminar was ‘How do we cope in an ever-changing world?’ A topic that has relevance to everybody in the professional arena.

In typical Gladwell storytelling mode, he crafted beautifully two analogies of what sort of teams are most commonly used in the modern world. He has a love of sports and used two examples of soccer teams and basketball teams to describe what he calls weak link (soccer) and strong link (basketball) teams.

By definition a weak link team as defined by the fact that it will only be as good as its weakest players. Conversely, a strong link team will only be as good as its strongest players. He explained that the great basketball teams through history have all had three superstars in their roster and the rest of the players really just made up the numbers. He then talked about the fact that having the greatest player in a soccer team is not going to win the game because inevitably you will be let down by your weakest player in the team.

To illustrate he used the example of Tottenham Hotspur playing Queens Park Rangers and the phenomenal sequence of 48 passes to score a goal. It’s a lovely piece of teamwork, but what is truly interesting with this video is that the 18th and 19th highest paid players in the squad passed the ball more than any other players in the team. In fact, the highest paid players touch the ball the least. At any time through their sequence the movement would have broken down by any one player making a mistake. Check this out:

In other words, a strong link team is not mistake driven but rather, it is purely success driven, where a weak link team is driven by the fact that mistakes affect the whole team and outcome.

Another example that Gladwell used was a crash victim who was very nearly fatally injured in a car crash, and saved only because the accident occurred very near a hospital that had phenomenal specialists that saved his life. They performed miraculous surgery over many hours to save this patient. If it had occurred in any other part of the United States he would have died. It was a strong link team and a strong link hospital. Two years later that patient died of a bacterial infection due to the fact that during the operation his spleen was removed, and he needed to have been vaccinated to compensate for this. Because it was a strong link team the nurses were not trained to carry out a simple vaccination after spleen removal. Summary was that strong link teams in a weak link environment are particularly vulnerable.

So, what does this look like in the professional world opposed to sport? He talked about hospitals investing a huge amount to attract the best specialist doctors and surgeons, thus developing incredibly strong link teams. Where in fact the patients interact most with nurses and everyday staff where they get the greatest impression of a hospital, who are invariably your weak link players. He posed an interesting question that maybe doctors were overpaid and nurses are underpaid in modern hospitals.

In summary he believed that the world was becoming more and more complex and there was a need to develop more weak link teams than strong link teams. His rationale for this was that the complexity of most businesses and organisations meant that a small number of people could not hold enough information or understand fully what was going on day-to-day. He believes that leaders needed to understand more fully what the whole team knew, and needed to be able to activate that knowledge and talent that lies throughout an organisation.

That then led to the next part of the speech, which compared the old world of puzzles to the new
world of mysteries. What does this mean? To solve a puzzle you need more information, to solve a
mystery you need to wade through what can often be too much information.

Gladwell used another great example to define the two definitions.

Puzzle: The Cuban missile crisis of 1962, where the Russians had been shipping and stockpiling nuclear warheads in Cuba over some months. The Americans initially were perplexed as to what all these Russian ships were carrying into Cuba. What was needed was to gather more information so they launched a spy plane to fly over Cuba and found nuclear warheads aimed at cities throughout the United States. The subsequent negotiations soon followed and the crisis was averted.

Mystery: Come forward to September 11, 2001 and the attacks that happened on American soil were a completely different situation. Intelligence agencies throughout the United States had all the information they needed to thwart these attacks. They knew the month they would happen, they knew the organisation that was going to attack them, they knew there were Al Qaeda operatives training to fly planes, and as it turned out they had far too much information at their fingertips. What this led to was a complete mystery that the intelligence agencies were not able to unravel, or coordinate and share between each other in a fashion that could lead to a positive outcome.

He gave a number of examples like this between puzzles and mystery, but this is the one that stood out the most to me.

We often see this in CQ where sometimes people have got so much information they get totally bogged down in their lives and everything seems a mystery. I know I certainly suffer from this at times.

The other interesting aspect he bought to the fore was that as technology kicks in and professions change we will need mechanisms to be able to take mysteries and turn them into puzzles. This got me very excited because I realise that CQ teams are very good at this. They are flexible and nimble, and know a little about a lot, and through the process of collective intelligence are able to unravel each other’s mysteries and turn them into puzzles, which are far easier to work with.

The other thought I was left with, after listening to Gladwell speak, is that CQ the organisation, and the CQ teams both operate as weak links. Our facilitators are fabulous, but are only as good as the people behind the scenes who put together the logistics. In the past we have had facilitators who wanted to be the stars and this never really worked out. Now have a far better understanding of why that was. And I have known for some time that for CQ teams to operate at a really high level every member must step up and make sure they make that next pass, just as Tottenham Hotspur did so well.

Malcolm’s closing thoughts were focused around the most important jobs going forward will be helping people to:

  • eat well
  • exercise
  • sleep
  • be relevant

I have often said that if I could choose anyone to have dinner with it would be Malcolm Gladwell.

So, when I looked up at a cafe in downtown Auckland to see him standing by himself at 8pm that night, I jumped up to invite him to join me for dinner. As I was introducing myself to him, I reflected that this was a highly introverted man, and the last thing he would want to do after speaking to 600 people that day was spend a night with me grilling him with questions. Instead I thanked him for a fabulous speech and for coming to New Zealand.

Image by Kris Krüg, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Ian Harvey (Harv)

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